The so-called "stagecoach robbery" of an RTD bus in South-Central Los Angeles Tuesday evening was the second of its kind in five days and authorities believe both were the work of five teen-agers who stormed the buses with handguns and terrorized passengers.
The bold and violent acts--one robber reportedly held his revolver to the head of a 3-year-old girl to persuade her mother to give up a pair of earrings--prompted transit officials to increase security Wednesday night at 103rd Street and Lou Dillon Avenue near the Jordan Downs housing project, where both robberies occurred.
Although officials say stagecoach robberies--so dubbed in the mid-1980s when armed gangs took over several buses and stole from their passengers--have been rare in recent years, the pair of crimes has resurrected complaints that security on the bus lines is feeble.
"We have 2,000 buses servicing 88 cities every day and (about 200) transit officers. You cannot put a transit officer on every bus anymore than you can put a police officer on every corner," said Nick Patsaouras, a member of the RTD Board of Directors, its past president and a candidate for mayor.
There were four adult passengers and three children aboard Line 251 at about 6 p.m. Tuesday when driver Bill Bethke saw a well-dressed, well-groomed young man flag him down on 103rd. Bethke stopped. The youth leaped onto the bus, put a chrome-plated revolver to the driver's head and ordered him to open the back door. Four more teen-agers, who Bethke said looked no older than 15, stormed aboard, cursing and yelling. There was no time to press the alarm button, Bethke said.
They stole an estimated $300 in cash and property from three women and one man and terrorized the toddler. They tried to tear Bethke's pack from around his waist, then disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, the driver said. The passengers were crying; the toddler was terrified, Bethke said in an interview Wednesday.
A driver for 18 years, Bethke was furious when he learned that nearly the same crime had occurred at the same corner only five days before. Five young men fitting the same description reportedly fired shots at a bus at 6 p.m., stormed aboard and robbed two passengers of $130 in cash and valuables. One robber beat one of them--a 41-year-old woman--with his gun, police said.
"The transit district knows this has been going on at this particular stop and they don't have the decent, common sense to warn the bus drivers," said Bethke, still so shaken that he was unable to work Wednesday. "The passengers have a right to safety. I went in there blind and I should have been made knowledgeable."
Capt. Dennis Conte, an RTD bureau commander, said the transit police were not aware of the Dec. 30 robbery until just hours before the second holdup. The first incident was handled by Los Angeles police officers. The report was forwarded to the RTD in accordance with procedure, Conte said, but it did not come to his attention until 3 p.m. Tuesday.
"If we had known about it sooner we would have deployed for it," Conte said. "I don't think we can point fingers at the LAPD; that was probably one of many violent crimes that took place that night." The LAPD sergeant in charge of the investigation could not be reached for comment.
But he noted that stagecoach robberies are infrequent, with only one other reported since 1991. Robberies aboard buses and at bus stops fell 23% from July to November, 1992, compared to the same period in 1991, he said. The RTD attributes the drop to an increase in transit officers.
Still, the brazen acts raise a broader issue, at least in Bethke's mind: Passengers and bus operators have long complained that bus security has taken a back seat to safety on the new Blue Line. The RTD estimates that $1.25 is spent on security for each Blue Line passenger compared to 3 cents for each bus rider, even though bus riders make up the majority of transit passengers in the city.
Gang members have been known to open fire on crowded buses. Drivers complain of assaults. Tuesday night was not the first time Bethke had a gun pointed in his direction, he said, remembering a man who once threatened to hijack his bus. When Bethke stopped, the man said, "Sucker," and put the gun away.
"They can spend millions to put police on the train but they can't spend a few lousy dollars to protect the people who ride the buses," he said. "We're not talking about funding a park. We're talking about people's lives."