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Prosecution Opens in Bank Holdup Trial : Courts: Defendant allegedly staged series of robberies, including the biggest in Los Angeles history.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Ambrose McGrath, a suspected San Fernando Valley robber accused in the biggest bank heist in Los Angeles history, was portrayed Tuesday by a federal prosecutor as a meticulous thief who terrorized bank employees with guns and disguised himself in costumes to steal more than $1 million from nine banks.

McGrath, 49, one of two men suspected of carrying out the sophisticated, yearlong robbery spree, appeared undisturbed by the accusations as he sat Tuesday in the courtroom of U. S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp.

During opening statements, Assistant U. S. Atty. Kendra S. McNally also told jurors that McGrath, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, took the time, money and effort to ensure that he would not be captured.

“He said God had told him to do those things and that he expected to be caught,” said McNally, in an interview after the statement. “Yet he did everything he could to avoid being captured.”

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McGrath was charged in an 18-count indictment alleging bank robbery and firearms violations. Defense attorney John D. Robertson waived his opening statement, which will be presented when the prosecution rests its case against his client.

McGrath and co-defendant Gilbert David Michaels were captured by the FBI in March of last year just minutes after the robbery of a Home Savings of America branch in Woodland Hills. Inside their van, authorities recovered $150,000, costumes, a rifle and two revolvers, McNally said.

They are accused of robbing a Tarzana bank of $430,000, the most ever taken in a bank robbery in Los Angeles. Other banks they allegedly robbed are located in Woodland Hills, Northridge, Calabasas, Westlake Village and West Hills.

McGrath is being tried separately from Michaels, who in March was found incompetent to stand trial and is now being housed at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., said Timothy Lannen, Michaels’ defense attorney.

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After their arrests, authorities uncovered a cache of 119 guns and more than 27,000 rounds of ammunition during a search of the luxurious, four-story rented house the two men shared in West Hills, according to court records. Under the house, FBI agents said they discovered a military-style bunker complete with thick fire doors and a shooting range.

The FBI said the two men told agents that they were preparing for Armageddon--the biblical last battle between the forces of good and evil.

McNally said authorities also discovered ski masks, gloves, ponchos, fake beards and mustaches and a wooden toolbox inside the house. During the robberies, the thieves carried a toolbox or duffel bags and dressed like painters, postal workers or wore military costumes, ski masks and fake facial hair, according to McNally and court documents.

McGrath admitted during a federal court hearing last year that he had committed the bank robberies. He is the author of a 300-page document about Michaels’ life and the belief by both men that a massive conspiracy, involving banks and a jealous candy maker, systematically worked to destroy Michaels’ fudge-making business.

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The document, written in 1991 at about the same time the robberies began, detailed McGrath’s investigation of the circumstances behind the alleged theft of Michaels’ inheritance and his growing suspicion that dark forces were focusing their energies on the family to prevent it from successfully marketing a candy product called Rose Ann’s Old Style Fudge.

The conspiracy that McGrath felt that he had uncovered began with local banks and lawyers, and eventually broadened to include the Hershey corporation, actress Jane Fonda and communists.

The document also justifies bank robbery as a method of fighting back against the evil forces. The men are suspected of targeting Home Savings of America, Wells Fargo and First Interstate banks, which Michaels’ wife has said is where they believe the inheritance money is deposited.

“What if Gilbert were to hold up the Wells Fargo Bank, not as a thief but as an honest man?” asks the document, referring to Michaels, 48. If Michaels held up the bank, he would be “an honest man reclaiming from crooks what is rightfully his.”

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