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4 Bandits in Disguise Take $430,000 From Tarzana Bank : Crime: The fast, efficient thieves carry out L.A.'s largest bank holdup of the year. The region is on a record pace for robberies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four gun-wielding bandits--disguised in big noses, bushy eyebrows, hats and white gloves--stormed a Wells Fargo Bank in Tarzana and escaped with about $430,000 in the largest bank robbery in Los Angeles this year, police said Friday.

The heist Thursday resembled others in the San Fernando Valley and highlights the steady increase in bank robberies throughout Southern California, already considered the bank-robbery capital of the country, police and FBI officials said.

“We’re on a record pace,” FBI spokesman John Hoos said.

Last year, a record 1,652 bank robberies occurred in the FBI’s seven-county Los Angeles district--stretching from San Clemente to the Monterey County line. As of Wednesday, Hoos said, 1,460 bank robberies had been recorded this year. The approaching holiday season, a traditionally busy time for bank robbers, promises to make this year’s total higher than last year’s.

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“It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out where we’re headed,” Hoos said.

The same trend is occurring within the city of Los Angeles, where the number of bank robberies so far this year--464--is rapidly approaching the 515 recorded last year, said Los Angeles Police Lt. Gabe Ornelas.

Last year, $1.3 million was stolen from banks within Los Angeles, Ornelas said. So far this year, about $2 million has been stolen, including the amount taken in Thursday’s robbery.

On Friday afternoon, as investigations continued in the Tarzana robbery and an Aug. 29 bank robbery in South-Central Los Angeles in which a 66-year-old bank guard was fatally shot, four more bank holdups occurred within an hour throughout the city, Ornelas said.

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Another took place in the Valley about 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Bank of America branch at 18120 Sherman Way in Reseda. A lone thief, claiming he had a gun, passed a teller a note demanding money and escaped with an undisclosed amount of cash, a bank spokesman said.

FBI spokeswoman Karen Gardner said that more bank robberies occurred in Southern California last week than in the rest of the country.

Police and bankers attribute the region’s dubious distinction to a variety of factors: its high number of banks and suburban branches, probably the highest in the country; its freeways, which make escapes easier, and its thriving drug culture. Hoos said at least 80% of bank robbers are feeding expensive drug habits.

Ed Pistey, director of security for First Interstate Bank of California, speculated that the recession may account for some bank robberies. Hoos said the FBI has no supporting statistics.

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“I think it’s a logical connection that when you have economic problems and a high rate of unemployment, you’re probably going to have some people driven to desperation to commit crimes, including bank robbery,” said Pistey, who serves as security committee chairman for the California Bankers Assn.

In the Tarzana robbery, the armed thieves entered the Wells Fargo branch at 18705 Ventura Blvd. about 3:30 p.m. and ordered everyone against a wall, said police and branch Manager Scott Riley. Three carried revolvers, and the fourth wielded what appeared to be a machine gun, Gardner said.

They worked efficiently, like experienced professionals, and are believed to be linked to as many as four similar “takeover” bank robberies in the Valley, Ornelas said.

Three of the bandits controlled the lobby, while the fourth, clad in a green, military-style jumpsuit, climbed over the counter and forced employees at gunpoint to empty cash drawers and the bank vault, police and Riley said.

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One bandit may have been a woman, they said. One carried a bright blue duffel bag, and another carried a green backpack, said Gardner. Two wore white painter’s caps, and one a green, military-style hat, she said.

They escaped through a back door, where a fifth person waited in an older-model Cadillac, Riley said.

“They didn’t threaten anybody,” he said, “just sort of controlled everything.”

No one was hurt during the robbery, which was over in two to three minutes. “They were in and out,” Riley said.

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