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Year Later, Teller’s Slaying Still Haunts Family, Police

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It took all of five minutes for the robbers to storm into the bank. Five minutes to snatch a few thousand dollars. And five minutes to shoot Monica Lynne Leech once in the back of the head.

A year after the 39-year-old mother of two was killed during a Thousand Oaks bank robbery, those who knew her--and many who didn’t--live with the dull ache of constant sorrow.

For them, that five-minute interval lapsed into an eternity. And the reminders of Monica are everywhere.

Too often of late, Monica’s husband, Floyd Leech, has had to retreat from the counter at the auto repair shop where he works to sob in a back room.

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Al and Elaine Cavaletto reminisce about their middle child at the oddest times--when they hear songs that mention angels, or see someone wearing peach or a flowered dress--always Monica’s favorites.

Stephanie and Andrew Mince, Monica’s 11- and 14-year-old children from her first marriage, are holding up, but they no longer see their mother’s beaming face at school assemblies, birthdays, plays and church events.

Former bank manager DeeDee Smith, who heard the single, fatal shot while huddled beneath her desk, wonders to this day if she could have done something--anything--to save her colleague and friend.

Investigators, confident they will eventually close the unsolved homicide, say the case has become intensely personal; one is deferring retirement until Leech’s killers are nabbed.

Hundreds of strangers and vague acquaintances send cards and offer hugs to the family as consolation.

“Life goes on because it has to,” Floyd Leech said during a recent interview at the 50-acre citrus and avocado ranch in Somis where Monica was raised. He toyed with the tab of his Pepsi can, then continued, “But it will never, ever be the same. It just won’t. . . . As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as closure.”

This was one woman, shot execution-style in the head during a bank robbery in broad daylight. But Monica Leech’s slaying was much more than that.

Her death plumbs the depths of everyone’s darkest fears: A woman, a mother, an innocent--who did everything possible to stay safe--could not elude death, even in one of the nation’s safest big cities.

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Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the horror. It is a date that weighs on Ventura County sheriff’s investigators.

“There’s not a day that I don’t think about this one,” Chief Deputy Bob Brooks said. “Until it’s over, I know the investigators won’t have a minute’s rest either. There should be no mistaking our determination to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to solve this thing.”

Recalling Day That Shattered Lives

Stone-cold fear wells up inside DeeDee Smith whenever she recalls that day. Which is all too often.

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Dressed in thigh-length jackets, yellow hard hats and nylon masks--two gunmen burst into Thousand Oaks’ sleepy Western Financial Bank at 10:15 a.m. Monday, April 28, 1997.

“I didn’t realize . . . they never saw me,” said Smith on Tuesday, speaking to reporters for the first time.

Berating the four employees in the bank with obscenities, the men ordered everyone to the floor. Smith complied, cowering under her desk and beyond sight of the robbers.

Overcome with fear, she nevertheless managed to push a button triggering the bank’s camera--which only captured two still photographs of the gunmen. Following bank safety procedures, Smith did not set off the alarm until the men left.

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She still wonders what might have happened had she pushed that button too.

Meanwhile, one of the gunmen jumped over the teller’s counter and subdued Leech and the other female teller, while the other robber casually grabbed the male employee sitting at a desk. The three were corralled into a small room on the side of the bank.

Smith could not see what was occurring. But she heard everything.

“The last thing I saw was Monica and [the other teller] because their window is right across from my desk,” she said.

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Investigators said Leech and the other teller were handcuffed. They opened the cash drawers and handed over the money to the robbers.

In the small room next to the safe, Leech and the other teller were ordered to their knees. The male employee stood nearby. Then, without warning or provocation, Leech was shot once in the back of the head.

The other employees were all looking straight ahead and did not see what happened. They only realized Monica was shot when she slumped on the floor, dead.

That is when Smith heard the other teller gasp, “Oh God, oh God.”

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“They did exactly what they were told,” said Smith, clutching a tissue to wipe away her tears. “Maybe they took a little longer to get things open because they were handcuffed, but they were complying. They were calm.

“Why did they do it?” she asked in frustration. “Why Monica? That’s one of the things that’s so hard to deal with. Why in the world did they do that?”

The robbers said nothing. Leaving as quickly as they arrived, the men snatched about $9,000 in a bag. The whole operation took less than five minutes.

“It was the violence--just the sheer violence of it,” Smith said with a shudder.

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That violence--that lone bullet--shattered Smith’s world and the lives of her co-workers.

Not one of them still works in a bank.

“That career is over with,” Smith said.

The shooting untethered their lives and set them adrift. Smith returned to work, but after two weeks on the job she quit, leaving a decades-long banking career. She is now looking for a job as a tour manager.

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Painful memories have kept the other female teller from work entirely. She is now a stay-at-home mom, taking extra care of her four children, Smith said.

The bank’s financial services officer--who had worked at other banks with Monica for years--has returned to school, hoping to become a special education teacher.

On Friday, the three surviving bank employees gathered to remember Monica, and they want others to remember what happened too. It is the memory that will keep the pressure on to find Leech’s killers, they say.

