A bank robbery and the ensuing search for the suspect — a heavyset white man wearing dark clothing and what appeared to be a scraggly fake beard — shut down part of downtown Pasco on Wednesday and tightened security at nearby schools.
The suspect got away, although for several hours it was believed he possibly was hiding inside the Bank of the West at 1115 W. Clark St. All the bank employees and customers were safely evacuated, said Pasco police Capt. Jim Raymond.
Dozens of Pasco officers and other law enforcement officials from throughout Benton and Franklin counties converged on the bank, across from the Pasco School District’s administration building. FBI officials also were on site.
By about 2:15 p.m. — more than four hours after the robbery was called in by a citizen passing by the bank — the Tri-City Regional SWAT team had searched the bank building and found no one inside. Law enforcement officials, some using police dogs, searched the surrounding neighborhoods.
Raymond described the suspect as being about 6 feet tall, weighing about 250 pounds.
The man reportedly entered the bank and indicated he had a gun.
Several officers were in the area when the passer-by called at 9:37 a.m., and police quickly secured the outside of the bank, Raymond wrote in a news release.
It’s unclear how or when the suspect slipped away.
But Raymond said the man didn’t get away with any money. He left behind a messenger-style bag, which the Richland bomb squad inspected as a precaution.
As SWAT members prepared to enter the bank, two armored vehicles were positioned outside and a police sniper was on the rooftop of the school district’s administration building.
A few loud bangs were heard outside the bank around 12:35 p.m. Raymond said they were diversionary devices.
He said the community doesn’t need to be afraid. “If he’s gotten out of the perimeter, then he’s gone,” Raymond told reporters.
Dozens of people gathered near the school district administration building, called the C.L. Booth Education Center, as the SWAT team prepared to go inside. Several pulled out cellphones to snap photos and capture video.
Sylvia Vargas, 55, of Pasco, had just paid her light bill at the Franklin PUD not far from the bank.
“We were coming this way and all of a sudden I saw a bunch of police officers everywhere,” she told the Herald. “We thought that it was an accident.”
She was standing near Blanca Ramirez, 43, of Pasco, who just missed being inside, and her mother, a regular Bank of the West customer; they were delayed because her mother forgot something.
When they arrived, they saw the police. “We thought, if she wouldn’t have forgotten what she had ... (then) we would actually have probably been inside the bank. It’s kind of scary,” Ramirez said, adding that she and her mom were thinking of the bank employees, whom they’ve gotten to know through their regular visits.
The incident prompted what’s known as a “lock-out” at several Pasco school buildings, in which people can move around inside the schools but no one can enter or leave.
The buildings included Longfellow and Emerson elementary schools, Pasco High School, the Captain Gray Early Learning Center and the Booth administration building.
The private St. Patrick Catholic School also was on lock-out.
Also, afternoon kindergarten and preschool classes at Captain Gray Early Learning Center were canceled.
The lock-out was lifted at 12:15 p.m. at most of the buildings, although it remained in effect for the Booth building until about 2:16 p.m.
Jerry Maya, 49, of Pasco, was among those who gathered near the Booth building to watch the police activity unfold.
“It kind of makes you think, what kind of people are being drawn to the area?” said Maya, who has lived in the city most of his life. “I don’t know what person this is, but it kind of makes you think, you know, look over your shoulder at times.”
Anyone with information about the suspect is asked to call police.
-- Photographer Bob Brawdy contributed to this story.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald