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Shopper Killed in Shootout at Van Nuys Costco

Crime: Three people are wounded, others hurt in the panic after attempted robbery of an armored car.

August 14, 2000|CAITLIN LIU and EDGAR SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A shootout Sunday between armored car guards and gunmen, one armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, left one bystander dead and at least three people wounded after a botched robbery outside a Van Nuys Costco store teeming with shoppers, authorities said.

Panic-stricken customers, many with children, dived for cover in the pandemonium. Bullets shattered car windows 100 yards away.

At least five other people were injured as they tried to escape the barrage of bullets sprayed into the huge warehouse discount store in the 6100 block of North Sepulveda Boulevard and across the parking lot.

"They were indiscriminately firing into a crowd of people," Los Angeles Police Lt. Jim Grayson said of the suspects.

"I heard a pop, pop, pop," said Dennie Akesson, a 39-year-old Santa Clarita painting contractor. "People were crying. It was hysteria."

Customers on the outside patio "got caught in the gunfire," Lt. Grayson said. "It was a totally wanton disregard for the welfare of the people who were out there."

One of the suspects who had been injured in the shootout was arrested less than a mile away. Police had cordoned off a Van Nuys neighborhood looking for two other suspects.

The gunmen did not get any money, Grayson said, and the armored car guards were not injured.

A 29-year-old man entering the store to shop was shot in the head and died at Valley Presbyterian Hospital, a hospital spokeswoman said.

A female shopper was shot in her abdomen and a leg and was taken to Holy Cross Hospital, where she underwent surgery and was listed in critical condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Investigators had not determined late Sunday whether the victims were hit by bullets from the guards or the suspects.

The shoppers hurt in the panic after the shootout suffered injuries ranging from a broken collarbone suffered in a fall to hyperventilation, fire officials said.

"A lot of young children started throwing up because they'd never witnessed anything like this before," said Ron Rosen, 62, of Northridge, who was inside doing a cooking demonstration.

Grayson said the armored car was making a routine pickup of cash at Costco. As one guard left the store with his gun drawn, he saw a gunman with the AK-47.

"This is a robbery," Grayson said the gunman told the guard. "Give me the money."

The guard and the gunman, standing no more than 10 feet apart, then exchanged gunfire, Grayson said, and a second gunman also began firing. One gunman was struck.

The gunmen continued shooting as the guard holding the money bag managed to get back into the armored car, Grayson said. The two suspects then jumped into a white van and drove away, he said.

When the van reached the intersection of Sylvan Street and Kester Avenue, about eight blocks from the store, it blew a tire, said LAPD spokesman Sgt. John Pasquariello. The suspects abandoned it and fled on foot, he said.

The wounded suspect, 32, couldn't keep up with his partner, who disappeared into the neighborhood of small homes and two-story apartment buildings, Pasquariello said.

An off-duty officer, who was in the neighborhood visiting relatives, saw the wounded suspect walking down the street carrying an assault rifle. He called police, who arrested the suspect and recovered the AK-47, Pasquariello said.

Customers who had been shopping at the time recounted their moments of terror hours later.

Joanne Gallon, 51, of Arleta, who was inside the store, said she heard "what sounded like a sledgehammer going down a couple of times. Then a pause and then just a barrage of gunfire."

Soon panic set in inside the store and on a dining patio outside.

"Everybody was running out screaming," said Sylmar bookkeeper Elie Jetter, 30, who was inside. "I never thought anything like this could ever happen."

Gallon said she dived under the computer games table near the front entrance with her son, James, 9. He said he saw one of the gunmen. The boy also said he saw the man's gun, describing it as a big semiautomatic rifle. Before it fired, the youngster said, he saw what looked like an activated laser sight.

"Costco. God," Jetter said. "This is ridiculous. You cannot even do your shopping without looking over your shoulders."

Eric Figueroa, 19, of Burbank, was helping a customer at the Pep Boys auto store next to Costco when he heard the gunfire.

"I heard about five or six shots," he said. "I ran out to see what's happening and I saw people running this way. People told me, 'Get back in. There's a shooting going on.' I just heard pop, pop, pop. I got closer and saw blood all over.

"I don't see things like this happen around here. Next time an armored truck comes here, I better watch out."

More than three dozen police officers wearing body armor and accompanied by dogs converged on a neighborhood where they believed at least on one of the suspects had escaped.

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