Placentia Robbery Was a 1-Man Job, Police Say : Crime: 'Mystery man' hindering efforts to resolve B of A hostage situation Tuesday was a bank customer.


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 now 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 ultimately led away handcuffed and shirtless in a squad car?

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

The man hindered police efforts to free the 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, 30, of Los Angeles said he was just trying to help. "I decided to risk my life," he said. Authorities said Gregory also goes by the name of Robert Greg Rambo.

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

Gregory was trying to cash a check Tuesday when a gunman robbed the bank, herded the 29 employees and customers into a back room and then fled with two hostages in a commandeered station wagon.

The gunman led police on a short chase on the Orange Freeway before the station wagon collided with another vehicle on the Imperial Highway off-ramp and the gunman was forced off the road. He then freed his two hostages and killed himself with a gunshot to the head from his own .45-caliber pistol, police said.

The FBI identified the gunman as Jaime Sabogal, 38, a Bogota, Colombia native who lived in Redlands. Sabogal was married and the father of six children.

A brother, Hernando Sabogal of Rialto, said Sabogal was convicted of bank robbery about five years ago and that he served several years in a California prison.

Hernando Sabogal said his brother was trying to provide for his family. "He didn't want a welfare family and wanted the best for his kids," he said.

Before he fled, the gunman had warned his captives that he had left a bomb in a briefcase in the lobby and that the bomb was sensitive to motion and would explode should 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.

In the parking lot, scores of law enforcement officers from more than half a dozen local and federal agencies, SWAT team members, firefighters and medical aides had surrounded the bank, ready to move in.

A few dozen yards away, people were hawking 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."

The captives' release came only after Gregory came out.

Gregory said that, after he slipped out of the conference room and hopped over the supposed bomb, he called 911--although, as he did that, fellow captives were screaming at him to get off the phone. Police kept him on the line for 2 1/2 hours, seeking "inconsistencies" in his statements, officials said.

Police would not discuss the specifics of the phone conversation, but they did describe Gregory as "uncooperative."

Gregory said police told him over the phone that they were not sure of his motives and that they considered him a possible suspect. Gregory, however, saw himself as an aide to police and said he was negotiating to get the SWAT team in there.

"I was trying to be like a detective and assess and figure out the situation," Gregory said.

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."

Police said they feared Gregory might be an accomplice posing as a hostage and that, therefore, they put off entering the building as they tried to determine who he was and what he might do.

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

Placentia Police Chief Mannie Ortega said Gregory's actions and the bomb threat prevented authorities' freeing the captives any sooner. Upon their release, some hostages complained that their ordeal had 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."

Authorities finally persuaded Gregory to leave the bank about 8:45 p.m., , and he was quickly put into a squad car and taken to the police station for questioning.

Gregory said he suffered bruises in the process.

A bomb detail entered the bank more than an hour after Gregory's departure. Officers determined that there was no bomb in the mysterious briefcase, but police would not say what was inside.

Finally, around 10:15 p.m., SWAT team members began escorting the bank employees and customers out of the building in small groups. The crowd greeted them with jubilant cheers of "Happy New Year!"

Bank captives and families interviewed Wednesday said they appreciated the job that police did.

"Everything worked out well," said Joy Hendrickson, financial services manager at the bank and one of the captives. "We're all home with our families."

Fullerton apartment manager Richard Hollander, whose 29-year-old daughter was a clerk trapped inside the bank, said police "did a good job . . . . Thank God it all turned out.

New Year's Day did bring some work for about a dozen district bank employees, who were there to sort out the mess.

"We're just counting the cash and balancing the numbers," said Mike Petermann, Bank of America district manager for northern and central Orange County.

Authorities said the stolen cash was found in the station wagon. Officials would not say how much was taken, but several characterized it as "significant."

Times staff writers Bob Elston, Matt Lait and Lanie Jones contributed to this story.

* WHAT IT WAS LIKE: A bank employee describes a terrifying, 7-hour ordeal. A19

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