When I drove into the parking lot about 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, it could have been any day in the life of Cambria’s Rabobank branch.
But things were far from normal.
I was almost a witness to an armed bank robbery.
I’m told if I’d been a few seconds earlier, I’d probably have been face to face with a masked man with a gun who left the bank, got into a silver or gray car (perhaps a Hyundai), then drove away with what one witness described to me later as a “bagful of money.”
I was taking a couple of vacation days to visit with my aunt from North Carolina. I went to do some errands, including cashing a check at Rabobank.
Talk about timing.
As I waited at the red light at Pineknolls Drive, my cell phone rang. I never, ever answer my phone while driving. But I was stopped, so I checked to see who was calling.
It was my editor, Bert Etling. He said, “There’s a robbery happening at Rabobank.”
“I’m pulling into the bank now,” I told him. He asked me to park somewhere out of the way and get my camera out.
I drove in past an AT&T truck and trailer parked at the top of the driveway, then pulled into the middle of the lot and began shooting pictures from inside the car. My senses were sharpened, and there were flutters in my stomach.
Because I knew what had happened or was still happening, the scene seemed eerily, spookily calm. There was none of the usual chatter and camaraderie, friends talking to friends, that happens any time more than one Cambrian is somewhere.
I looked around. There were few other cars in the lot, someone was at the drive-up window, and a young man was standing by the ATM, talking on his cell phone.
Signs were being taped on the bank’s front door: “We are temporarily closed due to an emergency. We apologize for the inconvenience and will reopen as soon as possible.” Someone locked the bank doors.
I got out of my car and started asking (and answering) questions. People drove in to do their banking, but couldn’t.
Both witnesses I was able to interview described the robber as wearing what appeared to be a Halloween mask, but not one that looked like a gorilla, ghost or cartoon character.
“It looked like a face,” said Patty Fox, a lovely lady with shoulder-length silver-blond hair whom nearly everybody in town knows from her check-out post at Cookie Crock Market.
She said she opened the door to go into the bank, and held it open for someone going out. Then she saw that he was wearing a mask, a hoodie and baggy clothes that, between them, covered his entire body. He was holding a bag.
“He looked right at me,” she said, adding that it seemed to her the man felt as if he knew her. However, he didn’t say anything, which felt odd, she said.
Fox went into the bank, where employee Mike Bacciarini, whom Fox described as calmly efficient, told her what had happened and went to lock the doors, but she said she couldn’t stay because she had dogs in her car. He let her out and then locked the doors.
The first lawmen on the scene walked rapidly around the bank perimeter. I stood very still, identifying myself as they walked up. Because they obviously had urgent business to do, they swept on past me to check the bank entrance.
About a dozen more lawmen and women converged on the bank and its parking lot, securing the scene, scoping out the situation, interviewing witnesses inside and outside the bank, stringing yellow crime-scene tape across the entrances, telling shocked customers that the bank was closed and gathering as a law-enforcement group to plot out their plan for finding and apprehending the robber.
The witness with the cell phone, who didn’t want to be identified, told me he’d gotten a clear view of the robber, but because of the disguise, couldn’t see the man inside the get-up.
Another deputy whisked the witness away to a far corner of the parking lot, and soon thereafter, other lawmen asked me to move back, then to the top of the hill. I drove back to the newspaper office.
The next day, based on information I shared with detectives, they said I’d probably missed interacting with the robber by about 30 seconds.
I never did get to cash my check.