In a span of six days this month, a Nebraska community bank was targeted twice by armed robbers.
And in both instances bank customers emerged as heroes. Now Great Western Bank in Omaha says it will reward the customers, as well as an off-duty police officer who was wounded three times by close-range gunshots in one of the foiled robberies.
"We want to make sure we do the appropriate thing for all who have been true heroes," said Jim Kalina, the $595 million-asset bank's vice president of administrative services and security. "You don't want customers - like tellers - to put their lives at jeopardy. But because of their heroism, police were able to capture suspects and get our money back."
The story starts at 10:41 a.m. on March 1. A gun-wielding man stepped into Great Western's branch near the corner of 47th and L streets and ordered Jeff Holland, an Omaha police officer who was working as a security guard, to handcuff himself, according to Sgt. Dan Cisar of the Omaha Police Department.
Instead, the officer lunged at the man, later identified as 42-year-old Bradley Allen Simmons of Kansas City, Mo., to wrest the gun away, Mr. Cisar said.
During the tussle, Dennis Zongker entered the bank to deposit money from his local furniture business, Zongkers Custom Woods Inc. Another man, who police say was 41-year-old Gregory J. Bernal, also of Kansas City, stepped into the bank behind Mr. Zongker.
"My first thought was, 'Wow! This is a real bank robbery,' " said Mr. Zongker, 37. "I didn't know what to do. Then the other guy walked in, and I thought he was just another idiot like myself who stepped into the middle of the robbery. Then I saw he had a gun too."
Mr. Zongker said he grabbed a teller and ducked into a rear storeroom just as a flurry of shots erupted. It is still unclear who fired the shots, but Mr. Zongker said that when he peeked out of the room he saw the security guard, Mr. Holland, on the ground bleeding.
At the same time, Mr. Zongker said, he spotted the second suspect - Mr. Bernal - struggling to get up from the floor. Mr. Zongker said he slammed Mr. Bernal to the ground. He grabbed the handcuffs from the injured security guard's belt and cuffed Mr. Bernal and pinned him with a knee to his back until police arrived, Mr. Zongker said.
The other suspect, Mr. Simmons, sped away. But another bank customer approaching Great Western spotted his car and part of its license plate number, which police said led to his capture in Missouri.
"We appreciate all the citizen help in apprehending these suspects," Mr. Cisar said. "Our main concern is that this doesn't lead to citizens needlessly putting themselves into harm's way. We're there to take guys like this on."
Mr. Holland, who was shot twice in the chest and once in the leg, was released from the hospital on March 9. Great Western has set up an account to defray his medical bills.
The violence was unusual for a bank robbery.
Of the 7,584 bank robberies reported in 1998 - the last full year for which statistics are available - only 157 involved gunfire, and most were shots into the ceiling to gain attention, said Larry Holmquist, a spokesman at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Omaha office. Another 295 involved some other form of aggression.
Only six days after the Omaha shooting, another Great Western branch in the suburb of Bellevue was the target of its first armed robbery attempt, Mr. Kalina said. A man brandishing an automatic weapon entered the bank and threatened the 15 employees and three customers, Mr. Holmquist said.
During the robbery, a teller told a customer at the drive-through window what was happening, Mr. Holmquist said. When the robber fled the bank with a bag of cash and hopped into a getaway car, the customer jammed on the accelerator and drove his new white pickup truck into the side of the car, Mr. Holmquist said. The suspect continued driving, but the customer and a patrol officer chased him.
The suspect came to a dead end, exited the car - which turned out to have been stolen - and jumped a fence, Mr. Holmquist said. He dropped the money but escaped.
"There's certainly an attitude here among people that they're fed up with crime," Mr. Holmquist said. "This has to serve as a warning for people who try to rob a bank. They not only have to look out for police at banks, but there are also citizens out there willing to take action."
The FBI and Bellevue police declined to identify the customer in the pickup truck. Attempts to reach the customer through the bank for an interview were unsuccessful.
Great Western said it plans to replace the damaged front bumper of the customer's truck.