Four victims of a takeover-style bank robbery in the city of Orange have testified how they feared for their lives when three suspects burst into the Citibank and forced their way into a vault for the biggest heist in the country in 2008.
Ronnie Joseph Johnson, 46, is on trial on charges of armed robbery, aiding and abetting and using a firearm during the robbery in connection with an Oct. 15, 2008 heist at a Citibank branch at 2090 S. Tustin St., in Orange. Bank manager Scott Chapman testified that the crooks got away with $144,000.
Co-defendant Darrell Lamont Weisner, who is expected to testify for the prosecution, has been sentenced to four years in the case. Co-defendant Demetrius Roshan Holton has been sentenced to 144 months in federal prison.
Customer Debra Lips recounted how she went to the bank that morning to make a deposit and then found herself praying at gunpoint.
“I took $2,000 out of my wallet and set it on a desk and was working with a bank employee,” Lips testified Tuesday. “The next thing I know I saw a hand reach out and grab the $2,000.”
A gun-toting robber in a hoodie ordered the woman to the floor, she testified.
“Then he said, `Go to the back’ and I crouched down behind a little table,” she testified. “I thought that could be it. I was terrified. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer several times out loud.”
Then UPS driver Oscar Silva showed up and was also ordered to lie down on the floor.
“I kept praying because I thought that could be the end of me,” Lips said.
Lips testified she does her banking online or at an ATM now.
“I avoid it at all costs,” she said of trips to the bank.
Silva testified that he walked into the bank mid-robbery to deliver a letter. He saw a car running outside with no one in it.
Silva said one of the robbers ordered him at gunpoint to the floor, but the thief did not like that the UPS driver was blocking the front door.
“I got kicked in the legs and once in the ribs,” as the robber told Silva to move, he testified.
“I literally thought, `Would I make it?”‘ Silva testified.
He added that he also wondered, “Who would take care of my family?”
Chapman said his co-worker, teller Marilyn Palomino, had picked up a caramel apple cider for him when she went to Starbucks and he was about to enjoy his drink when the robbers burst in about 9:30 a.m.
One of the gun-brandishing robbers was “yelling, `Don’t push any buttons, this is a robbery,”‘ Chapman testified.
The bank manager said he was trained to go along with the demands of the robbers, so he fetched some keys to open drawers in the vault as demanded. The way security works, each employee has a separate key that is necessary to open locks, so the process became too time-consuming for the robbers at one point, Chapman said.
“I was thinking, `Oh (expletive),”‘ Chapman testified. “I was really scared because I never had a gun pointed at me. I just thought I have to get them out of here as soon as possible.”
They threatened to kill Chapman when they felt he was taking too long, he testified. That prompted the bank manager to offer them the keys if they felt it would go more quickly, he said.
Chapman and Palomino testified that one of the men remarked he was in a hurry because he had to pick up his children.
They stuffed the loot into a black pillowcase and when it became clear it would take too long to open up other drawers in the vault the three fled, Chapman testified.
Johnson, who prosecutors say has a penchant for $2 bills, got away with $76 in the bills featuring Thomas Jefferson, Chapman testified.
Johnson’s attorney, Hemant “Shashi” Kewalramani, challenged Chapman on his testimony that he saw a man apparently casing the bank about a week before the heist.
“You didn’t mention that until two months ago,” Kewalramani asked.
Chapman replied that he told bank security right away and recalled advising police of the suspicious activity as well.
Palomino, who now works as a California Highway Patrol dispatcher, recounted how she saw the robbers advance on the bank.
“I noticed the speed — they were running,” Palomino testified.
One of the men leaped over a part of the teller windows that was lower to accommodate disabled customers, she testified.
The robbers repeatedly said, “We’re not playing, we want the big money,” she testified.
Under cross-examination from Kewalramani, Palomino said she has always been “upfront” with authorities that she could not provide a detailed description of the robbers and that she thought they were in their mid-20s.
Retired Orange County sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Torres began testimony Tuesday about recorded phone calls between Johnson and others.
Jurors will not hear specifics about what led authorities to serve a search warrant that helped them recover what prosecutors say was a gun used in the Citibank robbery. The search warrant was part of an investigation into whether Johnson had attempted to contract the killings of Torres, FBI Special Agent Chris Gicking and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph McNally, according to court papers in the case.
Jurors will hear DNA evidence that they say links Johnson to a July 18, 2008, robbery of a California Bank and Trust in La Palma. Torres was also expected to testify about Johnson’s arrest in connection with a January 2008 robbery of Downey Savings and Loan in Costa Mesa.
Johnson was previously convicted of bank robbery in another case, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed it in part due to the trial judge interrupting his defense attorney more than 70 times while doing the same to prosecutors just once.
In the Jan. 22, 2008 robbery of Downey Savings and Loan in Costa Mesa, the thieves got away with more than $120,000, according to trial records. A 45- mile pursuit followed the robbery that concluded with the getaway car slamming into a tree at a Los Angeles shopping mall.
–City News Service
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