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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

2 Robbers Who Killed Bank Teller Still at Large

Crime: Investigators continue to focus on a Los Angeles band of thieves, but have no suspects in the slaying two years ago today.

April 28, 1999|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years after teller Monica Lynne Leech knelt before the bank robbers who fired a bullet into her head, parents Elaine and Alfred Cavaletto still ask: Why did they shoot Monica?

Was it because in the moments after being ordered to her knees, Monica, a deeply religious person, began to pray, her parents wonder? Did the sound of her desperate whispers to God offend the robbers?

Or was she just a sacrifice, chosen at random--a way for the robbers to demonstrate in the most graphic of terms just how tough they could be?

"There's only a couple of guys who can answer that," Elaine Cavaletto said. "And I don't even think they know why."

But 24 months after Leech's death, there is no one to answer the many questions that linger still.

There have been no arrests. Detectives are reluctant to say if they even have suspects in the case. They do, however, say they are keeping close tabs on a band of violent bank robbers in Los Angeles--the same announcement authorities made at last year's anniversary of the shooting.

Senior Deputy Dan Thompson, lead detective on the case, refuses to say how close investigators are to making an arrest.

Investigators are quite frank, however, that the case has been difficult to crack. Serving as a constant reminder of the still unsolved case is a small mountain of case reports looming behind Thompson's desk.

"We see those boxes behind his desk every day, and it's frustrating," said Sgt. Bob LeMay of the Sheriff Department's major crimes unit. "It's frustrating because we can't tell the family who is responsible. It's frustrating because we can't tell the community who is responsible. Personally, I know this case will not leave the front burner until it's solved."

Countless man-hours have been spent revisiting old evidence and following up every new lead. After so much time, though, new bits of information are fewer and farther between. Detectives are reluctant to talk about the latest breaks in the case, except to say that some of them have led investigators out of state.

"Some of it gets us nowhere, some of it takes us right back around to where we started," said Thompson, who has been working the case since the day of the slaying--April 28, 1997.

That was the day two armed bandits, dressed in raincoats and hard hats, and nylon stocking pulled tight across their faces, stormed the Western Financial Bank in Thousand Oaks.

Employees said everyone, including Leech, a 39-year-old Camarillo mother of two, cooperated with the robbers. Employees allowed the robbers to cuff their hands behind their backs. And on command, all inside the bank dropped to a kneeling position on the bank's cold tile floor. Some heard the faint whispers of prayers.

Then the shot rang out. Other tellers only realized Leech, suddenly and inexplicably, had been shot when her body slumped to the floor in front of them.

"It was senseless," Thompson said. "She was a totally innocent employee who was cooperating with the demands of the suspects."

The robbers scrambled out of the bank, about $9,000 in hand, before authorities arrived.

From the beginning, officials feared the robbers would be hard to catch. Their elaborate disguises made it tough to get detailed descriptions, they said.

But the viciousness of the attack made authorities look to neighboring Los Angeles County, which holds the dubious distinction of being the bank robbery capital of the United States. Last year, 392 banks were robbed in L.A. County, 79 of which were considered the more aggressive takeover holdups--in which armed bandits storm into a bank and bark orders to those inside before demanding cash and scurrying away.

By comparison, Ventura County had 16 robberies in 1998. All but three of those involved single bandits who silently wrote their demands in notes passed to tellers. All of those cases have been solved.

"This is a note-passing, 'May-I-please-have-the-money' environment," LeMay said. "We just don't see this kind of violence in this county."

So detectives have focused their attentions on Los Angeles, in general, and on takeover robberies, specifically. Detectives study them carefully, hoping to find similarities in the words used, weapons carried, demands of the suspects. No other robbery is an exact fit, but a select few have come close.

Still, there is not enough to make an arrest.

Despite a $160,000 reward, posted by the city of Thousand Oaks and a banking industry coalition, no one has called with that vital tip leading to an arrest. It's disturbing, the Cavalettos say.

"Someone killed Monica for $9,000," Elaine Cavaletto said. "You think there would be someone out there willing to turn in her killers for $160,000."

But detectives canvassing the Los Angeles area say people are unwilling to talk.

"We depend on cooperation from the public, acquaintances, accomplices," LeMay said. "That kind of cooperation will turn the whole direction of a case. We haven't had that cooperation here."

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