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Two arrested, at least three sought in bizarre kidnapping, robbery scheme

February 8, 1997

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ More than 100 customers were kept inside a busy check-cashing service for hours Friday by police who believed they had been taken hostage by armed robbers dressed as security guards.

After four tense hours, police determined that no robbers were inside and no money had been taken. All the patrons inside The Financial Exchange, mostly women and children, then filed out one by one. No one was injured.

Two men were arrested and at least three were being sought. Police said as many as eight suspects may have been involved.

The scheme began Thursday night when gunmen kidnapped four people, including a clerk, security guard and assistant manager at the check-cashing service, as well as the assistant manager’s husband.

The four were taken to the assistant manager’s home, where another gunman was holding her 4-year-old daughter.

Early Friday morning, one of the gunmen, dressed as a security guard, went to the check-cashing business with the assistant manager. Police believe the plan was to rob an armored car, but the truck came and went.

Around 10:30 a.m., the assistant manager escaped from the check-cashing service and called police. At noon, when they realized the bandit posing as a security guard and perhaps other suspects could still be inside, police sealed off the building and refused to allow anyone to leave.

At about the same time, the assistant manager’s mother knocked on her daughter’s door. The husband answered, and spotting a passing patrol car, bolted from the house.

The officers later caught one suspect trying to run from the house. The couple’s daughter and the other employees were found huddled in the basement.

Police elsewhere nabbed another suspect after exchanging gunfire with three men inside a car that had been stopped for a routine traffic violation. No was hurt in the gun battle.

Two of the men escaped and were being sought, along with the suspect who had gone to the check-cashing service, who police believe escaped before the building was sealed.

As SWAT officers took up positions outside, business inside went on as usual, with people paying bills and collecting food stamps and welfare checks. Like many check-cashing facilities, Financial District was crowded because government checks are distributed on the first Friday of every month.

Kathleen Jaggers said she had no idea police believed a robbery might be in progress.

``We didn’t see no guns or nothing,″ she said. ``No guns at all.″

Many patrons called family and friends to tell them they were OK, but were unsure what was going on.

``They wouldn’t tell us what happened. There was nothing we could do, expect keep patient,″ said Ken Lewis.

Ray Martinez said he waited more than 45 minutes in his car for his wife to come out before police told him what was going on. ``It was strange,″ he said.

Customers pressed their faces against the front door and windows to watch riot-gear police hold back bystanders outside. Some patrons held notes against the glass and waved. When a small group tried to come out about 2:30 p.m., police ordered them back inside.

About 30 minutes later, an elderly woman tentatively stepped out the front door and into the arms of a police officer who led her to a bus. For the next hour, patrons streamed out one by one.

One woman was wheeled away on a stretcher, her face streaked with tears.

Some hostages were frisked by officers fearing that suspects might try to escape posing as customers. Two men were being questioned after ``acting suspiciously,″ said Police Commissioner Richard Neal.

By 4 p.m., the building had been cleared without a trace of a suspect.

Neal was asked if the customers had ever been in jeopardy.

``At this point, the answer would be no,″ he said.

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