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REPUBLIC'S CARNIVAL BLUES

By Newsday Staff Monday, March 3 2014

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AS thousands of persons enjoyed themselves at fetes and made final preparations to usher in the start of the reign of the Merry Monarch today, a band of robbers broke into the vault of Republic Bank’s branch in Sangre Grande in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Saturday and made off with close to $4.5 million in cold, hard cash.

Republic Bank made this startling disclosure yesterday as police officers work around the clock to solve this case to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In an advertisement to be published today, Republic Bank said its Sangre Grande branch, on the Eastern Main Road, was “broken into and robbed at approximately 2 am on Saturday 1st March, 2014 (Carnival Saturday).”

“The thieves were able to gain access to the bank’s vault and made off with approximately $4.5 million in cash,” the bank said.

The bank continued, “This branch does not provide a safety deposit locker service, but several items brought in by six customers for safekeeping were tampered with by the intruders.”

The bank said it has prepared an inventory of the items found after the robbery. The six customers in question are due to visit the Sangre Grande branch on Ash Wednesday (March 5) “to verify the contents and identify their items.”

“As is the norm, several of the bank’s staff were interviewed in the process of the investigation. Republic Bank has provided all video footage and other electronic security evidence to the police and continues to work with law enforcement officials to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice,” the statement said.

Efforts to contact Republic Bank officials for further comment on the robbery and the status of the investigation were unsuccessful.

Newsday attempted to contact Bankers Association president Larry Nath but was told he is currently out of the country. Nath is also the current CEO of the First Citizens Group. Efforts to contact Finance Minister Larry Howai, a former First Citizens Group CEO, for comment were also unsuccessful.

Acting Commissioner of Police (CoP) Stephen Williams yesterday said he was aware of the robbery but could not verify the quantum of money that was stolen. He indicated that Deputy CoP (Crime) Glenn Hackett is overseeing the investigation. Williams explained Hackett would apprise him of any major development in the case.

Newsday understands police investigators have been able to lift fingerprints off the vault which are being analysed.

Meanwhile, four persons who were in police custody overnight Saturday assisting with the inquiries have been released pending further investigation.

Investigators reported the robbers entered the bank by forcing open a door at the back of the branch at about 12.30 am on Saturday. The robbers then went to a room where money and other items belonging to customers are kept.

Newsday understands a security guard posted at the branch made a report that the back door of the bank had been opened. A party of police officers led by Sgt Harper and PC Keshan Sankar of the Sangre Grande CID responded. On arrival they discovered the bank’s vault was open and empty. Safety deposit boxes with money kept at the bank were also missing.

The CID police officers were joined by Sangre Grande Task Force and members of the Robbery Squad led by Sgt Blake.

As word spread about the robbery, customers were seen rushing to the ATM machine later on Saturday to retrieve cash.

From all indications, the robbery appears to be one at the most high profile crime of its kind in recent times.

On January 31, 2013, a sum of $70,000 was stolen from Republic Bank’s branch in Point Fortin.

In that incident, men wearing track suits entered the branch at about 8.30 am, pretending to be customers. According to police reports, they pulled masks over their faces, walked up to two female tellers, pulled out guns and ordered them to fill two plastic bags with cash. The robbers forced a customer to hand over the keys to his van which they used as their getaway vehicle.

Local banks were estimated to have lost close to $17 million in local currency and US$150,000 when a panel van transporting money for banks in Tobago was attacked by armed robbers while en route to Piarco International Airport around 4.30 am on November 27, 2013. Sentinel Security Services guard Bert Clarke was killed in that robbery.

Commenting on that crime last year, Nath said it prompted all commercial banks to “revisit all of their security arrangements” when sending money to Tobago. Nath said the Bankers Association was “working closely with the protective agencies in the recovery of the sums involved and also the apprehension of the perpetrators.”

On July 20, 2006, a lone robber walked unmasked into Scotiabank’s branch in Couva around 1.45 pm and forced a teller to hand over $17,000 in cash to him. On May 27, 2006, bandits used a blow torch to gain access to the ATM safe deposit at Scotiabank’s Penal branch and escaped with over $30,000 in cash. Two men were charged for that crime.

On July 18, a robbery was foiled at Scotiabank’s El Socorro branch when an alarm went off in the ATM.

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