Published September 27, 2002
MADISON, Neb. – The five people killed in a Nebraska bank robbery were all shot in the head within 40 seconds, a police captain told a judge Friday in a bond hearing for four men charged with multiple counts of murder.
One of the suspects, Erick Fernando Vela, told investigators that "it went to hell in the bank," Norfolk Police Captain Steve Hecker said.
According to Hecker, one of the suspects cased the inside of the bank, then walked out and used a walkie-talkie to relay the location of the employees to the others, who started shooting as soon as they stormed in.
The first person gunned down was a customer, Evonne Tuttle, 37, who was standing at a teller's counter. Then, Hecker said, one of the gunmen immediately jumped over the counter. Within 40 seconds, four bank employees were also dead.
Another customer was wounded in the shoulder by gunfire, while two employees were unharmed.
Hecker's testimony was based on what he saw on the bank's security surveillance tape. He said the only killing seen on the tape was that of the customer.
He said the suspects indicated that they had been planning the robbery for at least two weeks and that they had cased the bank on several occasions to try to determine money drops and the number of employees at certain times of the day.
The alleged killers -- Vela, 21, Jose Sandoval, 23, Jorge Galindo, 21, and Gabriel Rodriguez, 26 -- were each charged with five counts of first-degree murder. Officials said they could face the death penalty if convicted.
All of the men have criminal records, mostly involving multiple drugs and weapons charges. Vela was charged as recently as last Friday with carrying a concealed weapon.
Madison County Judge Richard Krepela ordered the men held without bond.
The dramatic testimony came one day after the slayings at a U.S. Bank branch in nearby Norfolk touched off a manhunt across northeastern Nebraska.
About 50 people -- mostly friends of the suspects and relatives of the four bank employees and one customer who were killed -- packed the 30-seat courtroom for the bond hearing. Tuttle's college-age daughter wept in the hallway before the hearing.
Hecker said the suspects planned to steal the vehicle of one of the victims. Instead, police say, the three gunmen ran away and stole a car at gunpoint from an elderly couple after breaking into their home. Witnesses outside the bank said the suspects were wearing stocking caps, possibly ski masks, and dark, baggy clothes.
Investigators believe Rodriguez had been posted outside the bank in his car until the robbery went awry and he drove off, Mayor Gordon D. Adams said.
"He must have been the getaway driver, and had a change of heart when he heard the gunshots," Adams said.
The employees killed were Lola Elwood, 43, Jo Mausbach, 42, Lisa Bryant, 29, and Samuel Sun, 50.
The three alleged gunmen were caught three hours after the killings in a stolen pickup truck after stopping at a gas station 75 miles away. Rodriguez, the alleged scout, was arrested late Thursday.
No money was recovered on the men or along their suspected escape route, Norfolk Police Chief Bill Mizner said. An audit was being done at the bank to see if any money was missing.
Three handguns were found along a road between Ewing and Clearwater, the route police believe the suspects used to escape. Mizner said investigators had not yet determined if the weapons were used in the crime.
Sandoval and Rodriguez spent time in prison for a burglary in Madison County, which includes the cities of Norfolk and Madison. Sandoval was in prison from 1995 to 2000; Rodriguez served time from 1995 to 1998. Prison records indicate he attempted to escape from work release in 1996 and 1997 while serving that sentence.
At least three of the suspects have lived in the area for years.
Galindo, Sandoval and Rodriguez attended school in Madison, Superintendent Robert Ziegler said. He said Galindo left high school in 1998, Sandoval left in 1995 during his freshman year and Rodriguez left in 1991 after eighth grade.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.