Tunnels to Lucre : Cases of Bank Thefts by 'Sophisticated' Burrowing May Be Linked

Times Staff Writer

The burglars who tunneled their way into a Bank of America branch near Beverly Hills over the weekend may be responsible for a remarkably similar heist that occurred last year at a bank in Hollywood, authorities speculated Monday.

Meanwhile, detectives and bank officials investigating the break-in at the bank at Pico and La Cienega boulevards expressed amazement at the determination and precision of the burglars, who got away with $91,000 in cash from the vault.

"This was no wormhole or anything," said Los Angeles Police Lt. Doug Collisson, whose special burglary detail has assigned six detectives to work on the case with FBI agents.

The burglars "would have had to require some knowledge of soil composition and technical engineering," Collisson said. "The way the shaft itself was constructed, it was obviously well-researched and extremely sophisticated."

He estimated that it took four to five weeks of work for the burglars to gain access to the bank's vault between 8 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday.

It is believed that the burglars first crawled through a manhole into an underground drainage ditch paralleling La Cienega and then cut through the drain to excavate a straight, 60-foot tunnel supported by strategically placed timbers, Collisson said.

Bank of America spokesman Ed Hain estimated the shaft to be 5 feet high by 8 feet wide and said the burglars apparently dragged through it a gas-powered generator, as well as a special drill.

When they reached a position directly beneath the vault room, the burglars attached to the drill a circular cutting tool with diamond-tipped teeth and then bolted the drill to the bottom of the floor. The generator-driven drill chewed through the yard-thick, steel-reinforced concrete floor, producing a perfectly round 18-inch hole leading into the vault room.

The hole was about three feet inside the 300-square-foot vault room and aligned perfectly with the center of the vault door, Hain said.

"You get the impression that they knew where there were at all times," Hain said.

Apparently, the burglars were so adept that they may have tapped into the bank's electrical system to provide light once deep inside the shaft, Hain said.

The methods and degree of sophistication in the B of A job suggest that the same gang may be responsible for a similar burglary in June, 1986, at a First Interstate Bank office in Hollywood. In that heist, burglars entered a storm sewer adjacent to the bank at 7700 Sunset Boulevard, tunneled under the building and then drilled through a three-foot floor of concrete and steel to reach the vault.

First Interstate Bank officials said $190,000 in cash was stolen, along with the contents of about 70 safe deposit boxes. The burglars left behind sledgehammers and drills.

Following that burglary, First Interstate beefed up security measures at its branch offices to prevent future break-ins through vault floors, a move Bank of America officials said Monday that they were considering.

First Interstate officials continue to offer a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who tunneled into their bank. To date, however, there have been few leads, according to company spokesman John Popovich.

"You look at the modus operandi in our burglary and the one (over the weekend) and it would sure seem to be the same, wouldn't it?" Popovich asked Monday.

An FBI spokesman in Los Angeles, Fred Reagan, said agents were considering the possibility that the cases are linked, but said no conclusions would be reached until all evidence is examined, a process that could take weeks.

As in the First Interstate Bank job, whoever burglarized the Bank of America branch left behind tools, as well as clothing and food.

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