3 Bank Robbery Suspects Caught After Freeway Chase
Two armed robbers stormed a Wells Fargo Bank on Wednesday morning, pistol-whipping a teller and fleeing with thousands in cash before police arrested them and their alleged getaway driver after a high-speed chase on the rain-drenched Ventura Freeway, authorities said.
All three men arrested are also suspects in a similar takeover robbery at a Bank of America in Thousand Oaks on Feb. 11, authorities said.
“It’s the same M.O. as in the Bank of America robbery,” said Senior Deputy Harold Hanley, noting that both were takeover robberies involving men wearing black ski masks.
Five customers and 15 employees were in the Wells Fargo Bank on East Thousand Oaks Boulevard about 10:20 a.m. when two large men dressed in black and wearing ski masks burst into the lobby and ordered everyone to drop to the floor.
“The people in line just scattered,” said witness Tom Skinner of Thousand Oaks. “They just started yelling, ‘Keep your eyes closed!’ For a long time, I could just hear them moving around and yelling at people.”
At least one of the robbers jumped behind the counter and dragged a teller to a small safe, ordering him to open it, authorities said. When the clerk couldn’t open it, the robber hit the teller in the head with the butt of his gun and repeatedly kicked him as he fell to the ground, said Senior Deputy Ed Tumbleson. Another teller opened the safe for the robbers, Tumbleson said.
Terrified customers fought to stay calm as they sat on the cold floor listening to the robbers bark out orders.
“They were yelling and hollering and carrying huge guns,” said customer Rita Eitelbach of Thousand Oaks. “Mean guns. I just hit the floor and prayed.”
Skinner said, “I wasn’t even thinking about looking around. I just thought, stay calm and don’t move, and they’ll go away.”
A woman next to him cried and prayed.
“I just said, ‘It’s OK. We’ll get through this,’ ” Skinner said.
Customers leaving the bank as the robbers entered called police, who arrived during the robbery.
From outside, deputies saw one suspect hop the bank counter, but waited for backup because they could see the robbers were armed, authorities said.
After a few minutes, both suspects ran from the bank and jumped into a silver Mercury Cougar.
Authorities pursued the men to Auburn Court, where they lost sight of them. Deputies in a nearby DARE van, however, heard the emergency call and spotted the suspects on Auburn Court as they drove away in a burgundy Lincoln Navigator, having abandoned the Cougar with the engine still running.
Heading west on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, the Navigator reached speeds of 80 mph in an effort to lose authorities.
The suspects entered the Ventura Freeway at Rancho Road and drove north to Ventura, followed by California Highway Patrol officer and a Sheriff’s Department helicopter.
At the California 126 interchange, officers placed a spike strip across the freeway that punctured the Navigator’s front tires. The sport-utility vehicle continued to California Street, where it crashed into a center divider.
Two suspects dashed across southbound lanes toward the promenade of the Holiday Inn, where they were caught by Ventura police officers.
A third man stayed in the car and was also arrested, authorities said.
The FBI is assisting the Sheriff’s Department in the robbery investigation and identification of the suspects.
Tumbleson said at least one man gave authorities a fake ID. Detectives will use fingerprint records to identify the men, he said.
At the bank, authorities spent much of the morning interviewing witnesses. Shaken customers filed out of the bank around noon. “I love being alive,” said Eitelbach, after being questioned by FBI agents.
The bank robbery was Thousand Oaks’ third in less than two weeks.
On Friday, a week after the Bank of America robbery, a man held up Hawthorne Savings on Westlake Boulevard. Police don’t think it is connected because the red-haired robber does not fit the description of the men in the other holdups. Authorities also believe he was working alone.
Investigators say Thousand Oaks is a frequent target for bank robbers because of its easy access to the freeway.
“The freeway through our community makes it a quick getaway for them,” Hanley said. “But we know that, so after a robbery we usually put out a call to stake out nearby onramps and offramps. We’ve caught them several times trying to get back on the freeway to get out of the area.”
Hanley added that with Los Angeles so close, it’s easy for some of their robbers to spill into Thousand Oaks. Los Angeles County has, at times, been the bank robbery capital of the nation.
“A lot of times they don’t want to do their dirty work in their own backyard,” Hanley said. “So they come here and then run home.”
CARLOS CHAVEZ / Los Angeles Times
CARLOS JON CHAVEZ / Times Community News
STEVE OSMAN / Los Angeles Times
BRYAN CHAN / Los Angeles Times