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Hostages freed, suspect held after bank standoff

The last of eight people taken hostage inside a California bank was released Thursday and a suspect was taken into custody, authorities said.
/ Source: news services

Ending a 10½-hour standoff, SWAT officers stormed a bank and seized a man early Thursday after using a pack of cigarettes to trick him into letting go of the last of his eight hostages.

No injuries were reported.

“This is a great ending for everybody involved,” sheriff’s Lt. Keith Douglas said.

The man, identified as Jesse Martinez of Visalia, Calif., entered the Bank of America branch Wednesday afternoon and demanded money, police said. He took eight people hostage after employees alerted police, but released three customers within 10 minutes, Douglas said.

Two more hostages were released separately Wednesday night. Then, after midnight, the remaining three hostages, all female bank employees, tried to run out the front door. Two escaped, but one was grabbed and pulled back inside, police said.

Later, Martinez sent the woman to get a pack of cigarettes police had left at the front door, and SWAT officers pulled her to safety. At the same time, another SWAT team stormed the bank and captured Martinez, 47, without a struggle, authorities said.

During negotiations, some of the hostages were able to call family members.

Margie Riportella, who with her baby daughter was among those first released, said the man was carrying a briefcase and appeared to be unstable. She said he kept all the hostages in the middle of the room.

“It was totally weird. He was ‘out there,”’ Riportella told the Visalia Times-Delta.

‘He’s not rude’
One of the initial hostages, loan officer Rebecca Tejada, told Reuters by telephone from inside the bank that the robber wanted the hostages to leave with him in a car.

Tejada said at the time that no one had been hurt, and that the hostage-taker was talking to them in a calm manner.

“He’s very calm and he’s just telling us about his life,” she said, describing their whereabouts as inside the bank’s automatic teller room. “He’s not rude.”

Joel Rios, a customer, said he was in the bank when the robber entered, carrying a suitcase, and gave a note to an employee.

Tellers then began to usher customers including Rios out and stack money on the counter as the robber sat at a table and watched, he said. Rios said he did not see a gun.

‘Shocking’ for small town
A small town with a population of about 10,000 surrounded by farmland, Exeter calls itself the “Citrus Capital of the World.”

Mayor Charles Norman said the town had a low crime rate and had not had a murder in more than three years. “It’s very shocking to everybody,” he told Reuters.

About a block away, the Wildflower Cafe remained open to feed officers and family members of the hostages for free, said manager Rachel Lindholm. About 9,800 people live in the close-knit central California town, which is about 40 miles southeast of Fresno.