Walla Walla bank robbed; suspect nabbed

Gabriel Cantu Leija is in jail after allegedly using a toy gun to rob the AmericanWest branch on Isaacs Avenue on Tuesday.


WALLA WALLA -- An area man believed to have robbed a local bank Tuesday used a toy gun to carry out the crime, and says he did it because he needed money and was out of work, police say.

His actions prompted a SWAT raid at his Fern Avenue home, shut down the street for more than two hours, and forced four schools to be placed on lockdown.

Police arrested Gabriel Cantu Leija, 34, of 613 Fern Ave., in connection with the holdup of the AmericanWest bank at 1850 E. Isaacs Ave. He is being held at the Walla Walla County Jail on suspicion of first-degree robbery.

At a preliminary hearing this morning, Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge John Lohrmann set Leija's bail at $100,000.

Police believe Leija walked into the branch armed with what looked like firearm about 10:40 a.m., demanded money and got away with more than $1,300 in cash.

A witness said he saw the suspect, wearing a dark coat and gray sweat pants, run behind the Napa Auto Parts store near the bank. The witness saw the robber get into a minivan and was able to provide police with the license plate number, which showed the vehicle registered to the Fern Avenue residence where Leija lives. Members of the Washington State Patrol and Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office worked with city police officers to find the suspect vehicle.

The suspect minivan was found parked outside the home, with the hood warm to the touch in near-freezing weather, indicating it had recently been on, according to a police report presented in court this morning.

Leija, who was at the house, was detained and taken into custody for questioning. At the police station, Leija confessed to being responsible for the robbery, and stated he used a toy gun to carry out the hold-up, according to the police report.

Leija was then arrested and taken back to the Fern Avenue house, where he told detectives he had concealed the money in a plastic bag in a hall closet, and threw away the clothes worn in the robbery in a kitchen trash bin. Police found the bag with $1,349 inside.

According to the report, Leija said he carried out the robbery because he needed money and was out of work.

The toy gun, a realistic replica of a handgun, was also recovered from the home, said Detective Sgt. Matt Wood. He added that although the gun was fake, Leija intended to pass it off as real during the robbery.

"It looks real," Wood said. "He displayed it as a real firearm and he threatened to use it in the bank."

After walking detectives through the home, leading them to the evidence, 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 is a navy blue Chrysler Town and Country.

By 11 a.m. police had closed Fern Avenue between Whitman and Pleasant streets while Emergency Services Unit members worked to carry out a SWAT response to enter the home. The School District placed Edison Elementary, Berney Elementary, Sharpstein Elementary and Pioneer Middle schools on lockdown while the 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."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.


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