Holdup's Mystery Man Was Captive : Crime: The suspected accomplice who prolonged bank hostage drama turns out to be a customer, police say. However, he is arrested on Florida felony warrants.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the aftermath of a confusing New Year's Eve hostage drama at a Bank of America branch here, authorities said Wednesday that they are convinced that the botched robbery was a one-man job.

They answered a key question lingering after the standoff: Who was the mystery man inside the bank who angered fellow captives, frustrated authorities and was led away cuffed and shirtless in a squad car?

Just a troublesome bank customer--with three warrants outstanding in Florida for theft, writing worthless checks and other felonies, authorities said.

The man hindered police efforts to free the 29 customers and employees--and cast initial suspicion on himself as an accomplice--by separating himself from the other captives. He also apparently disobeyed a gunman's orders by peeking through blinds, waving outside and jumping over a supposed bomb, officials said.

But the man, Robert Charles Gregory, said he was just trying to help. "I decided to risk my life," said the 30-year-old Los Angeles man, who authorities said also goes by Robert Greg Rambo.

Bank employees interviewed Wednesday described Gregory variously as "a crazy person" and someone who "put our lives in jeopardy." The hostages said he moved in front of the gunman's briefcase even though they had been warned that there was an explosive device inside armed with a motion detector.

In an interview at the Orange County Jail, where he was booked on the Florida warrants, Gregory said he was not sure why authorities--and other captives--got angry and annoyed with him. "I don't know if it could have been the fear in them or what," he said.

"Some people thought I was trying to endanger them," he conceded. "(But) I was trying to take control of the situation." He said he was in contact with Placentia police via a telephone in the bank to help conclude the hostage situation.

"I'm just glad that I was able to help all those people and no one got hurt," he said. "By the grace of God everyone got out. It's a miracle."

During the interview, he denied that his name was Robert Charles Gregory but declined to give his true name until he had spoken to his attorney, saying only that his business was in "real estate." Placentia police, however, say Gregory was positively identified through a name he provided to them.

Gregory said he was trying to cash a check Wednesday just before 4 p.m. when a gunman robbed the bank, herded the employees and customers into a back room and fled in a commandeered car with two hostages.

Minutes later, the gunman shot and killed himself as police closed in, authorities said. An undisclosed amount of stolen cash was found in the vehicle.

The gunman was identified as Jaime Sabogal, 38, a native of Colombia who lived in Redlands. A brother, Hernando Sabogal of Rialto, said Sabogal had a wife and six children and was convicted of bank robbery about five years ago, serving several years in a California prison.

Hernando Sabogal said that since the bank robbery conviction his brother had been unable to find a job that paid enough to keep his wife and children, ages 8 to 14, in their Redlands home. "He didn't want a welfare family and wanted the best for his kids," Hernando said.

He said his brother's despair and need to feed his family apparently made bank robbery seem like a quick fix. "He just gave up. Sooner or later, I knew something would happen to him."

Hostages almost unanimously described the gunman as polite and calm, even as he brandished a .45-caliber handgun.

Before fleeing, the gunman warned his captives that he had left a bomb in a briefcase in the lobby and the bomb was sensitive to motion and would explode if they tried to leave. The claim proved false--there was no bomb in the satchel--but authorities spent more than six hours trying to assess the situation in the bank.

Outside, sales people hawked pizzas among a crowd of hundreds that waited for hours in the parking lot. Some had family members inside. But most were there, as one resident said, out of "morbid curiosity."

Finally, beginning at about 10:15 p.m., SWAT members began escorting the bank employees and customers out of the building in small groups. They were greeted by the crowd with jubilant cheers of "Happy New Year!"

Authorities blamed the long wait in part on Gregory.

Gregory "jeopardized (the captives') safety and prolonged the situation," Placentia Police Lt. Chuck Babcock said Wednesday. "He just made the situation more difficult than it had to be."

Initially during the standoff, Gregory's actions drew attention to him as a possible accomplice, authorities said. Police feared that he might be posing as a hostage, so they delayed entering the building for hours as they talked with him by phone and tried to determine who he was. At one point he jumped over the briefcase left by the robber.

"But it turned out he was a hostage, a victim, like everybody else," Babcock said.

Placentia Police Chief Mannie Ortega said that Gregory and the bomb threat prevented authorities from freeing the captives sooner. Some hostages complained that their ordeal dragged on unnecessarily.

"I can certainly appreciate the frustration of the hostages, but in the end, everybody came out, and no one was injured," Ortega said. "We'd rather take more time--err on the side of caution--than rush into something when we're not fully aware of what we're up against. . . . This was the best way."

Bank captives and families interviewed Wednesday said they appreciated the job that police did--even if it meant several extra hours of boredom and waiting in the hot bank after the air conditioning was turned off.

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