No hostage-taking charges will be filed against an ex-convict who, allegedly fleeing a robbery, slipped into a McDonald's restaurant in La Verne, precipitating a long siege by law officers fearful that he was holding captives, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Douglas E. Girard never pulled a gun, never threatened anyone and never forced customers and employees to remain during the incident Monday night, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Hearnsberger said at an arraignment for Girard and a second suspect in Pomona Municipal Court.
"This is speculation, but it appears to me that they could possibly have gotten up and walked out," Hearnsberger said of the supposed hostages.
Girard, 32, and Frank M. Teresi, 38, ran into the restaurant after Girard allegedly robbed a Kids Mart clothing store across the street, investigators said. Teresi left the restaurant after a few minutes and was taken into custody. Girard remained inside and tried to blend in with the other customers in an effort to avoid police, who were by then converging on the scene, police said.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that they did not have enough evidence to implicate Teresi in the clothing store robbery, and he was charged only with misdemeanor counts of being under the influence of heroin and giving a false name and birth date to police. He pleaded guilty and was immediately sentenced to nine months in jail by Pomona Municipal Judge Thomas A. Peterson.
Girard, meanwhile, was charged with armed robbery of the Kids Mart store and with a separate robbery of a Claremont florist on Sept. 8. He also was charged with being a felon in possession of a gun. He pleaded not guilty and was being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Monday's 6 1/2-hour "hostage" drama developed after Girard was unable to start his car in the shopping plaza outside the clothing store, prosecutors said. As police began arriving to investigate the robbery, Girard and Teresi went into the McDonald's hoping to blend in with customers, Hearnsberger said.
However, someone saw a gun in Girard's waistband as he entered the restaurant and told police that the two men were inside. La Verne police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department SWAT team ringed the restaurant and motioned to people inside to get down on the floor, prosecutors said.
Girard lay down with them, Hearnsberger said.
Some people in the restaurant believed Girard also was a hostage. "They thought that he was just like them," Hearnsberger said.
Gary Lutz, a customer inside the McDonald's, said he never felt like a hostage and that Girard acted "very friendly" and never threatened anyone.
"I know I wasn't being held as a hostage," Lutz, 39, of Pomona, said Wednesday. "I didn't feel like a hostage."
He said he remained inside the McDonald's, crouched on the floor with his two small children, because the building was ringed by police and the sheriff's SWAT team. He said he decided that walking out and facing those guns was too dangerous to try.
"I didn't know how it was going to turn out," said Lutz, a truck driver.
But La Verne Police Lt. Ron Ingels said the fact that people did not leave the McDonald's only served to reinforce the perception held by authorities that they were handling a hostage crisis.
"It doesn't make sense to me, why would you be afraid of police?" Ingels said. "You get up and say I'm not involved, and you walk out. It would be logical to assume something was holding them in."
The incident had Southern California residents riveted to their television sets as TV news crews broadcast live from the scene.
Several hours into the incident, a video camera inside the restaurant recorded Girard leaving the dining area and going into the bathroom, Hearnsberger said. Investigators believe he left his gun in the bathroom, then returned to the dining area and lay down on the floor with others.
He was also seen sitting at a table playing tick-tack-toe on a place mat with children, Hearnsberger said.
"He was just there with the rest of them and they assumed that he was one of them," said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. "There just was no crime."
Ingels, the La Verne detective in charge of the case, said that when he began examining witnesses' statements Tuesday morning, he saw there would be problems in making the false-imprisonment case because Girard apparently did not threaten the 20 customers and employees.
Ingels, however, said he does not regret "one bit" the way the city and police mobilized to respond to the incident.
"Every bit of information we had at the time pointed to classic hostage situation: a robber fleeing with a gun, citizens and customers lying on the floor."
La Verne Mayor John Blickenstaff said the failure to file charges "disappoints me a lot. What's the definition of 'hostage?' Certainly those people weren't free to leave and it was being treated as a dangerous situation.
"I don't understand the decision," he continued. ". . . It sends a bad message to the entire community, not just La Verne, but the entire country. They see something like this where people think they are hostages and people outside think they are hostages. It seems a lenient interpretation that can only encourage criminals and discourage law-abiding citizens and police officers."
Contributing to this story were staff writers Patricia Klein Lerner and Tracy Wilkinson.