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Elmwood Neighborhood Takes Heist in Stride

Tuesday July 29, 2003

When Alex Rincon runs across College Avenue to do his banking at the Wells Fargo branch in the Elmwood section of town, he tries to make it in the late afternoon. It’s not that the lines are shorter or the service is friendlier that time of day. “I just try to pick a time when it seems like they won’t get robbed,” said Rincon, a manager at Your Basic Bird pet shop. 

Rincon explains that most holdups at the bank, like the recent heist Friday, seem to happen in the morning or early afternoon. 

Janet Dunlap, manager of The Trading Post, a jewelry and pottery store just a few doors down from Wells Fargo, at 2959 College Ave., has a different piece of advice. She says customers who find themselves in the bank during a robbery should skeedaddle before the police arrive. 

“If you’re in the bank when it gets robbed, get out before they lock you in half the day [to take witness reports],” she said. 

Robberies at the local bank, which gets hit two to three times per year, according to police, seem to have little effect on the business owners, employees and residents of the tree-lined Elmwood district, with its cafes and book stores. 

“Now, it’s just like earthquakes—I just go, ‘Oh, another one,’” said Tim Bonfield, who has worked at Bolfing’s Elmwood Hardware for seven years. 

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Mary Kusmiss said the College Avenue Wells Fargo is not the only local bank susceptible to holdups. Robbers frequently hit Berkeley’s downtown banks, she said, because thick pedestrian crowds and the Downtown Berkeley BART station can make for an easy escape. 

There is no train station near the Elmwood Wells Fargo, and the foot traffic isn’t as heavy. But Kusmiss said the bank may be attractive to robbers because it sits on the corner of Ashby Avenue, a major east-west thoroughfare. 

Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles-based security consultant who grew up in the Bay Area, disagreed. He said Ashby Avenue, with its traffic and distance from the closest freeway is probably not a significant draw. 

He said robbers likely take a host of other considerations into account—from the security at the bank, to the number of one-way streets in the area, to their own familiarity with the district. 

“They usually know the neighborhood,” he said. “They want to feel comfortable. They know someone who lives there. They know the back streets ... It’s all about escape.” 

Whatever the reasons, the locals say they are accustomed to the robberies, and are not terribly concerned for their own safety. 

Adam Broner, who lives nearby and banks at the Elmwood Wells Fargo, said he was more worried about the tellers who have to deal with the stick-ups. 

“It’s a shame,” he said. “They’re all so nice.” 

Tony Nero, who lives around the corner on Benvenue Avenue, said he was more concerned about the periodic street muggings in the neighborhood. 

“It makes me more nervous when people with guns go after individuals,” he said. 

But not everyone was so nonplused. Meghan Tiernan, a landscape architect who works nearby and walks to Elmwood to get lunch and do her banking at Wells Fargo, said the bank robbery, combined with the occasional leaflet warning of local muggings, would make her “think twice” and “look around” when she was in the area. 

The Friday morning holdup took a bloodier turn than most. After receiving a report of an armed robbery at 10:06 a.m., Oakland and Berkeley police traced the suspect to the 2200 block of Haste Street, 15 blocks away, and, after a confrontation, three officers fatally shot alleged robber Glennel Givens, 27, of Oakland. Givens was pronounced dead at Oakland’s Highland Hospital at 11:37 a.m. 

But just a couple of hours after the robbery, blocks from the somber site of the fatal shooting, it was business as usual in the Elmwood. College Avenue was bustling. The restaurants and cafes were filled at the peak of the lunch hour. And the Wells Fargo itself bore few signs of the heist—just a pre-printed sign that read, in a pleasant looping font: “Attention customers! We are temporarily closed due to a robbery and will re-open as soon as possible ... We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”