In-Store Banks See More Robberies in California's Bay Area

As more and more banks are located inside groceries, security departments face new challenges


Bank branches inside Bay Area supermarkets have been targeted in a string of robberies this month -- including two cases over the weekend, one of which left a police officer in critical condition.

The trend is raising questions about whether convenient in-store banking has made things a little too convenient for bank robbers.

The recent cases in Santa Cruz County and Pittsburg are putting robberies of in-store banks on law enforcement's radar, said San Jose police Sgt. Nick Muyo.

"It's not a standard banking institution with X number of tellers and X number of security guards," he said, noting the apparent differences in security at in-store banks.

As shoppers pushed their carts past the Wells Fargo branch inside the Safeway at Midtown in San Jose on Sunday, there was no security guard or surveillance camera visible.

But a Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank takes security as seriously at a branch inside a supermarket as at a traditional branch.

"We treat them just the same," said Chris Hammond, while declining to comment on specific security measures.

Wells Fargo, according to its Web site, has 16 San Jose-area in-store branches, including one in Newark and one in Redwood City. Bank of America also offers in-store banking services, including branches at nine Albertsons stores in San Jose. Efforts to reach Bank of America representatives were unsuccessful Sunday.

Authorities in Santa Cruz County, meanwhile, renewed pleas for the public's help in catching a female serial bank robber whose sights are apparently set on bank offices inside grocery stores.

The woman, described as white, in her 30s to 40s, 5 feet 5, 130 pounds, with strawberry-blond hair, struck again Saturday, robbing a Wells Fargo branch inside a Scotts Valley Safeway. She is believed to be the same woman who robbed another branch inside a Raley's supermarket in Felton on April 8, and authorities say she is suspected in several other robberies of in-store banks.

In the East Bay, an armed robbery Saturday of a bank branch inside a Raley's in Pittsburg left a police officer in critical condition. Two male suspects were in custody for allegedly shooting Officer Larry Lasater, 36.

The robbery at the Raley's in Pittsburg occurred about 6 p.m. Armed with handguns, one male robbed a grocery-checkout cashier while the other forced cash from a teller at the Wells Fargo bank window inside the store, Pittsburg Police Dept. Capt. William Zbacnik said.

The two then fled. Because of numerous calls from those who saw the fleeing robbers, police were able to set up a perimeter, Zbacnik said. According to witnesses, Lasater was shot after confronting the pair on a nearby walking trail.

Zbacnik said he has seen no increase in robberies of bank branches located in Pittsburg supermarkets.

"I think the last one was probably three years ago," Zbacnik said.

Zbacnik also said that he's not convinced bank branches inside supermarkets are easier targets than traditional bank branches. Banks have video surveillance in either type of branch, and supermarkets typically install their own surveillance as well, he said.

He also said that in either case, robbers must deal with a potentially large number of eyewitnesses.

"There's a lot of people around," Zbacnik said.

Benny and Nina Garcia regularly patronize the Midtown Safeway and on occasion have used the ATMs there, though they haven't ever used the branch's teller services. The San Jose couple said they were surprised to learn that in-store branches elsewhere had been robbed.

"It's pretty risky, pretty bold, to do something like that," Benny Garcia said of the robberies.