THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (KABC) -- On April 28, 1997, the city of Thousand Oaks was considered one of the safest places to live in the country by the FBI. It was Mayberry in America - until 10:20 a.m. That's when Thousand Oaks and Los Angeles County were never the same.
On that Monday at Western Financial Bank, there was a manager and three tellers. There was no security guard, no locking front door. There was no plexiglass to protect or separate employees. The tellers were sitting ducks when two armed men walk in. With nylon stockings over their faces, they were disguised as construction workers.
"The guys who committed this robbery are not stupid. Putting on the disguise and going in with the simply adding a reflective vest and a hard hat that draws your attention away from the face," Capt. Eric Buschow with the Ventura County Sheriff Department explained.
The robbers got all the employees into the back room in front of the safe. Bank teller Monica Leech was ordered to open it. It would be the last thing she ever did. To understand what happened on that deadly April morning, we have to go to the home of the Crips. The suspects in this cold case are believed to be Crips gang members. And investigators believe they are still alive.
Watch the special, "True Crime: The Murder of Monica Leech," on Sunday, Sept. 5, wherever you stream ABC7.
Parie Dedeaux meets us in front of the South Park sign. He's a larger-than-life personality. Everyone at this community park either knows him or needs him. He spends most of his afternoons here after work. It's his second home. It's where he raised himself - and started gangbanging as a 10-year-old boy. It's also a place where Crips gang members gather today.
For Dedeaux, joining the Crips as a child didn't feel like joining a gang. It was a means of survival. He stole food so his friends could eat. He found people to trust and depend on amid so much uncertainty.
"My generation is the first batch of kids to have crack mamas. And when we (were) growing up, we had friends of mine that parents (weren't) able to take care of them," Dedeaux said.
Dedeaux recalled it was not his family but the local drug dealer that bought him shoes so he could play football.
"It's like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. When my mom died, my grandma still had three kids staying at home ... so I had so much built up anger in me because I feel cheated. Gangbanging gave me an opportunity to act out," Dedeaux said.
To get a better understanding of the history of the Crips, we interviewed. Dr. Jorja Leap, a professor at the UCLA Luskin School who has been working with gangs for 40 years.
"The Crips are really one of the oldest gangs in the Southwest Angeles area. Their roots are very much here. Ironically, they have spread all over the world. I've met Crips gang members from Australia. I think it's significant to add that while their reputation lies in the fact that they've been involved in gang activity and criminal behavior, they've also been involved in some significant social services. To understand the Crips is to understand a very lengthy, very complex picture of a street organization that began in the Southern California area," Leap said.
"People think that gangs are about criminal activity, but they're really about economics," Leap said. "What happened in South L.A. is factories that were nearby on Alameda Street began to close down, and job opportunities and income narrowed significantly."
When those factories closed in the 1970s, thousands of people lost their jobs, and the area never recovered, Leap said. That same decade, California voters approved Prop 13. That was a big win for homeowners: it capped property tax increases, but It meant a huge cut to programs that those taxes paid for, like school programs, law enforcement and social services.
"This is sort of what you had percolating in South Los Angeles with the Crips. It was what actually civil rights attorney, Connie Rice, often refers to as the spiral of despair. You don't see the pain that goes into gang membership. You never see the reasons why people join gangs," Leap said. "You usually see a group of Black youth or youth of color who are wearing bandanas and who are planning a mission ... We don't contextualize it ... There's a whole environment. There's a whole cause-and-effect around it," said Leap.
In the late 80s to the early 90s, in order to make money, the Crips largely sold drugs. The gang generally made enough money to get by. But what radically changed the game, according to Dedeaux, was a group of white surfers.
"Now this is my opinion. You ever seen 'Point Break'? So what they did is give a blueprint to some kids on how to rob a bank. And some people went on to take (their) chances, in my opinion, based on seeing 'Point Break.'" Dedeaux explained, "I would take a chance on a crime that takes 90 seconds than selling dope, committing crime 365."
"A movie with white surfers. What could be more ironic? One of the things you have to understand with any crime, particularly in a street organization, is if they find out that it works, they're going to do it again and again and again," Leap said.
And just like that - seemingly overnight - Southern California became the bank robbery capital of the country.
"There are banks on virtually every corner throughout Southern California. A lot of them are located in convenient places where it's easy to get off the freeway and stop in and take care of a transaction, especially going back before ATMs. Banks invested in security based on certain branches being frequent targets of robberies. The ones that were either less frequently robbed or virtually never robbed, that might've been a little further outlying and not right next to a freeway corridor, there was less investment in security," said Buschow.
