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Bank robbers use bomb to coerce East L.A. bank manager

A bank manager said she was leaving her Huntington Park home for work Wednesday morning when two masked men snatched her in her garage.

They strapped what they told her was an explosive device to her chest and instructed her to drive to her bank and give them money.

Authorities said the manager complied, taking a bag filled with cash to the back of the bank, where the robbers grabbed it and sped away in a car.

In an area known for some bizarre bank robberies, what happened at the East L.A. Bank of America branch is quickly taking on a mythology of its own. The robbers avoided being seen on bank video cameras and as of Wednesday evening were still at large with what officials said was a large sum of money.

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The bank manager was unharmed. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad detonated the device, which law enforcement sources said did not appear to be an active bomb.

The FBI and local police interviewed the manager at length Wednesday but have released few details about what exactly happened. Initially, officials said she had been kidnapped Tuesday night.

Her name has not been released, but a TV news helicopter camera captured her talking to officers in the back of a patrol car.

It’s unclear how the robbers came to target her. Sources said it is possible they had been following her from the bank.

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The manager entered the bank just after 8:30 a.m., shortly before it was supposed to open for business. She informed her colleagues inside about the device, and she collected the money.

“She followed instructions to throw the money out the bank’s back doors,” Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker said. The two robbers then fled.

Moments later, the bank alerted the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station. An arson and explosives team arrived and carefully pried the device off the bank manager and took it outside, Parker said.

A bomb squad robot rolled onto Atlantic Boulevard in front of the bank and inspected the device. Then a bomb squad specialist in full protective gear surrounded it with sandbags.

Several hundred people in the area were evacuated Wednesday morning.

Robert Lopez said he was at the unemployment office, a block and a half from the bank branch, for an appointment when officials announced about 9:30 a.m. that the office was being evacuated

“There is a bomb. There is a bomb; we’ve got to get out,” he said.

Kidnapping a bank manager to rob a bank is rare, but even more unusual is the use of a bomb, current and former bank robbery investigators said.

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William J. Rehder, a retired FBI special agent who spent decades investigating bank robberies, said he recalled several similar robberies in the 1970s and 1980s but not many in recent years.

“We had an incident where they forced the person to take the money then drove them around downtown [Los Angeles] and dumped them out of the car telling them the device was still live,” he said, adding that the device was not armed.

The only case Rehder recalls in which a device turned out to be real was a 2003 robbery in Erie, Pa., where a man robbed a bank with a collar bomb that blew up. In the 2011 movie “30 Minutes or Less,” a pizza deliveryman played by Jesse Eisenberg is forced to rob a bank by two men who strap a bomb to him.

Rehder and federal law enforcement sources said that bank manager kidnappings in robberies were more common decades ago.

Rehder said the usual mode of operation was to break into the home of a bank official and hold the person’s family hostage while forcing the manager to hand over money from the bank. In these cases, he said, managers would take the money out of the vault out of fear for the safety of their families.

richard.winton@latimes.com

sam.quinones@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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