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East L.A. bank robbery investigated as possible copycat heist

September 7, 2012 | 10:53 am

East LA bank

The robbery of an East Los Angeles bank by kidnapping the manager, strapping a fake explosive device to her and forcing her to remove cash from her branch is eerily similar to a heist 12 years ago in Vista. Investigators are examining whether this week's crime is a copycat.

In the case in Vista, in San Diego County, three men are serving lengthy sentences for the crime, which in recent years has been featured on the CBS show "48 Hours."

Sources familiar with the investigation said detectives and FBI special agents working on this week's Bank of America heist are aware of the strong similarities. Those sources, who were given anonymity because the case is ongoing, cautioned that the similarity is only one of several potential leads or angles they are pursuing. 

On Thursday investigators searched the Huntington Park home of the East L.A. bank manager, who told them she was kidnapped from her home Wednesday morning as she went to get in her car about 7:30.

She said she was confronted by two robbers and forced to wear what she believed was a bomb strapped to her chest. She was ordered to drive to the bank, where she removed a significant amount of cash from the vault and tossed it in a bag outside the branch's back door.

In the November 2000 case, three masked men broke into bank manager Michelle Renee's Vista home and held her and her 7-year-old daughter at gunpoint. They strapped dynamite to Renee and forced her to remove about $360,000 from her bank branch. She was later dropped off on the street and found her daughter at home with the kidnappers gone.

In the East L.A. heist, the robbers were wearing masks, and there has been little description provided. One of them was armed with a gun, the bank manager told investigators. The suspects remained on the loose Friday.

Law enforcement sources are scouring potential surveillance video from the area between the bank manager's home and the branch on Atlantic Boulevard.

The heist is considered very unusual because of the nature of the robbery -- bank managers are rarely kidnapped, law enforcement officials said, and use of an explosive device is even rarer.

The device was later detonated at the curb and was determined to be inert, authorities said.


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-- Richard Winton

Photo: Bomb squad personnel outside a Bank of America branch in East Los Angeles on Wednesday. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times