WALLA WALLA -- A residence along Fern Avenue was raided by SWAT members following a bank robbery this morning that resulted in four schools being placed on lockdown and one man being arrested.
Police arrested Gabriel Cantu Leija, 34, of 613 Fern Ave., in connection with the holdup of the American West bank at 1850 E. Isaacs Ave. He is being held at the Walla Walla County Jail on suspicion of first-degree robbery.
Police believe Leija walked into the branch armed with a firearm about 10:40 a.m., demanded money and got away with an undisclosed amount of cash.
A witness who saw the robber get into a minivan was able to provide police with the license plate number, which led them to the Fern Avenue residence. Members of the Washington State Patrol and Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office worked with Walla Walla Police officers to find the suspect vehicle.
Leija was detained at the home and taken into custody for questioning. He was then arrested and taken back to the Fern Avenue residence after making statements to detectives about his involvement in the robbery. After walking detectives through the home, leading them to evidence of the robbery, Leija was escorted out in handcuffs and placed in a patrol vehicle to be taken to jail.
Leija has previous convictions for two felony assaults and for driving while intoxicated, police said. There are no other known suspects in this case.
While Leija was being questioned, officers remained outside the Fern Avenue house while a search warrant was processed. The suspect minivan, a navy blue Chrysler Town and Country, was parked outside the house.
By 11 a.m. police had closed Fern Avenue between Whitman and Pleasant streets while Emergency Services Unit worked to carry out a SWAT response to enter the home. The Walla Walla Public Schools system placed Edison Elementary, Berney Elementary, Sharpstein Elementary and Pioneer Middle schools on lockdown while the police investigation unfolded.
Shortly after 1 p.m., SWAT members, fully armed, walked single file to the front of the residence.
"Police! Search warrant!" the lead member shouted into the home a couple of times before the team forced its way in. They walked out a few moments later with no other suspect apparently in the home.
Police then returned to the small, yellow house with Leija and went inside for a short time.
A nearby neighbor who declined to give his name said he believed several people lived at the home.
"It's a pretty busy house," he said.
Emergency Services Unit members, including snipers, were positioned strategically near the home in the case of anyone fleeing. Members were seen crouched in bushes. One man was perched on a nearby rooftop.
Police Chief Chuck Fulton and detectives arrived just as the Emergency Services Unit vehicle pulled up near the home. Shortly after their arrival at 1:10 p.m., the home was entered.
"We'll be making entry soon," was heard over the police scanner moments before the raid.
By 1:40 p.m., police in contact with local schools notified administrators of the arrest, and school lockdowns were lifted. The lockdown had shut down bus service between the schools, and typically means students, staff and visitors cannot leave or enter the school.
"We work closely with law enforcement officials to keep our staff, students and visitors safe," district spokesman Mark Higgins said. "Whenever there is felony police activity near our schools we take all precautions to follow our emergency procedures and make safety our top priority."