Did someone sneak into the vault of Bank of America's Century City branch, manage to get into the safe deposit boxes of at least three customers, steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry, cash and gold coins, and, in some cases, substitute fakes--all without the bank's knowledge?
That is the substance of allegations contained in three separate lawsuits filed in Los Angeles County by former customers of the branch at 1901 Avenue of the Stars, which closed last year.
The bank denies the thefts occurred. But if they did, they would not be unprecedented: Clusters of safe deposit thefts have been reported in recent years.
Just this month, Chicago police reported that at least six customers opened safe deposit boxes at a bank in the Loop to find more than $500,000 in diamonds, jewelry and gold coins missing.
Although rare, such thefts highlight the vulnerability of safe deposit boxes, which consumers have heretofore believed virtually impregnable. According to Bank Security Report, an industry newsletter, a new breed of thieves may be targeting safe deposit boxes.
"Many safe deposit robberies are apparently being perpetrated not by intruders, but by bank customers: renters of safe-deposit boxes who gain access to others' boxes," the newsletter reported. And box holders may not learn of a theft for years unless they carefully check the contents periodically.
In Century City, the alleged thefts were uncovered only after the bank, a former Security Pacific National Bank branch, sent notices to the customers to clear out the boxes in preparation for a move to a new branch in the spring of 1995, the customers say.
According to court documents:
* A prominent physician and his business manager say thieves took 270 gold Canadian Maple Leafs and South African Krugerrands worth $107,000. Thirty of the coins were replaced with counterfeits, according to court documents.
* A San Fernando Valley woman who had been placing cash in a safe deposit box toward her retirement since 1993 opened it in March 1995 to find that $175,000 was missing.
* A Bel-Air woman says 16 pieces of jewelry worth about $250,000 were removed from her safe deposit box between September 1992 and September 1993.
The victims say they reported the alleged thefts to police and the FBI, as well as to the bank. Neither the police nor FBI said they have records of any formal investigations into the complaints.
As for the bank, the alleged victims say bank executives have stonewalled them at every turn, refusing to turn over internal investigative reports and, in one case, refusing even to answer legal questionnaires, according to court records.
For its part, the bank said: "We have three lawsuits pending relating to claims of items allegedly missing from safe deposit boxes at the Century City branch. We've investigated all three claims and have concluded that they are without merit.
"We therefore intend to proceed with our defense of the lawsuits, and we believe that we will prevail," said spokesman Peter Magnani.
The people who say they suffered losses aren't taking the bank's explanation at face value.
A. Richard Grossman, a physician after whom two Southern California burn centers are named, is half-owner of the gold coins.
"The coins had been inviolate for years," he said. "When I first heard about it, I felt sad and thought, 'It's not right.' But then I thought about it, and I got pissed."
Thieves opened plastic vials containing some of Grossman's gold coins, replaced the middle coins in a stack with counterfeits, then put genuine coins at each end so that a casual inspection would not show them missing, Grossman's suit alleges.
Grossman and his business manager, Eugene Kaufman, who owns the other half of the coins, flatly denied any attempt to defraud the bank through a false claim.
Meanwhile, Carole Cramer, 66, of Bel-Air says she first noticed missing jewelry from her box in 1992, according to court documents.
At the time, she assumed she had simply forgotten to replace the jewelry in her box, and thought it had been stolen from her home, she said in an interview. She even called police and hired a private investigator, who turned up no evidence of a home burglary, she said.
Several months later, she discovered other missing items and complained to the bank's customer service manager, Bruce Baker. "I said . . . I know specifically that there's a piece I know is missing. He said . . . [the bank would] do an internal investigation, but nothing came of it."
Cramer sued the bank in September 1995 and is now in court seeking to compel Bank of America to answer legal questionnaires about the alleged thefts.
In its response to Cramer's suit, the bank argued that the jewelry was not stolen. "Assuming . . . the subject jewelry was placed in the subject box, it is more likely than not that Cramer removed the subject jewelry from the subject box herself and failed to return it to the subject box," the bank said in its trial brief.