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Kin, Friends Mourn Victim--Who Just Sought Security

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In one of life’s bitter ironies, Monica Lynne Leech accepted a teller’s job just two months ago at Western Financial Bank seeking security--both job security and personal security.

Shuttled from bank to bank, branch to branch, and weary of violence in the Oxnard area, Leech migrated to one of the nation’s safest cities when her First Interstate branch changed hands earlier this year.

By Feb. 20, the kindhearted mother of two was helping customers in the Western Financial Plaza on Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

There, the 39-year-old teller was killed execution-style Monday morning during a takeover holdup in which two gunmen stormed the sleepy branch. While Leech knelt handcuffed on the bank floor, one raised a handgun to the back of her head and fired.

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Pleading Tuesday for the robbers to surrender, Monica Leech’s mother, Elaine Cavaletto, sobbed.

“If they have any ounce of compassion, if they have any, any feeling, turn yourselves in.”

Despite the heinousness of the crime, widower Floyd Leech said he harbors no thirst for revenge.

“It’s important that they get caught,” the mourning man said. “The act is done. All it is, is justice. . . . I’m still trying to figure out what that is.”

Through business mergers and divestments, Leech had bounced around banks in Port Hueneme and Oxnard for 15 years--from Bank of A. Levy to First Interstate to Home Savings of America to Western Financial.

The instability of the business frustrated Leech, but at the small and cozy Western Financial branch, “she finally found some peace in banking,” said her 62-year-old mother, who works as an assistant vice president at Citizen’s State Bank in Santa Paula.

When the job came open in Thousand Oaks, friends and family urged Leech to swap the tough environment of Oxnard for the serenity of the Conejo Valley. Floyd Leech took pains to make the longer commute secure for her, recalled Jim Piraino, Floyd’s friend and boss.

“He bought a new [Ford Contour] for her to get safely up and down the [Conejo] Grade every day,” said Piraino, owner of Camarillo Car Care, where the 44-year-old Leech has worked for eight years as service manager. “And then he bought her a cell phone for additional safety.”

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But no precaution could have shielded Monica Leech, who has lived most of her life in Camarillo, from the chilling takeover robbery, experts say. A day after the slaying, tremors of shock reverberated across Thousand Oaks, affecting parents and children, business owners and churchgoers.

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Monica’s children from her first marriage--Stephanie Mince, 10, and Andy Mince, 13--attended school as usual Tuesday. Family members said the children--who are staying with Monica’s parents in Somis for the time being--wanted to be surrounded by their friends.

Traci Fenimore, the children’s youth pastor at Camarillo Church of the Nazarene, said she is worried about them, particularly Stephanie, who is taking her mother’s death hard.

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“ ‘I’m too young not to have a mom,’ ” Stephanie told Fenimore. “She doesn’t understand why her grandma’s mother is still alive but hers isn’t. Old people are supposed to die, not young.”

Other family members, meanwhile, are grieving in their own ways. While Floyd Leech appears calm, Elaine Cavaletto is emotional and demonstrative, talking through the ordeal. Al Cavaletto, Monica’s father, has been handling his pain quietly, concerning himself with the grandchildren’s well-being.

At the bank where the mahogany-haired Leech worked, the lights were off Tuesday. The large plate-glass windows bore two new signs: “No solicitors” and “Temporarily closed.” Inside, the hanging “Today is” calendar was frozen in time, reading April 28, the day of the tragedy.

On the sidewalk outside the redwood-and-brick building, residents delivered bouquet after bouquet of flowers--chrysanthemums and gerbera daisies, home-grown roses wrapped in aluminum foil and store-bought arrangements with baby’s breath peeking out of green tissue. Some cards read “Monica” in script. Others were addressed to Western Financial Bank.

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Fighting tears, Thousand Oaks resident Colleen O’Beirne and a friend lighted yellow candles at the bank in Leech’s honor. “It’s a senseless act,” she said, holding her 9-month-old close. “These people stole graduations and birthdays and everything from her children. There’s no place safe anymore.”

A cleaning woman in yellow rubber pants scurried between her car and the bank branch, carrying plastic bottles of bleach and ammonia.

The bank is scheduled to reopen Thursday at 9 a.m. A security director at the bank said an armed guard will stand sentry at the branch for an undetermined period of time.

“We closed the office in deference to the staff and their mental state, to allow for healing,” said Mike Johnson, Western Financial’s executive vice president in charge of administration.

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“Our security department is reviewing the situation. At this juncture, we believe our security measures were more than adequate. . . . The security guard is as much for the employees’ [mental] well-being as anything else.”

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Security experts agree with Johnson, saying that some bank robberies can be averted but that “dedicated killers” are impossible to deter.

