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Hundreds Mourn Slain Teller

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nightly homework checker. An avid seamstress and needle-pointer. The confidant at a church women’s retreat. An adoring mother, wife and friend.

And the victim of a heinous crime.

Killed in a takeover-style bank robbery Monday, teller Monica Lynne Leech was all these things to her loved ones.

The 39-year-old was buried Friday, but not before family, friends, co-workers and strangers alike remembered the her and the circumstances under which she was slain.

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In the sparse, high-ceilinged Camarillo Church of the Nazarene, 400 people--many of them weeping--filled pews, folding chairs and wall space at her morning memorial service. Even as police sifted through tips in the deadly holdup of the Thousand Oaks branch of Western Financial Bank, Leech’s family and friends remembered her bubbly nature, faith in God and seemingly boundless love.

“Monica was an example of a woman who lived a real life--difficulties and successes, sorrow and laughter, work and church, family and friends,” said Traci Fenimore, associate pastor. “How better to treasure what we had in Monica than to live in the way that she modeled for us.”

As Fenimore spoke, a bank teller who witnessed the slaying sobbed on a man’s shoulder. Mothers protectively stroked their daughters’ hair. Others stared straight ahead at the wooden cross recessed in the stone wall of the altar.

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In the first pew, Leech’s family listened and mourned. There sat her teary children from a first marriage: Stephanie Mince, 10, clad in a white flowered dress, and Andy Mince, 13, his lanky frame covered by black jeans, a striped shirt and white tie. Husband Floyd sat close to Leech’s parents, Elaine and Al Cavaletto.

Sometimes choking out the words, Fenimore described Monica Leech with the words of those who knew her best.

The associate pastor read from a form Stephanie had submitted to nominate Leech as Camarillo mother of the year.

“She checks my homework every day,” Stephanie wrote. “She helps me understand things I don’t know. She cooks a lot of good food. . . . She tells me what’s right and wrong.”

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For the funeral, Andy simply wrote this: “I loved her. She was the very best mom in the whole world.”

Church members remembered how Monica and Floyd Leech, married seven years, began courting slowly after the death of Floyd’s first wife. They gravitated toward each other, from pews across church, to the same pew, to side-by-side seats. In the process, Floyd grew to love Monica and her children, who will soon move in with Jeff Mince, Monica’s first husband.

“How fun it was to watch Floyd and Monica fall in love,” one remembered. “They were so starry-eyed and out of it for a few weeks.”

Before and after the eulogy, a stream of solemn people bearing flowers stopped before Leech’s apricot, silk-lined casket. They glanced down at the woman in a flowered white dress with pearl buttons. Her mahogany hair was loose, her hands folded. Massive sprays of pastel flowers dotted the altar.

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One after one, bankers in dark suits, grandmothers in crocheted cardigans and adolescent boys twitching in their ties greeted and consoled Leech’s family. Later, amid the eucalyptus and oleander at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park, she was buried.

Leech’s slaying shocked Thousand Oaks, one of the nation’s safest cities with a population greater than 100,000, and touched people across Southern California.

In a morning holdup, two men stormed her bank branch, raided cash drawers and corralled tellers to a side room housing a safe, police say. Money in hand, one of the robbers raised a gun to the back of Leech’s head, while she knelt, handcuffed, and killed her. Police call it an unprovoked slaying.

Flooded with tips, authorities are hope they will smoke out the robbers. Although it is slow going, Sgt. Rod Mendoza said police are heartened by the massive public response and by possible links between the Thousand Oaks holdup and at least two other California heists.

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“People are calling from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, saying, ‘I saw the car here’ or ‘I saw the car there.’ ‘I know the guy.’ ‘I went to school with the guy,’ ” Mendoza said. “We’re following up on every bit of it, but it takes time.”

Continuing their “full-court press,” police are blanketing the Thousand Oaks neighborhood around the bank and enlisting volunteers to distribute fliers with descriptions of the two robbers. Police say both are 5 feet 11 and of medium build. One of the men is black or dark-skinned. The other is white.

Authorities are checking similarities between the Monday holdup and a March 29 heist in Danville, Calif., in which a teller was wounded. Also, there were “similar actions” but no injuries in a holdup south of Los Angeles, Mendoza said. He did not know specifics of the second incident.

Police fear the robbers will continue their violent holdups unless caught. They hope that $160,000 in reward money and publicity will lead to the robbers’ arrest.

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“These two guys are hiding out right now, praying that their mothers don’t turn them in,” he said. “Personally, I think that will happen.”

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Memorial Donations

* Donations, which will benefit Leech’s family, may be sent to the Monica Leech Memorial Fund, c/o Western Financial Bank, 2920 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, CA 91360. Donations will also be accepted at other Western Financial branches.

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* Home Savings of America in Oxnard, which owns the branch where Monica Leech once worked, created a memorial fund because her benefits had not yet started at her new job. People who want to contribute to this fund can do so at any Home Savings bank in Ventura County.

Anyone with information should call (800) 78-CRIME.


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