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Guard Shot as Robbers Hold Up Armored Truck : Crime: Pair escape with undisclosed sum. Incident points to job’s risks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two robbers, whipping through midday traffic on Ventura Boulevard in a Corvette, shot an armored truck guard Monday and escaped with an undisclosed amount of money in the latest in a string of gunfire attacks that illustrate the hazards faced by cash-carrying guards.

The unidentified guard, who works for Armored Transport Inc., was wounded in his wrist and leg. He was listed in good condition at Tarzana Regional Medical Center and is expected to survive.

The guard had just emerged from the Home Savings of America branch on Ventura Boulevard near Amestoy Avenue shortly after 11 a.m. when he was ambushed by one of the robbers, said Rick Dinse, assistant commanding officer of the LAPD’s Valley Bureau.

The two robbers apparently waited for the cash truck in a black Corvette parked across the street from the bank, a police spokesman said. When the guard emerged, one of them dashed across the street on foot, shot him and snatched a bag of cash, while the other wheeled the Corvette in a U-turn alongside the truck. The gunman leaped into the sports car and the two vanished westward down the boulevard, police said.

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Home Savings spokeswoman Mary Trigg said investigators from her bank were working with police to determine if the shooting was the work of a robbery ring targeting armored truck guards, and if it was connected to a string of such robberies in the San Fernando Valley area and elsewhere around Los Angeles.

In August, two robbers who approached their target in a wheelchair as a distraction launched a gun battle with a Brink’s guard outside a Bank of America branch in Sylmar that left a robber dead and a guard wounded.

Two months earlier in Winnetka, 52-year-old Brink’s driver Herman Cook was killed and his partner seriously injured by robbers who used rifles that pierced the truck’s armor. That shootout had some detectives wondering if the robbers had prepared for a potential shootout with the guards by arming themselves with high-powered weapons.

And in September, a bandit was killed during an attempted robbery of a Brink’s truck at a First Interstate bank in Inglewood.

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Sixteen cash couriers were held up in Los Angeles County in 1993, the only year for which a count is available, according to detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s robbery and homicide division. The true total may be higher, because neither the FBI nor the entire LAPD keep a formal tally of such robberies.

“In our industry, we know that it may happen at any time, so we train our people for it,” said Gretchen Benchoff, vice president for human resources with Federal Armored Express, one of the nation’s largest armored car services.

John Statkus of Yorba Linda knows the peril of being an armored truck guard.

On May 16, 1994, after he collected money from an automated teller machine at a Garden Grove bank, Statkus, 26, was shot three times, including once in the head, by robbers who fled with almost $200,000 in cash. Statkus--the only person on the truck, driving and doing pickups--languished in a coma for 18 days after the shooting.

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Statkus has not fully recovered from the shooting and still has speech problems, according to his wife, Carrie.

“We knew it wasn’t a safe job when John took it,” Carrie Statkus said. She added that her husband had earlier lobbied his employer, Wells Fargo Armored Car Services, to add more guards to his pickup detail.

Traveling inside the confines of an armored truck on the way to a pickup is not the real danger of being a guard or driver. It’s the solo walk, carrying bags of cash, checks and other valuables from the pickup point back to the truck.

Most companies require armored truck guards to enter banks and other pickup spots alone. One driver has to stay in the truck while the other makes the drop, both for safety and to guard the bulk of the money that remains on the truck.

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Carrie Statkus suggests that there should be three workers on each truck, with the third guard accompanying the cash carrier to the pickup point, providing two more eyes for watchfulness and another gun in a shootout.

But James Dunbar, president of Federal Armored Express and head of the National Armored Car Assn., dismisses that idea as pointless, saying that if truck crews were larger, robbers would simply add to their numbers as well. He argues that the way to reduce the number of guard shootings is to improve the criminal justice system, so that robbers would face longer sentences or the possibility of execution.

Brink’s, one of the best known of armored truck operators, is constantly re-evaluating and changing security policies in order to protect drivers from getting shot, said Marven Moss, a company spokesman. Moss said Brink’s drivers are well paid and have the best benefits package in the industry.

Carrie Statkus vehemently disputes the assertion that any company provides adequate pay for their guards.

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“For $8.53 an hour, my husband nearly gave up the rest of his life,” she said.

Of the estimated 1.6 million Americans who work in the security field, armored truck couriers and security guards are among the lowest paid, according to a 1994 study by the federal government’s National Institute of Justice.

Starting salaries are about $20,000 and peak at under $40,000 a year. By contrast, LAPD patrol officers start out at about $34,000 a year and can make as much as $60,000 with overtime. A paralegal working in a safe office environment can start out at about $30,000 and rise to $70,000, according to a Newsday study.

There are eight major armored transport companies in the United States--including Brink’s, Federal Armored Express, Armored Transport, Loomis Armored Inc. and Wells Fargo--and a host of small, mom-and-pop companies that bring the number of firms in the industry to about 60, according to Dunbar.

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Part of the risk to guards is that usually only the most aggressive and dangerous criminals try to hold up an armored truck rather than a bank, said LAPD Detective Tom Gattegno.

“The bulk of bank robberies involve notes or oral jobs where a robber demands money from a teller, and sometimes they don’t even have a gun,” Gattegno said. “But these guys [who target armored trucks] have a higher propensity for violence and know they might have to use their guns.”

But the risk, representatives of armored transport companies say, is an inescapable part of carrying huge sums of cash around Southern California, the bank robbery capital of the country.

“When a police officer walks in somewhere, he’s aware that something might go down,” Dunbar said. “We know the same thing, too.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Midday Robbery

In a daring daytime ambush of an armored car along Ventura Boulevard in Encino, a guard was shot as two suspects sped away with an undetermined amount of money.

HOW IT HAPPENED

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1) Suspects wait across the street from the bank for the armored carrier to arrive.

2) Once the carrier arrives, one suspect crosses Ventura Boulevard, shoots a guard and grabs the bags of money.

3) The other suspect swings the getaway car around, picks up the first suspect and speeds away with the loot.


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