10 years after Norfolk bank robbery, a time to remember

2012-09-23T00:05:00Z 2012-09-23T12:46:04Z 10 years after Norfolk bank robbery, a time to rememberBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Sue Staehr hasn't spoken publicly about what happened in Norfolk's US Bank branch Sept. 26, 2002.

She is telling her story now because she wants people to remember -- not what happened to her as a witness to violence so close that her husband could smell gun powder on her clothes as he hugged her later that afternoon --  but the employees and customer that senselessly died that day.

"Really, to tell you, I don't know if I could tell you the names right now of the people who did it. 'Cause I think you try to forget the actual event. But I want to remember the people that were there," she said.

Lisa Bryant, 29, of Norfolk. Lola Elwood, 43, of Norfolk. Jo Mausbach, 42, of Humphrey. Samuel Sun, 50, of Norfolk. Evonne Tuttle, 37, of Stanton.

"I think a lot about them during church, and I think about them at events ... like when I go to a wedding. I think (how) Lola didn't get to go to her daughter's wedding. ... Sam didn't get to go to his sons' graduations. Those kinds of things. ...  I think that I'm lucky that I got to go to mine," she said.

And so she wrote a remembrance, to those who remain and to those who died.

* * *

It was a day, like any other day. Co-workers and customers were going about their routines. Breakfast was served; kids dropped off at school; errands run; and hugs and kisses shared.

For Staehr, it was another day away from her Lincoln home -- the second day -- traveling for work as a US Bank internal auditor. She was glad, she said, to be visiting her co-workers.

At my first day at the branch, I caught up on Lisa's honeymoon trip, Sam's newly-taken-on duties as coordinator of the teller line, and Lola's need to take a break from work and pick her daughter up from school.

She had known them for several years, some dating back to when the branch was a trailer on the same corner of 13th Street and Pasewalk Avenue. She had helped them through an earlier conversion from FirsTier Bank, and they made her feel a part of the team and a friend.

Their dedication, knowledge and the branch's great customers made her auditing job easy, she said.

Her joy and that of others ended within 40 seconds that day when three men entered the bank and changed a multitude of lives.

I can only speak from how my heart; my life and everyone around me changed during and after those 40 seconds.

* * *

Staehr didn't see the three enter the bank.

But 21-year-old Jorge Galindo went directly to the office on the left, the office of branch manager Lola Elwood, who was at her desk talking with Staehr and Cheryl Cahoy, the operations specialist at the branch.  

"The first thing I saw was the robber standing next to me. And that’s when I moved away with my chair, to the wall. I don’t know if I thought I was going to blend into the wall, or what it was, I don’t know," Staehr said in an interview.

He was standing a foot or so away when she slid to the wall. She did not look at his face. She knew immediately why he was there.

"My mind went as if I was looking to heaven. And some of the stuff I don’t remember in the room because it was like I was focused on this light or this vision in the room," she recalled. 

As I sat with my chair against the wall, looking toward what seemed to be a light to heaven, the robbers took away those friends, coworkers.

Sue Staehr is a religious person, but she never had such a vision before or since.

The bright light she saw in her mind, just above the filing cabinet where her eyes focused, took her out of that room. It helped her through the aftermath.

"The Lord was focusing me on so that I didn't get the dramatic feeling of what was happening throughout the branch," she said.

The only one of the four men involved that she saw was Gabriel Rodriguez, "the person who staked out the branch." She saw him walk by the window before the others walked in -- just someone walking by. She couldn't even say what he looked like.

In those first seconds, this is what went through her head: "OK, this is a robbery, but the people are, just like any robbery, they're going to take the money and leave."

* * *

Staehr didn't expect tragedy. She expected routine -- the kind she had been trained to handle. She knew it was something more when she heard the shots. Even so, she did not think she was going to die.

"When I heard the shots, I'm thinking they're shooting at the ceiling, or something that, like, you would see in a movie. I'm thinking that they're shooting to scare people, not that they're actually shooting them," she said.

She knew the man beside her shot his gun. But she didn't know he had shot Elwood. And she wasn't aware that Galindo turned and fired twice at a customer who had entered the lobby, hesitated and turned back toward Staehr and Cahoy before someone said, "Hurry up," and he disappeared through the door.

"I was aware of nothing that was going on behind me," she said.

Staehr was taking her cues from Cahoy.