During the 90s, Southern California became the Wild West. At its peak in 1992, the FBI estimates more than 2,600 banks were robbed. That's an average of seven banks per day. And instead of fighting each other in South L.A., gangs started venturing to places like Thousand Oaks.
"That was their preferred method of getting money was going around doing these takeover robberies, you know, the FBI had numerous cases throughout Southern California that were part of an organized criminal street gang," said Buschow.
Fifty miles from South L.A., the community of Thousand Oaks seems otherworldly. It's a place where people leave their doors unlocked. It's where Floyd Leech has lived for most of his life and where he met his second wife Monica.
"That morning, she left for work, and we gave each other a kiss and said, 'See you later.' She walked out of the door to go to her job, and I walked out of the door to go to my job," he said.
At the time, Floyd Leech was 43. He still lives in the same area in a home just a couple miles from the former Western Financial Bank.
"I think about it a lot. Every time I talked to one of her kids, it comes back. Her kids now have kids. I'm still close with all of her family," Floyd Leech said.
Monica and Floyd met in church. Their love blossomed beautifully and naturally. It was the first time Floyd felt happy in months.
"Six months prior, my first wife had passed of a medical condition. So we started hanging around together and then started dating. Seven months after we started dating, we got married. When Monica and I decided to get married my oldest son said, 'You're not going to replace my mom.' And she said, 'I'm not trying to.' And then shortly after that they got very, very close. My second son was always close with her. Monica was very instrumental in helping my boys out as well as her family. We didn't have his and hers. I loved her kids. She loved my kids, and it worked out very, very well."
Monica worked in banking for 20 years. After she got married to Floyd, to be closer to home, she transferred to Western Financial Bank. She worked there for about two months and started getting to know her customers like the chiropractor next door.
"It was definitely a normal day at first, at least I thought it was. In between patients, I'd often go over to my office, which overlooked the parking lot. And that's when I saw somebody just barrel right by my office super fast. It was unusual. So I took note, but I didn't hear anything so I went and saw the next patient in the room. That's when I got the call immediately to come out because one of the tellers was there saying that Monica had been shot," said Dr. Rick Schwartzberg.
He's a doctor chiropractic, who at the time had an office right there next to the bank.
"Everybody was saying, you know, is there anything you do to help? I said, 'I can try' ... During the CPR part, obviously, I mean, maybe for a second, it looked like things might be improving, but it was pretty rapidly apparent, it wasn't," he said.
"She led them to the vault, gave them money did everything they demanded, and for reasons that we still don't understand, the person who was handcuffing her held a gun to the back of her head. He shot her," said Buschow.
Monica was the only one who was shot. She died on the vault room floor. To the robbers, her life was worth a few thousand dollars. They got away with nine grand.
"It wasn't a video game that you can just reset and make it all back the way it was," lamented Floyd Leech. "She was a real person. She was very loving. And loved her family and her kids and a real person."
For a long time, it was hard for Floyd to talk about Monica. But for the first time in decades, he's ready to revisit that devastating Monday again. In fact, he's the reason this case is back in the spotlight. His persistence inspired the Ventura County Sheriff's Office to re-examine old evidence. The two bank robbers who killed Monica that day still haven't been caught.
Shortly after Monica's brutal killing, local banks and donors raised $160,000 in reward money for whoever turned in the suspects. There was surveillance video. The images weren't great, but they were still usable. Witness descriptions also helped produce composite sketches. Police even got the getaway car. And yet - no arrests.
"We don't often see something go this long without the right pieces of information coming into our lab, especially at the time with that larger award. There were banks that came together and put up money to encourage people to come forward. The vehicle was later recovered. They repainted it. We have those pieces of evidence. We have those handcuffs. We have the evidence collected from inside the bank. We just need to get those last couple of pieces to carry this cross the goal line," said Buschow.
Now 24 years later, there is some hope for a break in the case. Evidence that's been sitting in storage for decades can now be re-tested with new equipment that extracts trace amounts of DNA.
"Touch DNA is when somebody basically touches an item and deposits some of their cells onto it. These cells have considerably less DNA in them than bodily fluids, like blood or saliva or semen. So with technology advancing over the years, it's gotten a lot more sensitive to be able to detect smaller amounts of DNA. This has become a very helpful in cases where the only evidence available is touch DNA," explained Christina Tokatlian. She's a forensic scientist and local CODIS administrator at Ventura County Sheriff's Office Forensic Services Bureau.
