Ten years after bank murders, the Norfolk community is still trying to heal
NORFOLK, NE (KTIV) -
A tragedy that struck at the very heart of a community, left scars some will never recover from.
"Five people who were just going about their business and these three people come in and just killed them," said Norfolk Police Chief Bill Mizner.
On the tenth anniversary of the U.S. Bank shootings in Norfolk, Nebraska, the community is taking time to reflect on the lives lost and making sure they're not forgotten.
What happened on the morning of September 26, 2002, is considered the deadliest bank robbery in Nebraska history. It's also considered one of the deadliest bank robberies in U.S. history.
In the ten years that have passed, it's often been called a botched bank robbery, since no money was ever taken. But many in Norfolk feel it was nothing more than pre-meditated murder.
Within 50 seconds, five people were shot and killed and countless lives changed forever.
The names Jose Sandoval, Jorge Galindo, Erick Vela and Gabriel Rodriguez didn't mean much to most living in Norfolk, Nebraska, until they chose to do the unthinkable.
"These guys are murderers," said Madison County Attorney Joe Smith.
About 8:45 on the morning of September 26th, 2002, Vela, Galindo and Sandoval walked into the U.S. Bank branch at the corner of 13th and Pasewalk.
Seconds later, Sandoval shot Samuel Sun, a teller, customer Evonne Tuttle and Jo Mausbach who was working the drive thru window.
At the same time Galindo fired three shots killing Lola Elwood in her office. Vela fired two shots killing Lisa Bryant in hers.
Norfolk Police Chief Mizner said, "In less than a minute. They walked in, killed them and walked out."
Customer Micki Keopke saw what was happening when she entered the bank and was wounded by flying glass as she fled.
The bullets aimed at her, struck the Burger King across the street.
Mike Flood, of radio station US92 was the first reporter on the scene.
"We could see gunsmoke coming out of what was once the front doors. The doors had been shattered. And the police hadn't set up a perimeter yet. It was nine minutes after the call was made," said Flood.
The three suspects fled to a nearby home. At gunpoint, they stole a car from Jere Anderson, who'd been asleep in the basement.
"He told me to get out of bed and get the keys. I did and he said, go sit on the bed. But then said go lay on the floor, and he cocked his gun," said Anderson.
Jorge Galindo didn't fire. Instead, Anderson said he ran upstairs and left with the other two suspects in her car.
Bill Mizner said, "Three were dropped off, the plan was the fourth was going to come back and pick them up, but he didn't show up."
"The entire town essentially was shuttered, locked up. Schools were locked down. Banks were closing," said Flood.
Anderson's car had OnStar, so authorities tracked them west, where they stole another vehicle. Police took the three into custody later that day in O'Neill, Nebraska.
That night, Gabriel Rodriguez, the would-be getaway driver, was arrested in Norfolk.
Joe Smith said, "Catching them wasn't just important from a prosecution standpoint. It was to stop the killings."
As Madison County Attorney, Smith would learn in the months to come that these same four men had been involved with the murders of two others before the bank shooting.
"By the time they walked out of the bank they'd already killed collectively seven people," he said.
The body of 19-year-old Travis Lundell, Sandoval's roommate, was found in 2003. Lundell's friend Robert Pearson Junior's body wasn't recovered until four years later in 2007.
Joe Smith said, "Mr. Lundell was killed partly for fun, partly for initiation, but partly to show off. Robert Pearson Jr. same thing."
"It was hard to wrap your arms around that senselessness and the loss," said Police Chief Mizner.
In the time that followed the community showed its support for the families involved and each other. The bank is no longer there. It was torn down to make way for a garden memorial for the victims.
Time has helped ease the pain, but for many the wounds will never truly heal.
"One had just gotten married, a month before and had a boy. Another had planned to make ice cream that night. These are people who went to work, not expecting anything but a day of work," said County Attorney Smith.
Mizner said, "You have to recognize these things can happen anywhere and I think we are evidence that this is absolutely the case."
"What happened there is not a reflection on Norfolk. It's a reflection on three or four people who made an unbelievably terrible heinous decision to kill people," said Mike Flood.
Three of the four men convicted of the murders, Jose Sandoval, Jorge Galindo and Erick Vela were sentenced to Nebraska's Death Row.
Prosecutors say the appeals are done for all three. However two of them are in post-conviction proceedings. That means they have new lawyers who are addressing whether there were concerns with how they were represented at trial.
Jose Sandoval had claimed he was high on the drug LSD at the time. Investigators and experts testified at his trial that there was no evidence of it.
The night before the shootings, the group met at Jorge Galindo's apartment to go over the plan. Authorities say he was also involved with the burglary of a sporting goods store where the handguns used in the murders were stolen.
Lawyers for Erick Fernando Vela had argued he was mentally retarded as defined by the state of Nebraska and not eligible for the death penalty. The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected that claim.
Also, court documents say Vela took part in the death of Travis Lundell and was wearing Lundell's watch when he committed the bank murders.
Gabriel Rodriguez, the getaway driver who scoped out the bank minutes before the others came in, is serving five consecutive life sentences at a Federal Prison in Lincoln.
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