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Armored Guard Killed in Heist

At least five men with assault rifles ambush a truck at a South L.A. bank, flee with cash.

March 02, 2004|Arlene Martinez, Richard Winton and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

At least five men armed with high-powered assault rifles ambushed an armored car behind a busy South Los Angeles bank Monday morning, killing a guard and making off with an undisclosed amount of cash, police said.

The suspects fired more than 50 rounds in a gun battle with one of the armored-truck guards before fleeing in a light-colored van.

Moments after the shooting, two uninjured guards rushed their bleeding colleague to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in their armored truck, colliding with a car en route and injuring its driver, police said. The wounded guard, identified by police as Evelio Suarez Jr., 61, of Los Angeles, died during surgery a few hours later.

The suspects remained at large Monday night despite the efforts of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Officials said they were concerned by the overwhelming force of the attack. Some compared it with the 1997 North Hollywood shootout in which officers engaged two heavily armed bank robbers.

"The firepower made it like a mini North Hollywood shooting," LAPD Capt. Al Michelena said.

On Monday, video surveillance systems at the bank may have captured images of the gunmen, who were not masked, Michelena said.

According to Michelena, the suspects lay in wait for the Armored Transport Inc. truck before it began delivering cash to the Bank of America branch at West 87th Street and South Western Avenue.

About 10:45 a.m., as one of the truck's three guards was unloading the cash, the suspects unleashed a torrent of bullets that pockmarked surrounding buildings and caused workers and patrons inside the bank to hit the floor in panic.

"The first shot rang out, then for five seconds it was silent, then all hell broke loose," said the Rev. Arthur H. Jupiter, 67, who was waiting to see a teller.

Suarez was struck six or seven times, authorities said.

The suspects took some of the money and fled south on Western Avenue, said Robbery Homicide Lt. Carlos Velez. Seconds later, the other guards loaded Suarez into the truck and headed to Freeman Hospital in nearby Inglewood, striking a car at Manchester Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue en route. The driver of the car, who was not identified, sustained minor injuries, said Inglewood Police Chief Ronald Banks.

Police did not identify the other two guards involved in the shooting. A spokesman for Armored Transport declined to comment.

Armored Transport employee Howard Sands said Suarez was a native of Cuba who had been living in Los Angeles for about 30 years. Suarez, who was married, had worked for the security company for 18 years and was planning to retire in a year or so.

"Everybody who knew him loved him," said Sands, 57. "We're taking it hard."

LAPD and FBI officials said it was unclear whether the gunmen had been involved in any other bank robberies. Michelena said they might be professional bank robbers or members of L.A.-area street gangs, many of which have begun specializing in bank robberies in recent years.

The suspects should be considered armed and highly dangerous, said Officer Jason Lee, an LAPD spokesman. Anyone with information may call LAPD detectives at (213) 485-0780, or (877) LAWFULL.

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