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One Year Later, Teller's Slaying Still Haunts Family, Police

VENTURA COUNTY

April 27, 1998|KATE FOLMAR and SCOTT HADLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It took all of five minutes for the robbers to storm into the bank. Five minutes to snatch a few thousand dollars. And five minutes to shoot Monica Lynne Leech once in the back of the head.

A year after the 39-year-old mother of two was killed during a Thousand Oaks bank robbery, those who knew her--and many who didn't--live with the dull ache of constant sorrow.

For them, that five-minute interval lapsed into an eternity. And the reminders of Monica are everywhere.

Too often of late, Monica's husband, Floyd Leech, has had to retreat from the counter at the auto repair shop where he works to sob in a back room.

Al and Elaine Cavaletto reminisce about their middle child at the oddest times--when they hear songs that mention angels, or see someone wearing peach or a flowered dress--always Monica's favorites.

Stephanie and Andrew Mince, Monica's 11- and 14-year-old children from her first marriage, are holding up, but they no longer see their mother's beaming face at school assemblies, birthdays, plays and church events.

Former bank manager DeeDee Smith, who heard the single, fatal shot while huddled beneath her desk, wonders to this day if she could have done something--anything--to save her colleague and friend.

Investigators, confident they will eventually close the unsolved homicide, say the case has become intensely personal; one is deferring retirement until Leech's killers are nabbed.

Hundreds of strangers and vague acquaintances send cards and offer hugs to the family as consolation.

"Life goes on because it has to," Floyd Leech said during a recent interview at the 50-acre citrus and avocado ranch in Somis where Monica was raised. He toyed with the tab of his Pepsi can, then continued, "But it will never, ever be the same. It just won't. . . . As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as closure."

This was one woman, shot execution-style in the head during a bank robbery in broad daylight. But Monica Leech's slaying was much more than that.

*

Her death plumbs the depths of everyone's darkest fears: A woman, a mother, an innocent--who did everything possible to stay safe--could not elude death, even in one of the nation's safest big cities.

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the horror. It is a date that weighs on Ventura County sheriff's investigators.

"There's not a day that I don't think about this one," Chief Deputy Bob Brooks said. "Until it's over, I know the investigators won't have a minute's rest either. There should be no mistaking our determination to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to solve this thing."

Stone-cold fear wells up inside DeeDee Smith whenever she recalls that day. Which is all too often.

Dressed in thigh-length jackets, yellow hard hats and nylon masks--two gunmen burst into Thousand Oaks' sleepy Western Financial Bank at 10:15 a.m. Monday, April 28, 1997.

"I didn't realize . . . they never saw me," said Smith on Tuesday, speaking to reporters for the first time.

Berating the four employees in the bank with obscenities, the men ordered everyone to the floor. Smith complied, cowering under her desk and beyond sight of the robbers.

Overcome with fear, she nevertheless managed to push a button triggering the bank's camera--which only captured two still photographs of the gunmen. Following bank safety procedures, Smith did not set off the alarm until the men left.

She still wonders what might have happened had she pushed that button too.

Meanwhile, one of the gunmen jumped over the teller's counter and subdued Leech and the other female teller, while the other robber casually grabbed the male employee sitting at a desk. The three were corralled into a small room on the side of the bank.

Smith could not see what was occurring. But she heard everything.

"The last thing I saw was Monica and [the other teller] because their window is right across from my desk," she said.

Investigators said Leech and the other teller were handcuffed. They opened the cash drawers and handed over the money to the robbers.

In the small room next to the safe, Leech and the other teller were ordered to their knees. The male employee stood nearby. Then, without warning or provocation, Leech was shot once in the back of the head.

The other employees were all looking straight ahead and did not see what happened. They only realized Monica was shot when she slumped on the floor, dead.

That is when Smith heard the other teller gasp, "Oh God, oh God."

"They did exactly what they were told," said Smith, clutching a tissue to wipe away her tears. "Maybe they took a little longer to get things open because they were handcuffed, but they were complying. They were calm.

"Why did they do it?" she asked in frustration. "Why Monica? That's one of the things that's so hard to deal with. Why in the world did they do that?"

*

The robbers said nothing. Leaving as quickly as they arrived, the men snatched about $9,000 in a bag. The whole operation took less than five minutes.

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