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Gunshots Fired as 3 Men Rob Bank in Camarillo

May 19, 1995|JEFF McDONALD and SCOTT HADLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Firing bullets into the ceiling and ordering everyone to the floor, three men brazenly robbed a Camarillo bank Thursday morning and made off with bags stuffed with cash, witnesses and sheriff's investigators said.

Witnesses said the three men barged into the First Interstate bank on Carmen Drive "shouting and shooting" about 9:30 a.m. No one was injured in the robbery, and no arrests had been made by Thursday evening.

"I was sitting at a desk changing my account when they came in," said Jim Spina, 52. "They fired about five or six shots and ordered everybody on the floor."

Spina said he raised his head to look around and one of the men shoved a small-caliber pistol in his face. "He just yelled at me to put my head down," Spina said. "I didn't look up after that."

All three of the suspects were armed but only one fired a weapon, police said.

As customers and bank employees hit the floor, two of the gunmen jumped over the counter and cleaned out tellers' cash trays, said Senior Deputy Chuck Buttell, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

The third suspect stationed himself in the middle of the bank and held customers and employees at bay, investigators said.

After at least two drawers were cleared of cash, two of the robbers ordered several bank employees at gunpoint into a vault in the rear of the building, Buttell said.

Just before deputies arrived at the scene, the men skidded out of the bank parking lot in a yellow taxi cab reported stolen from Glendale late Wednesday, witnesses said.

"They came running out--three of them--and jumped into a yellow L.A. Taxi, which they were driving," said Todd Gale, a Canoga Park computer company owner doing business in Camarillo on Thursday morning.

"They had six bags of cash," said Gale, who was approaching the bank when the heist occurred. "Each of them had two."

Sheriff's investigators found the abandoned cab about two blocks away on Paseo Camarillo, crashed in an apartment complex parking lot with the motor running.

Investigators called in the department's canine unit, which found no evidence that the robbers had fled on foot, Lt. Steve Giles said.

"He didn't pick up any foot trail," Giles said of Henk, the police dog.

Witnesses told investigators that they had seen a gold-colored car speeding from the apartment complex's parking lot minutes after the robbery.

But that car was not driven by the suspects, Oxnard police learned after they stopped the car near 4th and G streets.

Dozens of would-be customers arriving at the bank Thursday morning were turned away by bank and police officials, who said the office would reopen today.

Experts from the Ventura County Mental Health Department arrived at the branch office later in the day to offer counseling to bank employees who had been threatened or traumatized.

"These people are still pretty shook up," Buttell said.

The investigation has been turned over to the FBI, whose agents will review surveillance videotapes taken during the holdup, and re-interview witnesses.

Gary Auer, the FBI supervisor in Ventura, described the robbers as Latinos in their early to mid-20s, each about 5 feet, 8 inches tall with medium builds. Two of the men wore sunglasses during the holdup.

Their descriptions and other aspects of the Camarillo heist will be matched with other unsolved bank robberies throughout Southern California, Auer said.

The three robbers apparently fled the apartment complex in a brown-colored car, but no other information about that vehicle was available late Thursday, investigators said.

Auer said the Camarillo robbery was the 10th in Ventura County this year, although only the second "takeover-style" heist.

"This is unusual for Ventura County," he said. "Takeover robberies are relatively uncommon in Ventura County."

The number of robberies, however, is proceeding at the same pace as in 1994. By May 18 of last year, 10 financial institutions had been stuck up in the county, Auer said.

But bank heists in Ventura County dropped by almost 50% last year, with just 25 reported in all of 1994 compared to 48 robberies in 1993, according to FBI statistics. In 1992, 97 holdups were reported in the county.

Almost half of the bank robberies from last year have been solved, with 13 cases still under active investigation, Auer said.

Over the nine years the FBI has been tracking such thefts, nearly 78% of the bank holdups in Ventura County have resulted in arrests, the FBI said.

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