If the DNA is viable, it'll be uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. It's a computer database that connects DNA labs at the local, state and national levels. It checks the DNA profiles of thousands of convicted offenders, unidentified remains and relatives of missing people.
"I believe that if people do bad things, they need to pay for what they do. Getting those guys who would just close a chapter in my life. Not the memories, but as far as closing the chapter of wondering where these guys are and what they're doing today," Floyd said.
Monica Leech's 1997 murder happened at a small bank in Thousand Oaks. But if you follow the clues to the origin of this story, you end up in South L.A.
"We know that this was done by a crew of Crips gang members from L.A. We had several involving this crew and similar crews coming up to Ventura County and targeting banks, and they were doing this all over Southern California. That was their preferred method of getting money, was going around doing these takeover robberies, you know, the FBI had numerous cases throughout Southern California involving this crew and other crews that were part of an organized criminal street gang," said Buschow.
Parie Dedeaux doesn't know who did this but believes he knows why it happened.
"A lot of them dudes doing them robberies was desperate. I'm not saying they was right for doing it but them dudes was desperate," Dedeaux said.
Desperation and poverty. Is that what makes a cold-blooded killer? Not necessarily. But it's a starting point. Dedeaux was one of the many Crips that ended up serving time for robbery. He didn't kill anyone, but he knows the pain he caused.
"I went to jail first time for second-degree robbery. And do you regret that? I regret it. I regret it. I really didn't have to go. But I didn't have nobody show me nothing different. I didn't have nobody. I didn't have high self-esteem. I think about the victim. If I had the chance to meet the victim again I would shake his hand and I would apologize to him. I didn't get away with nothing, but just the traumatization and I would say bro, I was young I apologize for that bro. At the time my situation felt desperate bro."
The situation for Dedeaux is different today. He's part of a group called United We Stand Up. They work to bring Bloods and Crips together and keep peace on the streets. It's one of the main reasons he remains an active gang member.
"They are very intent on healing, this community and many others like it. And they feel it is sort of what they've got to do. They have to heal these communities that they once sought to destroy. And they are very dedicated, first of all, to healing the community. And second of all, to making sure youth do not follow that same pathway. And they're the most significant messengers in this effort," he said.
"I feel like I grew up in an orphanage. These dudes already been left already. They got shortchanged already. People turned their back on them already. They don't need me to turn my back on them too. I love the hood, but I'm not gonna do no violence for the hood," said Dedeaux.
From Avalon on the eastside of South L.A. to Thousand Oaks Boulevard on the outskirts of L.A. County, families were impacted and affected by pain and suffering.
"This affected so many people. This kind of act, it wasn't just affecting me. It affected her kids. It affected my kids. It affected her parents and her siblings and their kids and aunts and uncles and cousins," said Floyd Leech. "These people have families. When this first happened Monica's two children went to live with their father. The kids were 11 and 14 (years old), so they went through their teen years and adolescence without a mom."
Dr. Leap believes gangs will continue to be a thread in the fabric of our society.
"Are gangs ever going to end? No, there are gangs everywhere. There will always be gangs." But she said the solution to decrease their scope and reach lies with all of us. "What's really important is that we have the right people working with gang members. This is not a law enforcement issue, but this is a public health issue. This is community issue. This involves our families, our children, people that we know. And more than anything, we have to confront the issues that brought them into existence in the first place. Poverty, poverty. Did I say poverty?"
While Monica's murder had far-reaching ramifications for Leech and his family, her death is deeply personal. It marks a dark chapter in Floyd's life, one that he's ready to close and shut.
"(It's) been a tough road, you know, and ... I know that regardless how this works out, there's certain things that aren't going to go away. I got my faith in God that helps, well, probably takes care of all of it, you know?"
Detectives believe Monica's killers are still alive. There's currently a $31,000 reward for anyone with information that leads to their arrest. The FBI is offering $30,000 to the person or people who can provide info leading to the suspects in the case. In addition, Ventura County Crime Stoppers will pay up to $1,000 for info that leads to the arrest and criminal complaint against the people responsible for Monica's murder. Calls to Crime Stoppers are not recorded, and the caller can remain anonymous 800-222-TIPS (8477).
If you know anything about that Monday in April, you're urged to contact the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's Detective Aaron Grass at (805) 384-4726.