Bank Staffers Take a Day of Counseling : Robbery: Bank of America employees who were taken hostage New Year's Eve also get a chance to question bank officials about the holdup.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The employees began arriving for work as usual at the Bank of America branch here, but this was no normal day.

Instead of reporting to their teller windows or desks, many of the 20 employees trapped for six hours New Year's Eve in the bank filed into sessions with trauma counselors.

"We needed it," said one employee. "In some ways, it's painful because you're kind of reliving it all over again . . . but I think it helps."

It was also a chance for the employees to question bank officials: How are the fellow employees who were taken out of the bank by the gunman? (Fine.) Was there a bomb? (No.) How much money was taken? (Undetermined.)

And the principal concern, still not answered to the satisfaction of some: Why did it take so long to get us out?

It was a question that authorities have been asked repeatedly since New Year's Eve, and the answer given to bank employees remained the same, according to several who were at the daylong group trauma meetings.

Bank officials said attempts to rescue the 20 bank employees and nine customers were delayed more than six hours because of a bomb threat and the possibility that a robber was still in the building, posing as a hostage.

It turned out the suspected second robber--Robert Charles Gregory, 30, of Los Angeles--was himself a hostage. Several hostages complained that Gregory had endangered their lives by disobeying the orders of the armed robber.

Gregory is being held at Orange County Jail because of outstanding felony warrants in Florida for theft and passing bad checks. Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Richard J. Olson told the Associated Press that Gregory has indicated that he plans to fight his extradition to Florida.

The real bandit--identified as Jaime Sabogal, 38, of Redlands--entered the bank with a .45-caliber pistol and locked everyone inside, police said. He reportedly told his hostages that he had left a briefcase with a bomb in the hallway that would explode if they tried to get out.

Sabogal fled with two hostages, commandeered a car and led police on a chase on the Orange Freeway before colliding with several cars and being forced onto the side of the road at the Imperial Highway off-ramp. With police closing in on him, he freed the two hostages and fatally shot himself in the head, police reported.

Sabogal, a former Christian missionary and father of six, was imprisoned several years ago for robbery, but officials said they have found nothing to implicate him in any recent heists besides the one in Placentia.

Although the stolen cash was believed to have been found in the car Sabogal stole, authorities and bank officials insist that they still have not determined how much was taken. Once they do, officials said, they may not release the figure.

Closed New Year's Day, the Placentia branch opened its doors as usual at 9 a.m. Thursday.

"We're open for business and serving customers," said Mike Petermann, Bank of America's district manager for central and northern Orange County.

But reminders of the New Year's Eve robbery were still evident.

At the Bank of America corporate switchboard, bank operators refused to route calls to the Placentia branch. "We had some trouble there Tuesday night," one operator explained.

At Sharon's Bakery, where owner Jim Mosino brewed about 100 pots of coffee for relatives of the hostages who had congregated there on Tuesday, customers demanded details about the event. "This was where the action was," Mosino said. "Everyone wanted to know what happened."

Outside the bank, a few customers traded stories about how they had come to the branch late Tuesday afternoon only to find it locked. Their timing spared them the hostage ordeal.

"I once missed a plane that blew up too," said Louis Schutt, 68, of Placentia, who arrived at the bank at 4:30 Tuesday to try to cash a check. "It's just God's hand--he's the one that controls these things."

Inside the bank, a new crew of employees from neighboring branches was brought in, as many of those involved in the robbery ordeal reported for crisis counseling sessions throughout the day at the bank.

"We want to help them out with what can be a very traumatic situation," said bank spokeswoman Lisa Margolin. Bank officials would not discuss details of the counseling sessions.

But several employees who were present, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the sessions as a productive way of airing questions that had lingered in their own minds since Tuesday night.

"Everybody kind of let off steam--letting out things inside and talking about whatever they wanted to talk about," said one employee.

Added another bank worker: "Mostly, we were all just happy we got through the whole situation."

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