Seven people, including five bank customers, were injured Tuesday during a fierce shoot-out between an armored car courier and a teen-age robbery suspect inside a Wells Fargo Bank in the Crenshaw shopping district of Los Angeles.
The 17-year-old suspect was critically wounded during the exchange of gunfire. The courier escaped serious injury when a gunshot hit a bulletproof vest he was wearing under his uniform.
“It saved my life,” said courier Miguel Sumano, 30, who suffered a bullet wound in his left wrist.
Rash of Holdups
The shoot-out was the latest in a yearlong rash of armored car holdups in Southern California that have claimed the lives of three couriers.
“Los Angeles really is a hotbed of armored car robberies,” said James L. Dunbar, chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Federal Armored Express Inc., target of the latest robbery attempt.
The robbery attempt began at 9:43 a.m. Tuesday at the Leimert Park branch of Wells Fargo Bank, located at 43rd Place and Crenshaw Boulevard.
As horrified customers looked on, the unidentified teen-ager got up from a chair inside the bank lobby and fired five shots from a .38-caliber revolver at Sumano, who had just walked in the door carrying bags filled with deposits from local merchants. Police speculated that the youth knew when the courier would be arriving.
Sumano whirled and drew his 9-millimeter handgun, shooting the suspect three times.
Following company procedures, a second guard remained inside the armored truck.
The youth ran outside and collapsed on the sidewalk as startled customers standing at a nearby automated teller machine turned and ran.
“He came through the door and that’s when the guard shot him again,” said Michael Jones, 25, who witnessed the shooting. “He grabbed his back and fell down. Then the guard put the gun to his head and said, ‘Don’t move!’ ”
A man who apparently was an accomplice of the would-be robber was standing about five feet from Jones.
Ran Down an Alley
“I thought he was standing up there waiting for the (automatic) Ready Teller,” Jones said. But when the shooting started, both he and the apparent accomplice ran down an alley beside the bank.
The accomplice jumped into a late-model, silver-blue Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird, in which a third man was waiting behind the steering wheel. The accomplice yelled “Go!” at the driver, and the pair sped off.
Some witnesses claimed that the courier continued shooting the suspect even while he was down, but Jones said the courier did not shoot him after he fell to the ground. He said the suspect’s gun flew out of his hand when he hit the sidewalk.
Willie Elijah, one of a crew of Department of Water and Power workers trying to repair a damaged water main on Crenshaw Boulevard, also heard the gunfire.
“I heard a pop, pop, pop and it sounded like gunshots,” Elijah said. “Then I heard a crash. I don’t know if he (the suspect) came through the door, or (just) fell. I just saw a man go down hollering.”
The wounded youth was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he underwent surgery for bullet wounds in the head and right side of his abdomen.
“He’s just in very, very bad shape,” said hospital spokesman Ron Wise, who described the injuries as “devastating.”
Police said the injuries suffered by bank customers were “relatively minor.”
“It’s believed that bullets from the gun, or bullet fragments or broken glass, injured five other persons, but none seriously,” said Los Angeles Police Lt. Bob Ruchhoft.
Authorities identified two of the injured customers as Evelyn Washington, 30, who was wounded in the forearm, and Torrance Reese, 28, who had a bruise on his foot and cuts from shattered glass.
Three Women Treated
Three other women were treated and released from Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood. One was injured by glass fragments and the others suffered superficial gunshot wounds. They were not identified.
Meanwhile, armored car executives are wondering why Los Angeles seems to have so many holdups.
“The only place that we’ve got them is in the Los Angeles area,” said Dunbar, who also serves as chairman of the Armored Transportation Institute, an industry training organization.
Dunbar said that he was in Los Angeles to speak to police officials less than a month ago in an effort to help combat the rash of robberies. Dunbar said that proper training and regular refinement of the system are the primary methods to combat robberies.
There is no other means of moving big shipments of cash, he said, and there are limitations to the amount of personnel and gunfire that can be thrown at robbers. While some drivers have suggested going to three-man crews, Dunbar said that it is unlikely to help.
“The armored car industry as we know it today is only 65 years old,” he said. “And if you go over the course of the entire 65 years, the major holdups that have occurred have occurred with three-man crews.
“There are more two-man crews than three-man crews but they haven’t had as may holdups,” he said. “If we put three-man crews out, they come at us with four-man gangs. They can always top us by whatever it is because we’re the ones they are pointing the fingers at. Why not have four people or why not have five?”
Ronald Bray, an armored car security consultant, said that some Los Angeles armored car business managers have been looking into various ways of refining their operations because of the crime wave.
Training and awareness are two keys to thwarting robberies, he said. And there have been recent efforts to modify armored trucks by changing the configuration of doors and allowing the driver more visibility, according to Bray, who is former secretary-treasurer of the Independent Armored Car Operators Assn.
“But,” he said, " . . . there are only a few different ways you can get money out of a mall and put it into a bank.”
2nd Time for Guard
Sumano, the courier, said that this was the second time in two years that someone has attempted to rob him on the job. He said that sometime last year he was carrying some money when a man walked up behind him, apparently intending to rob him.
“I said what the hell did he want and he backed off,” Sumano said. "(He) ran away. (He) didn’t want a shoot-out.”
Sumano, who said he has been a courier for only two years, would not comment on the Tuesday incident because of company policy.
He said that despite Tuesday’s close call, he does not plan to quit the job.
“There’s nothing else I can do.”
Times staff writers Paul Feldman, Scott Harris and John Kendall contributed to this report