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Bizarre robbery attempt, kidnapping, leave customers rattled

February 8, 1997

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ An elaborate scheme to rob a busy check-cashing center by kidnapping workers ended in a gun battle on city streets and police detaining more than 100 bewildered customers.

Several armed men were involved in the botched robbery plot that began Thursday afternoon with the kidnapping of two workers outside The Financial Exchange, a downtown Philadelphia check-cashing center.

It ended Friday with nothing stolen, two men arrested, a few suspects on the lam, no injuries and about 120 check-cashing customers rattled after being trapped inside the center as police sorted out what was happening.

The center was crowded with women, children and senior citizens. Many of the customers were trying to cash government checks, which are distributed on the first Friday of each month.

``We really got scared. Kids were crying.″ Ken Lewis, 30, said. ``We weren’t sure if there was a bomb in the walls or what. No one knew. There was a phone booth in there. People were making phone calls to their loved ones.″

Kathleen Jaggers, 47, said she never saw any robbers and had no idea that police believed a robbery was occurring.

``I hid my daughter underneath a table, just in case they start shooting,″ she said.

After about three hours, officers decided to let people out one by one.

The plot was set into motion about 5:30 p.m. Thursday when four gunmen kidnapped a clerk and assistant manager Nancy Ruiz while they were waiting for rides outside the center. Ms. Ruiz’s husband, who arrived to pick up his wife, was grabbed as well.

All three were taken to the Ruiz home, where another gang member was holding the woman’s 4-year-old daughter.

One of the gunmen then returned to The Financial Exchange about 2 a.m. with Ms. Ruiz to kidnap the center’s security guard. They were taken back to Ms. Ruiz’s home where the guard was ordered to strip.

A gunman dressed in the guard’s clothes then returned to the center with Ms. Ruiz just before dawn. The others remained at Ruiz home, about three miles away.

Investigators believe the plotters’ target was not only the check-cashing center but an armored car due to arrive Friday morning. Ms. Ruiz opened the center at 9 a.m., going about the business of cashing checks while the gunman posed as a guard.

But the scheme unraveled when Ms. Ruiz’s husband escaped from the house and flagged down a passing patrol car.

Police phoned Ms. Ruiz and arranged for her to slip away from the bogus security guard. At about the same time, they moved in on her house.

A gunman was caught as he bolted out of the house. A few blocks away, police stopped a car with three suspects and a gunfight ensued. One man was caught, but the others fled on foot and were still being sought today.

Back at the center, police had surrounded the place by 11 a.m. and refused to let anyone out, including customers, for fear that a suspect might blend in with the crowd and escape.

It was unclear if the armored car was diverted by police, or if it came and left without incident.

The bogus guard apparently had given police the slip, although two men were taken into custody for ``acting suspiciously,″ Police Commissioner Richard Neal said.

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