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God Told Him to Rob Banks, Man Testifies : Courts: James McGrath admits to role in the crimes, which include theft of $430,000 from an L.A. office. His attorney seeks verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man admitted Wednesday that he committed a bank robbery that netted the largest single haul in Los Angeles history, but testified that he had been “commanded” to do so by God.

“The Lord specifically commanded me to rob the banks so that’s what I did,” said James Ambrose McGrath, one of two men charged in a sophisticated string of nine armed robberies across the San Fernando Valley.

McGrath’s lawyer urged jurors in federal court in Los Angeles to find his client, who testified that the Lord advised him to use gloves and disguises, not guilty by reason of insanity. No one was injured in any of the robberies, authorities said.

On cross-examination, McGrath said he knew it was against the law and morally wrong to rob a bank. McGrath testified that he also understands that robbery is not justified because of a dispute with a bank or because a friend had been morally wronged by a bank.

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McGrath, 49, is the author of a 300-page document about co-defendant Gilbert David Michaels’ life, which includes comments that both men believe that a massive conspiracy, involving banks and a jealous candy maker, systematically worked to destroy Michaels’ fudge-making business. Michaels has been found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

McGrath later testified that “it was not morally wrong” for him to rob the banks because “the Lord commissioned me.”

McGrath testified that money taken from the banks--nearly $1 million--was not stolen but repossessed, because it had belonged to Michaels.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Christopher Tayback told jurors in closing arguments that, as with other bank robbers before him, McGrath robbed the banks for money. Tayback noted that cash taken from the banks was used to pay rent at a lavish West Hills house and to buy guns, ammunition, cars and motorcycles.

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Tayback maintained that McGrath went to great lengths to avoid being caught, including wearing latex gloves, wiping away his fingerprints, carrying loaded weapons, using an elaborate series of getaway cars and dressing in disguises, which included fake mustaches.

“What I’m saying is that what he says and what he does contradict each other,” Tayback said.

John D. Robertson, McGrath’s attorney, agreed that his client knew what he was doing was wrong. But Robertson said the “issue is whether James McGrath knew what he was doing was morally wrong.”

Robertson maintained that his client suffers from a severe mental defect. A Van Nuys psychiatrist testified earlier that McGrath suffered from a delusional disorder.

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“Evidence shows this is an individual who at the time of the bank robberies was suffering from a mental disorder or defect that made him unable to appreciate the moral wrongfulness of his behavior,” Robertson said.

McGrath and Michaels were captured by the FBI in March, 1992, only minutes after the robbery of a Home Savings of America branch in Woodland Hills. They were eventually charged with nine robberies, including one in Tarzana that allegedly netted them $430,000, the most ever taken from a Los Angeles bank.

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.

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In March, Michaels, 48, was found incompetent to stand trial and is being housed at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., an attorney said.


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