Gun-brandishing youths -- ages 14, 15, and 17 -- entered a Wells Fargo branch two weeks ago in the Downey section of Los Angeles.

Within seconds, the 15-year-old gang member fired 10 bullets from a 9-millimeter automatic handgun and pistol-whipped a teller.

Police conformed the three as they attempted a getaway. The 15-year-old fired twice more and was killed by police. The other youths, with booty of about $60,000, fled in a getaway car driven by a 45-year-old man. Since then, all three fugitives have been caught.

|Baby Bandits' Replacing |Professionals'

The tender ages of these perpetrators and the violent nature of their stick-up were shocking. But crimes fitting this description are growing more and more common in riot-torn Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

Heavily armed "baby bandits" -- often affiliated with street gangs -- are fast replacing the adult "professionals" who formerly preyed on banks.

"We're beginning to see older gang members introducing teenagers to do robberies under their guidance," said William Wipprecht, director of security for Wells Fargo Bank. He added that teenage defendants are not subject to federal prosecution.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent, John Hoos, said the participation of gang members in bank robberies has exploded in the aftermath of April riots. Uprisings across the country followed the not-guilty verdict for Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.

One reason for the upswing in violent bank robberies: more firearms out on the street.

A Bank of America branch in Las Vegas was robbed July 15 by four members of the Rollin' 60 gang. One of their guns recovered was traced to a store looted during the riots.

Another factor: Banks are relatively easy to rob - even though about 85% of their bandits are caught eventually, according to FBI statistics.

In recent years, convenience stores had been the most frequent target of gang members. But many store managers are now heavily armed and keep little cash on premises.

Bank branches, however, typically do not employ armed guards because of the danger to customers and employees if a shoot-out erupts.

"There's more money to be had in a bank than in a convenience store, so they're willing to take a chance," Mr. Hoos said of the shift in targets.

Lawlessness Spilling Over

The Bloods and the Crips, big gangs that have been in bloody conflict since the mid-1980s, have declared a truce since the riots. Members of gangs in some other areas, though, have increased their crime against ordinary citizens, Mr. Hoos said.

Bankers and law-enforcement officials say the general climate of lawlessness has spilled over into bank robberies, often performed by youngsters who hope the ordeal will win them initiation into a gang.

In Los Angeles, the FBI charts a 400% increase this year in "takeover" robberies: Armed bandits hold a branch hostage while they demand money, sometimes physically abusing customers and employees, even taking their wallets.

Among the 1,749 robberies reported this year by Los Angeles banks, 229 were takeovers -- far more than in any other U.S. city except New York.

Bank executives and FBI agents in Los Angeles cite a dizzying number of crime statistics. From Aug. 17 through Aug. 23 banks reported 75 robberies, 23 occurring on Aug. 21.

The largest banks -- BankAmerica Wells Fargo, and First Interstate -- lose $6 million to $8 million a year to robbers, said Mr. Wipprecht, who is chairman of the security committee of the California Bankers Association.

The average bank robber is still male and a repeat offender. Previously, most were in their 20s; now an increasing number are in their mid-teens, divided equally among ethnic categories of white, black, and Hispanic.

Strong Drug Correlation

Even the younger robbers are already known to police. Between 80% and 85% rob to support a drug habit, law enforcement officials said.

The rise in gang-related robberies correlate with a dramatic increase in gang activity in Los Angeles.

The city has seen a doubling of gang members over the past five years, to over 100,000, said Steven Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services, an outreach program based in Los Angeles.

"They're getting younger, more brazen, more open and daring, and more opportunistic," Mr. Valdivia said.

Opportunities Abound

"When an 'economic opportunity' opens up - whether it's drugs, robbery, prostitution, [stealing] cars - there's usually a relatively small hard-core group of professionals who evolve away from gangs into their own [chosen] profession," he said.

But banks are now looking for more extreme crime-prevention tactics. Well Fargo is beginning to deploy armed guards, moving them from branch to branch at random. At many locations, Wells is also installing Plexiglas "bandit barriers" to protect the teller line.

Last week, Wells ran full-page advertisements offering $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of three gunmen who held up a branch Aug. 7 in Larchmont Village, a residential section of Los Angeles.

The branch manager was able to activate surveillance cameras before one robber put a gun to his forehead and ordered him to open the vault. The manager replied that he couldn't open it alone. Another robber pulled a teller by her hair from under a desk and dragged her along the floor.

One of the robbers finally jumped the teller line and grabbed about $4,500 from the drawers. All three then commandeered a car from a passing motorist, a middle-age woman.

Wells has a standing offer of $5,000 for information about any bank robber. But it has raised the ante to $50,000 because of the violence of this robbery and the fact that the gunmen were photographed.

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