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‘The sheer violence of it’: How updates in DNA technology may solve SoCal bank teller’s 1997 slaying

Man behind closed door at bank
Fingerprint dust from the police investigation was still on the door the day after a fatal Thousand Oaks bank robbery in 1997.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s June 17. I’m Justin Ray.

Monica Lynne Leech of Camarillo was a mother of two whose 1997 murder absolutely stunned and saddened her co-workers and family. Her husband, Floyd Leech, often left the counter at the auto shop where he worked to sob in the back room. “We did pretty much everything together,” Floyd Leech told the Los Angeles Times the year after her death. “People don’t understand how big the hurt is.” Her funeral was attended by 400 people.

She had been a teller for 20 years but had worked at Western Financial Bank in Thousand Oaks for only two months before a fatal robbery. She had transferred to the bank specifically because her friends and family convinced her it was a safer area than the one at her previous job in the Oxnard area. Her husband had purchased a car and a cellphone for her to make sure she would be safe.

This month, authorities gave an update on the case, including how developments in DNA technology may finally help solve Leech’s slaying. A $30,000 reward is being offered for information.

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The crime took place at 10:15 a.m. on April 28, 1997. Two armed men dressed in thigh-length jackets, yellow hard hats and nylon masks stormed the bank. They berated the four bank employees and forced them into a small room on the side of the bank, ordered them to the floor and handcuffed them, The Times previously reported.

Then, for no known reason, one of the suspects shot Leech in the back of her head, execution style, even as he handcuffed her.

Because the other employees had been looking straight ahead, no one saw what occurred. They realized Leech had been shot only when she slumped to the floor. Former bank manager DeeDee Smith told us in 1998 it was at that moment she heard a teller gasp: “Oh God, oh God.”

“Why Monica? That’s one of the things that’s so hard to deal with. Why in the world did they do that?” Smith told us in 1998. “It was the violence — just the sheer violence of it.”

People hold a photo
Al and Elaine Cavaletto hold a picture of daughter Monica Leech’s high school graduation photo.
(Los Angeles Times)

The motivation also eludes the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, which noted in a recent statement` that Leech had obeyed the robbers’ orders and did not physically resist.

The two men made off with about $9,000 and left the bank in a white 1994 Ford Explorer. They were involved in a traffic collision shortly after the robbery. The vehicle, which was painted a different color after the crime, was eventually located and seized by investigators, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Now about that renewed hope of a resolution.

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“New evidence, along with new technology now available to process existing evidence, have bolstered optimism that a suspect will be located, arrested and prosecuted,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. “Forensic science has advanced to the point that extremely small traces of DNA can be amplified for analysis. That means transfer DNA on the handcuffs and other items is being examined using new technology to develop a DNA profile.”

“We know the men responsible for this crime are still out there,” Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said in a statement. “There are people close to them who know exactly what they did, and the right piece of information can be the break we need in this case.”

The FBI is offering $30,000 to the person or people who are able to provide information leading to the suspects responsible for Leech’s killing.

Authorities released two sketches of the suspects based on witness descriptions at the time of the robbery and the traffic collision. Ventura County Crime Stoppers will also pay up to a $1,000 reward for information. The caller may remain anonymous, and the conversation will not be recorded, authorities said. Call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-TIPS (8477). Anyone with information about the suspects is asked to contact Det. Aaron Grass at (805) 384-4726.

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More details about the case can be found here.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

LAPD critic’s son killed in drive-by. For the last year, a man walked the streets of L.A. documenting crime scenes and police work, filing complaints about what he viewed as abuses by officers. Late Tuesday, a Twitter account he operates revealed that his son had been shot. Police said the 22-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

VP launches campaign for voting rights. Vice President Kamala Harris launched her campaign to advance voting rights by meeting with 16 fellow Democrats from Texas who were able to block a bill in the state Legislature that would restrict voting options — particularly, they say, for Black and Latino Texans. “What we are seeing are examples of an attempt to interfere with that right, an attempt to marginalize and take from people a right that has already been given,” Harris said. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Weinstein to be extradited. Harvey Weinstein will soon be extradited to California to stand trial on charges that he sexually assaulted five women in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, following a ruling by a New York judge. Weinstein and his legal team had been fighting L.A. County prosecutors’ attempts to bring him to SoCal. But Erie County Court Judge Kenneth Case ruled that local authorities could claim custody of Weinstein, setting the stage for a second trial. Los Angeles Times

GirlsDoPorn actor sentenced. An adult-film actor tied to a San Diego company was sentenced to 20 years in prison after authorities said he duped and coerced women into making pornography. In December, Ruben Andre Garcia, 31, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, coercion and fraud. U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino said Garcia was “without question” one of the leaders behind a scheme she described as malicious and callous. Defense lawyer Jan Ronis said Garcia apologized in court, saying he “doesn’t know how he lost his moral compass.” San Diego Union-Tribune

Security guard killed. A beloved security guard was killed in a hit-and-run in Long Beach. Police say Derrick Smith, 54, of Los Angeles was working at an apartment complex when a car plowed into his work station. “Everyone here loves him,” said a resident. “We have 80 units in this one building. He knows every single tenant. And I’ll tell you, he’s here rain or shine. He’s going to be greatly missed.” CBS Los Angeles

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Why California is No. 1. A year ago, some economists and journalists said California would fall amid the pandemic. But Matthew Winkler, editor-in-chief emeritus of Bloomberg News, says, “The Golden State has no peers when it comes to expanding GDP, raising household income, investing in innovation and a host of other key metrics.” Winkler says the state’s GDP from manufacturing gained 13% over the last five years and it’s the “undisputed leader in renewable energy.” Plus, the state added 1.3 million people to its non-farm payroll since April 2020 — equivalent to the entire workforce of Nevada. Bloomberg

San Francisco skyline is shown
An image of the downtown San Francisco skyline earlier this year.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Millions given to California groups. MacKenzie Scott — a philanthropist and former wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — announced she and her husband were giving $2.7 billion to 286 organizations. More than three dozen of the recipients in Scott’s latest round of giving are California community colleges and universities, arts organizations and nonprofits that work for social justice. Los Angeles Times

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The San Francisco Chronicle unveils a series highlighting Black visionaries. Bay Area elders sat down with young journalists of color to discuss their life experiences and to reflect on being a Black person in America. Hear from a broadcast icon, a civil rights lawyer, a sports sociologist and more. San Francisco Chronicle

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Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Sunny, 89. San Diego: Overcast, 77. San Francisco: Overcast, 77. San Jose: Sunny, 94. Fresno: Sunny, 109. Sacramento: Sunny, 110.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Jerry Persky:

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My friend and I hitchhiked from Ohio to California in the summer of 1970 and shared a van with five others as we traveled down PCH through Big Sur to L.A. The smog was terrible as we drove through L.A. (At least we thought it was L.A.) We ended up in Riverside and hung out with our new friends. The next morning we were awakened by our first California earthquake. It was quite a California vacation.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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