Stories of Polite Bandit, 'Rambo' Hostage Unfold

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One was a gentleman bank robber, a polite gunman and former Christian missionary who relatives say returned to crime to feed his wife and six children.

The other, a man who police say goes by the name "Rambo," claimed in jailhouse interview that he was only trying to save fellow hostages in the New Year's Eve robbery of a Placentia bank.

But together these two men, unknown to each other before their encounter Tuesday in the Bank of America branch in the 100 block of Yorba Linda Boulevard, spun a complex web of fear and uncertainty that kept 29 customers and bank employees hostage as worried relatives, curious onlookers and television viewers watched the seven-hour ordeal unfold.

The bank robber, identified by the FBI as Jaime Sabogal, 38, of Redlands, would die by his own hand after a botched escape attempt.

The man police identified as Robert Charles Gregory, 30, of Los Angeles--the one who emerged bare-chested from the bank 5 1/2 hours into the hostage ordeal, would be jailed, but not as an accomplice.

Instead, Gregory, who police say also uses the name Gregory Robert Rambo, was being held Wednesday in a Santa Ana jail lieu of $50,000 bail in connection with Florida fugitive warrants for theft, writing worthless checks and other charges in Dade County, authorities said.

Police agencies gave few details about either man in the series of events triggered Tuesday when a dapper Sabogal, dressed in a gray-plaid suit with briefcase in hand, entered the suburban bank branch just 40 minutes before it was set to close for the holiday.

According to relatives, Sabogal had robbed a bank about five years ago, served three years in prison, and couldn't seem get a job that paid enough to keep his wife and children, ages 8 to 14, in their nice Redlands home.

"Sooner or later, I knew something would happen to him," his brother, Hernando Sabogal, said as tears streamed down his cheeks Wednesday in his Rialto living room. "He was locked out of the system and couldn't take care of his family in a proper way. That was his only crime: He didn't want a welfare family and wanted the best for his kids."

His brother said Sabogal's inability to find work had so distressed him that he moved out of his family's home several weeks ago. "Jaime had decided to go and stay in a place and figure things out. . . . He probably figured this was the last one (bank robbery) and had a plan to get a lot of money," Hernando Sabogal said.

Born in Bogota, Columbia, Jaime Sabogal was 10 when his family emigrated to San Bernardino, his brother said. After brushes with the law, the young man turned to a Christian church and took his family throughout South and Central America to preach the Gospel and help establish churches.

Jaime Sabogal eventually abandoned his missionary work and returned to California, his brother said.

Hernando Sabogal said he would remember his brother as a Christian who loved people, and who told the hostages he would take his own life if the bank robbery went sour.

"The bottom line is that we will make it, and he is in a better place."

Curiously, hostages interviewed almost unanimously described the gunman as polite and calm, even as he brandished a .45-caliber handgun. The only shot that would be fired was the one Sabogal aimed at his own head after the robbery on a freeway off-ramp in Brea.

But they were highly critical of the bare-chested customer. Bank employees interviewed Wednesday called him variously "a crazy person" and someone who "put our lives in jeopardy" when he moved in front of the gunman's briefcase even though hostages had been warned an explosive device inside was armed with a motion detector.

Gregory has a nobler view of his actions.

"Knowing I don't have a wife and children, I decided to risk my life," he said in an hourlong jailhouse interview Wednesday.

Gregory said he stepped over the attache case placed in front of the conference room door where hostages had been herded by the gunman, and walked throughout the rest of the bank in search of hostages who may have been hiding elsewhere, even talking with police by telephone at one point.

"Some people thought I was trying to endanger them," he conceded. "(But) I was trying to take control of the situation."

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 not sure why fellow hostages felt his actions threatened them. "I don't know if it could have been the fear in them or what," he said. But he added that confusion can arise "when you have 29 people telling 29 different stories."

Gregory denied any connection with the bank robbery. He said he had gone to the Bank of America branch at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to cash a check before leaving for Lake Tahoe.

Some hostages were already in the room along with the bank robber, who held what appeared to be a 9-millimeter or .45-caliber revolver, he said. "He pulled a gun and cocked it, and indicated I should get down (on the floor)," Gregory said.

Five hours later, when he emerged from the bank with hands raised over his head, Gregory said he was only trying "to be identified as a good guy."

He is scheduled for arraignment Friday in a Santa Ana municipal court.

"My intentions were never to endanger anyone," he said.

Times staff writers Kristina Lindgren and Lanie Jones contributed to this story.

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