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'Caper' at Chase bank was like Redding case

The burglary of a Chase bank vault in south Medford this summer echoes a sophisticated break-in at a Redding bank five years ago, investigators said.

Bank employees arriving to open the bank at 81 E. Stewart Ave. on Monday, July 20, found that the vault had been breached over the weekend and items had been taken from safe deposit boxes, Medford police Detective Sgt. Mike Budreau said. "Somebody had to know the bank and its premises pretty well," he said, noting that the bank has a complete security system including cameras. The security cameras didn't show the inside of the vault, though.

The branch, a former Washington Mutual outlet, had undergone some remodeling — including a new carpet, paint and furniture during the spring — to prepare it for reopening as a Chase branch on June 1, said Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot, a Seattle-based spokeswoman for Chase. JPMorgan Chase bought Washington Mutual last year.

Noting that bank burglaries are far rarer than bank robberies, investigators from the Medford police, Oregon State Police and the FBI sought out other unusual burglaries at banks.

"We've searched other agencies' cases," Budreau said. "Redding's case has a lot of similarities."

In May 2004 in Redding, burglars apparently slipped into a Bank of America branch on Hilltop Drive through a rooftop access door and chiseled their way into a concrete vault, the Redding Record Searchlight reported at the time.

According to Record Searchlight archives, investigators suspected that the thieves might have spent more than a month cracking through the concrete into the vault. An alarm on the vault was tripped during the night numerous times in the five weeks before the crime was discovered, police told the Redding paper at the time.

Each time, officers found the bank's doors and windows secure. However, they never checked the roof, news accounts reported.

When bank employees arrived one Monday morning in mid-May and couldn't open the vault, they blamed a mechanical malfunction of the security system. After almost two days of trying to open the vault, the bank brought in its own security specialists to drill it open and discovered items strewn about inside.

The Bank of America branch had been remodeled just before the burglary, and investigators from the Redding police and FBI interviewed bank employees, painters and air-conditioning maintenance crews and other workers who might have been at the bank. Rewards were offered for information about the case, but it went unsolved.

Budreau said he believed the statute of limitations on prosecuting the California case expired this spring.

Redding police didn't return calls about the case this week.

Medford investigators had remained mum about the details of the Chase break-in, declining until this week to even disclose details about what was targeted or taken in the burglary, which they called substantial and sophisticated.

They had described the crime as "quite a caper," and "the stuff movies are made of."

Details about how the vault was entered still haven't been released. Neither was the total estimated value of the thieves' haul, although Budreau said police were working with people who had leased safe deposit boxes and lost valuables.

Donahoe-Wilmot said the bank was assisting clients so they could make insurance claims. Federal deposit insurance doesn't cover items stored in safe deposit boxes. Experts quoted at bankrate.com recommend adding endorsements or "personal-articles floaters" to homeowners' insurance policies to guarantee that items stored in safe deposit boxes are protected.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.