“In a robbery, the best thing to make sure you don’t get hurt is to do whatever they tell you,” said Dennis Byerly, the Ventura County branch manager for American Protective Services, which employs 15,000 security guards nationwide. “But that’s what this lady did. The dedicated killers, there’s no way of stopping them.”

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Western Financial is providing counseling services for the two surviving tellers and the bank manager, Johnson said. Company officials are visiting other branches to soothe employees. An 800 number is available for any of the firm’s 2,800 employees to speak to counselors, he said.

At a meeting Tuesday, Western Financial’s board of directors voted to have the bank contribute $100,000 to create the Monica Leech Memorial Fund, to benefit her family. The company will also add to the growing reward for information about the robbers.

In nearly every corner of Ventura County, people were offering to help the Leech family. At least two other memorial funds have been established. Strangers and friends alike are bringing food and offering to grocery shop. Nazarene church members in Camarillo and Ventura offered prayers.

At Floyd Leech’s workplace, the phone rang constantly with calls from concerned customers. A customer from Virginia called to offer help after reading an article about the tragedy on the Internet.

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People who knew the Leeches said they were a well-matched pair, friendly and Christian.

Married for seven years, the two met at church about a decade ago, not long after Floyd’s first wife died of a heart attack.

Floyd never swears or loses his temper, and he is an avid computer user, friends say. Monica taught her children manners and always knew what was going on at their school and at the Camarillo Boys & Girls Club, where Andy was recently selected boy of the year.

“Monica had an innocence about her--she was a wonderful woman and a good wife,” Piraino said. “You know how you can tell when two people are one? Well, that’s Floyd and Monica.”

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At Camarillo Church of the Nazarene, where the Leeches worshiped, congregation members offered “the ministry of presence rather than a ministry of words,” said Pastor Bob Hislar.

Churchgoers are not immune to the eternal question “Why?” he said. “But in the midst of it all, our faith has to keep us together.”

A 24-hour prayer group for the family has been formed at the Ventura Nazarene church, said Pastor Don Hull. In half-hour increments, church members have volunteered to pray for the family around the clock.

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Within the hallways of Camarillo’s Las Colinas School, Principal Robert Donahue said Monica’s children, who are good students, will be surrounded by love.

“We want to make it as comfortable and normal for them as possible [as] they return,” Donahue said. “The school will hopefully be an anchor and help them get through some of this.”

The school’s teachers, parents and counselors have pulled together to help the Minces and other youngsters make sense of death. Trying to understand what occurred, fourth- through eighth-grade children have been asking some adult questions: Why do senseless acts of violence occur? What does “execution” mean? How can they comfort classmates Stephanie and Andy?

Clearly still in shock, Floyd Leech appears to be asking some of the same questions. He finds his solace in faith.

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“Family helps. Church family helps. Friends I’ve had down through the years help. [But] it doesn’t take the pain away.”

Folmar is a Times staff writer. Arevalo and Hobbs are correspondents. Photographer Spencer Weiner also contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

How It Happened

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When the deadly robbery at Western Financial Bank in Thousand Oaks occurred on Monday morning, only four employees were present, one man and three women. The robbers, who killed teller Monica Lynne Leech, are still at large.

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1. At 10:15 a.m., two men with nylon stockings over their heads enter front door,wwaving handguns and yelling to the employees that the bank is being robbed.

2. Robbers grab male employee, pulling his arms behind his back and pushing him into center of bank lobby. Robbers handcuff two employees, including Moncia Lynne Leech.

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3. One robber jumps over teller counter, emptying teller cash drawers into a bag.

4. Robbers push employees into room that holds a safe and order one employee to empty cash from safe into bag.

5. Employees are ordered to kneel, and Leech is shot in the back of the head.

6. Robbers run out front door to their car, which is parked a block away.

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Source: Ventura County Sheriff’s Department

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Memorials

* A viewing of Monica Lynne Leech is scheduled between 6 and 8 p.m. Thursday at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park, 2052 Howard Road, Camarillo. A memorial service is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday at Camarillo Church of the Nazarene, 2280 Antonio Ave., Camarillo. A private interment will be held later that afternoon.

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* At a board of directors meeting Tuesday, Western Financial Bank contributed $100,000 to set up a memorial fund at the Thousand Oaks branch where a teller and mother of two was killed during a heist. Donations, which will benefit the teller’s family, may be sent to the Monica Leech Memorial Fund, c/o Western Financial Bank, 2920 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks 91360. Donations will be accepted at other Western Financial branches as well.

* Home Savings of America Bank in Oxnard, which owns the branch where Monica Leech once worked, set up a memorial fund because her benefits had not yet started at her new job. People interested in contributing to this fund can make a deposit at any Home Savings of America Bank in Ventura County.


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