“If we need to, we’ll do this the rest of our lives, " Smith said. “Until the people involved are caught, we need to make sure that we tell what happened.”

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Victim’s Relatives Share the Same Goal

Gathered around an oval oak dining table for two hours in Somis, Monica’s closest relatives said they share the same goal.

While they praise investigators’ work as excellent, Monica’s family eagerly anticipates the day her killers are jailed.

“They need to be caught,” said her mother, Elaine Cavaletto. “I’d like to see them maybe given an ax and a shovel, pounding out walkways. I have a problem with them being in jail, watching TV and having the best of things.”

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Even if the robbers are caught, Monica’s family members suspect, they will never fully comprehend the damage they have done.

The terrible toll is etched on Floyd Leech’s face. He is the one who comes home every night to a house without his wife or the two children he raised as his own for seven years. Stephanie and Andrew live with their father, Jeff Mince, and his wife in Upper Ojai.

“We did pretty much everything together,” he said. “I probably was a little clingy as far as wanting to be with her all the time. . . . I’m not a person that enjoys being by myself.”

A stocky, plain-spoken man, Floyd Leech misses his wife at dinner, at church and on the weekends--for starters. His older son from a previous marriage and his family have been staying at Floyd Leech’s Camarillo home as company.

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On Tuesday, the anniversary of his wife’s death, Floyd will be with family members in the Pacific Northwest--hidden from the glare of media attention and free from the sympathetic phone calls that, while welcome, also break his heart.

“People don’t understand how big the hurt is,” he said. “How far out it goes.”

Chances are, Stephanie and Andrew Mince have a pretty good idea.

Their young lives have been tumultuous since the sunny afternoon their grandmother and step-father pulled them out of school to tell them their doting mother was gone. Gone forever.

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Soon, they moved 45 minutes away to live with their father, who they knew best from weekend visits. Stephanie and Andrew switched school systems to start sixth and eighth grades. They no longer attend the Camarillo Church of the Nazarene or its youth activities--a focal point of their lives a year ago.

Despite the obstacles, the children are resilient, their father said. Andrew is on the honor roll and is turning from a lanky adolescent to a young man. Stephanie, who has her mother’s liquid brown eyes and mahogany hair, is getting back into school work and recently attended a class trip to Catalina Island.

And they have weathered a court dispute between their father and their grandparents--who see the children every third weekend--over $47,000 raised at charity events that went into a trust fund overseen by the Cavalettos.

In the suit, Mince asked for some of that money to cover the children’s immediate expenses--counseling, furniture and the like.

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But the children’s father said he later dropped the suit.

“I didn’t want to pursue it,” said Mince, a welder. “It depicted me as something other than what I am. So we live on my salary and Social Security death survivorship benefits for the kids.”

While the money issues have been touchy, the Cavalettos declined specific comment, saying only that the issues have been worked out.

“Several times, Monica said to me, ‘Mom, promise me, if anything ever happens, you’ll take care of my kids,’ ” Elaine Cavaletto said. “That’s what we’re doing. I know [the trust fund] will be there for the kids when they need it.”

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And Mince seems to agree, saying what really matters now for him and the children is catching the killers.

“The biggest issue is my kids really want these guys caught so justice can be served,” Mince said. “They don’t want that [uncertainty] hanging over their heads. . . . It was such a senseless act that maybe arresting someone might give them the answers, might give them peace.”

No Arrests, but Case Is Progressing

The FBI agents and sheriff’s investigators working on the case want Leech’s killers brought to justice just as much as the family, Chief Brooks said.

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Although confident, Brooks recognizes the difficulty faced by his detectives.

“What makes this a difficult case is that the suspects were from out of the area and left the area immediately. They were professionals, wore disguises and left no physical evidence,” Brooks said, explaining why even after a year of work the case remains unsolved.

“But just because we haven’t made an arrest does not mean that the case isn’t progressing, because it is,” he said.

But, like the victim’s family and friends, investigators are still baffled over just why Leech was shot.

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They speculated after the shooting that she might have somehow seen one of the robbers, or that perhaps the gun went off by accident.

But not even those closest to the case know what prompted the gunman to kill Leech.

With little physical evidence, and witnesses that offered radically different descriptions of the masked gunmen, one frustrated detective said soon after the robbery that “it would take a snitch” to solve the case.

Since then, the search for Leech’s killers has led to a group of bank robbers who operate out of Los Angeles, but investigators have not yet singled out the individuals involved.

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Still, authorities hope the $170,000 reward for information leading to an arrest will draw out someone.

“The key is that the people who did this know who they are, they know who did it and there are 170,000 reasons for them to come forward,” Brooks said.

Leech’s family members have only positive things to say about sheriff’s investigators.

“They’ve been excellent. They inform us as much as we want to be informed,” Floyd Leech said. “We were told from the beginning that all we have to do is call. Pretty much, I’ve chosen not to. I figure the more time I talk to them the less time they spend doing the job. . . . . They will get these guys.”

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FYI

There is a $170,000 reward for information that leads to the prosecution of Monica Lynne Leech’s killer or killers. Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department at 654-2311.


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