"I knew she could see forward, so I was waiting for her to give me some guidance on 'they're out of here,'" she said.

After the shooting subsided, and Galindo, Jose Sandoval and Erick Vela left the branch, the two women stood up, went to the lobby and began to do what they had been trained to do.

"I tried to call 9-1-1. She tried to call security," she said.

When she motioned the police to come in, she knew people were down. "But I didn't know that they were shot to the extent that they were," she said.

"We tried to go and get out the robbery procedures that we were supposed to follow, but they said, 'Don't worry about it. We've got it covered,'" Staehr said.

My legs were weak, my blood pressure rising and my heart shattered, as I looked at my co-workers lying lifeless on the floor of the branch.

The next few hours, shock hit everyone.

* * *

The women were in the bank close to 45 minutes more after police arrived, in a back room with a paramedic.

She was allowed to contact one family member, but all she was allowed to say was, "I am fine." Her son, Andy, took over the duties of contacting other family and friends. They would have known she could be at a bank branch, but not which one.

He only had to say ... "This is Andy," and everyone knew. ... A caravan of family and friends then headed to Norfolk to hug me and bring me home to Lincoln.

Dan Staehr, her husband, said he knew his wife did most of her work behind the scenes, in back rooms. But when he smelled the gun powder, he knew that wasn't the case that day.

"That's when it kind of hit really hard," he said. "Hey, she was in the thick of this. ... She wasn't in the back room. She had to actually duck and cover."

Over the next weeks, the couple tried to return to their normal routines, as normal as can be when there's a 24-hour security guard outside your house, paid for by the bank, to keep information seekers away. 

"In some ways, it was comforting to know there was somebody out there," she said.

And as normal as can be when you are attending funeral after funeral and trial after trial.

I saw family members trying to cope with their loss, co-workers that could not bear to step into their branch locations, and detectives and police capturing and jailing those individuals that changed many lives.

Her husband finds that even now, when he goes into a bank or drive-up window at a bank, he looks around. And when he sees a TV show with a bank robbery or shooting, he thinks of his wife.

Those depictions only bring out her analytical side. What could they have done to survive that?

In 2011, there were more than 5,000 bank robberies nationally, mostly at commercial banks. In Nebraska last year, there were 12. In 2002, 28 bank robberies were reported in the state.

* * *

Staehr doesn't know why she was spared in the 2002 incident when five others weren't.

"I think that's where your religion comes in, your faith that that was the Lord's plan," she said. "I mean, I don't know how else to explain it."

The incident didn't affect her feelings about work. She was gone from work only about three weeks, coming back part time at first. The bank would have given her six months if she'd wanted.

"But is that going to make it any better? I don't think so," she said.

"I felt like it was kind of like getting back on a horse that bucked you off. I needed to get back sooner than later."

She had been focused on how everyone else was doing, not her own survival. It was only after those three weeks that she asked her church to say a prayer for her. 

She was surprised when she went back to the bank to leave flowers to see a bouquet of five flowers of one color and two pink ones. The security guard said they were for her and Cahoy.

"That was cool that somebody would think of us, when everybody else was thinking of the victims. I thought that was pretty nice."

* * *

Staehr knows that bank robberies are a fact of life. Her own home bank was robbed in June, on a Saturday morning. A man in a plaid shirt and jeans entered the branch, showed a small handgun and demanded money from two tellers, then jumped over the counter to get it. He left on foot. 

A customer was in the bank at the time. No one was hurt, and police arrested a man two months later.

Staehr wasn't there that day. If she had been, she likely wouldn't have known from her back office it was happening, she said.

Most bank robberies are typical, she reiterated. The person comes in, asks for money. Leaves. That's it.

"We know the Norfolk bank wasn't typical," she said.

But she's been able to put even that in a back drawer somewhere.

"When I go to the branch, do I take a second look outside to see if anybody’s around? That type of stuff, I think you become more cautious of your surroundings or maybe more visible of what’s happening," she said.

So much other violence has happened in the 10 years since the Norfolk incident, she said. For many, it's a distant memory.

The physical branch location was torn down, a new branch built and a memorial erected in the shape of a star with five points (one for each of the victims). My hope is each September 26th (as we do for September 11th), we'll take a moment to reflect and remember those special people and their families. 

Similar to me, they do not go a day without thinking of what was, what could have been and how they loved with all their hearts those victims removed from their lives in 40 seconds.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

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