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Hunt for Bank Robber Closes Topanga Plaza

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hundreds of shoppers and employees fled--or were trapped in--Topanga Plaza on Friday as police searched stores for an escaping robber who was among four gunmen who held up a nearby bank.

But after searching the massive shopping complex with dogs, Los Angeles police officers determined that the bandit had escaped. Three other suspected bank robbers, however, were arrested, two of them in the mall.

“We’ve completed a search of the mall and it appears the suspect has gotten away,” said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Gary Patton.

Patton justified the four-hour mall closure, saying, “I’ve got an armed suspect in there and I’m not going to allow the citizens in there on a shopping spree.”

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Before officers could even set up yellow crime-scene tape to bar shoppers from entering the mall, two men were quickly arrested--one hiding in the bathroom of a hair salon and another near an escalator close to the Sears department store.

A third suspect was arrested on the roof of an apartment building at Kittridge Street and Glade Avenue in view of police and television news helicopter crews overhead.

The events began after an armed takeover-style robbery about 11 a.m. at Universal Bank on Erwin Street, in which no one was injured. Police said the four robbers left the bank in an Oldsmobile, but abandoned it minutes later after an explosive dye pack in the stolen cash--a common bank precaution to mark robbers--went off.

Officers from the West Valley station, drawn to the area by a silent alarm set off inside the bank, saw one of the men shed some of his clothing and the gang fled on foot into the crowded mall. Two customers helped pursuing officers locate two suspects, said LAPD Sgt. Vince Aguirre.

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Police said that they had recovered the car, weapons and cash and that the suspects were being held at the West Valley station. FBI spokesman John Hoos said federal investigators would try to determine whether the men were responsible for other bank robberies.

After their arrests, the three men sat staring straight ahead in three separate patrol cars while Sgt. Jeri Weinstein mapped out strategy to search the mall. By noon, police had blocked entrances to the shopping center and employees and customers streamed out.

The parking lot became the waiting ground--well-dressed salesclerks from Nordstrom and other shops mixed with shoppers and valet parkers who read newspapers. Restaurants closed. Waiters and busboys from the California Pizza Kitchen, normally packed at the lunch hour, sat at window tables, watching the activity.

Meanwhile, police guarded all doorways, some with shotguns. LAPD helicopters circled the mall continuously.

Many shoppers were shocked at the daytime drama, though most appeared to take the inconvenience in good spirits.

“I came to pick up my paycheck and take advantage of my employee discount this morning,” said Eugene Miller, who stood outside the closed Sears store.

Said Kelly Davidian, 17, of Northridge: “Only in L.A. This is the only kind of place where people would rob a bank and then run to a mall.”

But by 3 p.m., some employees who had left the mall grew weary.

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Gisela Cazadillas said she found the episode “quite upsetting.”

“He [the suspect] probably left and walked out with all the people,” Cazadillas said.

Some employees remained in their stores while police searched the 151,460-square-foot complex. Police blocked the entrances to the mall, but said they did not order shoppers to leave, that most patrons left voluntarily. Rather than evacuate all employees, police and mall security guards said they could remain as long as they shut shop gates, locked the doors and waited in back rooms, where possible.

Felicia Gordon, who works at The Limited clothing store, said she saw a man with a gun running toward the Robinsons-May department store. Police had initially thought the man was hiding in an air-conditioning duct there, but that report proved false. Officers also had thought that a woman accomplice was also hiding in the mall, but that also was false, they said.

One employee who remained but who had scant information, said, “We had to find out [what was happening] from people calling in who were watching it on TV.”

When the mall reopened at nearly 4 p.m., some shop gates remained closed and the mall was nearly deserted. The food court was empty save for hungry shop employees who lined up at the Dairy Queen, one of the first to reopen.

Though there were no official estimates of how much money was lost due to the mall closure, Gordon said The Limited probably lost about $1,000 and at least 60 customers.

“It was exciting,” she said. “It was all drama to me.”

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