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Taxi Getaways : Error Frees Suspect in Robberies

Times Staff Writer

A man suspected of using taxicabs and airport shuttle buses to escape in a series of San Fernando Valley bank robberies was released last month from the Los Angeles County Jail because of a paper work foul-up, authorities said Friday.

James Arthur Pugh, 33, is being sought after being mistakenly released Aug. 25, one week after he surrendered to FBI agents searching for him as a suspect in a string of nine Valley bank robberies.

Pugh was jailed initially on a violation of probation for a drug conviction while the FBI finished putting together evidence in the bank robbery cases, officials said.

But sheriff’s deputies said they never received notice from the FBI to hold Pugh and were unaware of the pending bank robbery charges. Pugh was released from jail after serving seven days for probation violation.

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“There was no hold indicated from the FBI,” Deputy Eric Smith said.

Hold Went Awry

FBI spokesman Jim Neilson said a hold notice was sent for Pugh but would not discuss where it was sent or when.

“We placed a hold on him, but I am not going to get into what went wrong,” Neilson said. “The important thing right now is to catch him.” Since his release, Pugh has come under suspicion in three more bank robberies: Sept. 8 in La Canada Flintridge, Sept. 9 in Panorama City and Wednesday in Eagle Rock, Neilson said.

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Previously, Pugh was a suspect in nine Valley bank robberies between Sept. 27, 1987, and Aug. 17 in which about $20,000 was taken.

In at least two robberies, authorities said, the suspect took taxicabs to the banks, had them wait while he went inside, and took them to Van Nuys Airport, where he got on shuttle buses to Los Angeles International Airport and disappeared in the crowds of travelers.

Authorities almost caught him after an Aug. 8 robbery in Van Nuys, when they surrounded a Flyaway shuttle bus at LAX. But a search of the bus and two airport terminals found that he had slipped away minutes earlier.

Surrendered Aug. 19

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Investigators later identified the so-called “Flyaway Bandit” as Pugh, and he surrendered to the FBI on Aug. 19, a Friday.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Bruce Meyer, head of the bank robbery unit, said that because FBI agents were still completing their investigation of the robberies, Pugh was turned over to city police to be booked on a probation violation.

Meyer said Pugh was initially held in the Parker Center Jail, where it was known that he was to be held for the FBI, but he was transferred to the County Jail for arraignment the following Monday, Aug. 22. “The Sheriff’s Department was never made aware he was to be held,” Meyer said. “Either the FBI failed to send a hold or it never got to the jail.”

At his arraignment, Pugh was sentenced by Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Judith Ashmann to 20 days in jail, Meyer said. With credit for the four days he had already served, Pugh was eligible for early release three days later.

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“Because of the overcrowding in the jail he was released on the ‘early out’ program,” Meyer said. “If they had gotten the hold, it would not have happened. But no one expected him to go through the judicial system so quickly.”


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