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Workers endure violent ordeal at Westchester store

Armed robbers brutally attack some of their hostages at a mall in Westchester. The gunmen escape.

January 11, 2013|By Rosanna Xia, Matt Stevens and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • During a four-hour siege beginning late Thursday, at least two robbers held 14 Nordstrom Rack employees hostage, forcing some to strip. Police said they savagely attacked three of the captives.
During a four-hour siege beginning late Thursday, at least two robbers… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The first 911 call came at 11:08 p.m. A panicked man told an operator the barest of details: Nordstrom Rack in Westchester. Two armed men. Robbery.

Police rushed to the sprawling Promenade at Howard Hughes Center, where a hostage drama was unfolding at the popular shopping center off the 405 Freeway.

During the four-hour siege, at least two robbers held 14 Nordstrom Rack employees hostage, forcing some to strip. Police said they savagely attacked three of the captives.

Hundreds of other people were stranded, most of them at a movie complex, while SWAT officers surrounded the mall.

The overnight events early Friday were marked by confusion. Relatives and even some of those stranded in the shopping mall relied on Twitter for scraps of information.

The families of the Nordstrom employees — 13 women and one man — learned they were safe only hours later.

"My sister finally called ... and asked if we could go get her at the mall," said the brother of a 19-year-old hostage who gave only his first name, Irwun. "She was scared. She didn't want to talk about it. She was terrified."

The LAPD called a citywide tactical alert for several hours as officials streamed officers into the area from across the city.

Detectives spent much of Friday sorting out what had happened at the Nordstrom Rack, which is near a Rubio's, a GameStop and a Rave Cinemas at the mall on Center Drive.

Police continued to search for suspects. Law enforcement sources said they were following several promising leads.

The gunmen apparently stormed inside about 10 p.m. Thursday, as the store was closing.

Two employees hid in the store bathroom, authorities said. The gunmen herded the rest into a rear restroom on the third level, according to dispatch audio posted on the Venice 311 server. There, at least two employees were told to strip.

One woman was dragged to a separate room, where she was sexually assaulted, police said. A second woman was stabbed in the neck, police said, and a third hostage was pistol-whipped.

After officers arrived, a vehicle with tinted windows and its headlights off peeled out of the parking garage. The driver wore a black hoodie and the passenger a white T-shirt, according to dispatch recordings.

"White SUV! White SUV! White Ford Explorer!" an officer barked. "High rate of speed leaving the parking lot!"

"Go pursue that vehicle!" another officer said.

They did, to no avail.

"We lost sight of that vehicle," an officer said over the radio. "We're going on the 405 north. I need other units to try Sepulveda. We don't know where vehicle is now."

The gunmen had escaped — though officers didn't know it at the time. They called in a SWAT team, which arrived about 1 a.m. The mall remained on lockdown — stranding at least 200 moviegoers at the cineplex.

Simeon Campbell, 26, and two of his friends had gone to the 10 p.m. showing of "A Haunted House."

"It was funny until we got out," he said.

Theater employees told them the mall had been closed off but did not explain why. Some moviegoers were escorted to the second floor, where Campbell looked out a window.

"It became real when I saw the SWAT team," he said.

Some moviegoers munched on popcorn that theater employees handed out. Others tried to nap. Campbell paced, his head throbbing and his stomach in knots.

"What if they run in here? What if they have accomplices?" he said he thought.

The wait ended sometime before 3 a.m., when some of the Nordstrom hostages called 911, described their injuries and asked for medical aid, according to dispatch recordings. (None of the injuries were life-threatening, and by Friday afternoon the victims had all been treated and released).

Officers started to empty the mall. Irwun, whose sister had been held captive, was waiting outside in his pajamas. A few hours later, he sat at the LAPD Pacific Division station while his sister was interviewed by detectives. Their mother, Elin, rocked back and forth, wiping away tears. Irwun and Elin also work at the store.

"The theater in the mall is known for fights outside," Elin said in Spanish. "I was always afraid something like that would happen [to her daughter] when she worked late, but never this. I never thought something like this would happen."

Around 10:30 — more than 12 hours after the gunmen charged into the store — her daughter emerged from the interview room.

They hugged. Then they walked to their car, Elin clutching her daughter's arm.

Times staff writers Richard Winton, Nicole Santa Cruz, Adolfo Flores, Andrew Blankstein and Frank Shyong contributed to this report.

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