Inside the manhunt for the Oak Lawn bank robber
By Casey Toner email@example.com June 6, 2012 10:26PM
Police tactical teams work on the roof of the Ranch Manor Shooping Center at the scene of a bank robbery and standoff at the Bank of America branch in the strip mall at 111th Street and Pulaski Avenue in Oak Lawn Saturday, June 2, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:53PM
In his mind, the plot probably seemed like a breeze — break in through the bank’s roof, tie up the tellers and make off unscathed with the loot.
Except Charles Estell’s plan had one snag — he didn’t count on the small army of cops cutting off his escape route. And there’s also the air duct that pinned him in.
“As the noose got tighter and tighter, he ended up taken into custody — the way we wanted it to be,” Oak Lawn Police Chief William Villanova said.
Authorities say Estell robbed a Bank of America branch Saturday, making off with about $100,000 in cash. The robbery spurred a massive 10-hour manhunt, bringing in swarms of police from throughout the surrounding area. Estell eventually was caught — he had gotten himself stuck in the ceiling, between an air duct and the corner of the building, authorities said.
The 37-year-old Estell, of Chicago, is charged with felony bank robbery after being caught early Sunday morning.
Police say the hole Estell jumped through Saturday in the roof of the Bank of America branch, 4046 W. 111th St., was more than just a simple incision. The hole penetrated a layer of tar paper and six inches of concrete.
Estell slipped through the hole, navigated the five feet between the roof and the ceiling, and dropped into the bank about 2:12 p.m.
According to the FBI, two employees were working in the vault after the bank closed when Estell blazed in, toting a gun and said, “This is a robbery, get down on the floor, keep your heads down.”
The robber bound the wrists of one employee with black zip ties and duct tape, while the other employee opened the vault, allowing him to empty the contents into a black bag, according to the complaint. Estell also swiped what was there in the teller drawers, the complaint says.
At one point, according to the FBI, Estell tried to calm his hostages, saying, “I don’t want to kill you or hurt you, I just want the money.”
Estell stashed $100,000 in his black backpack, then disappeared back though the ceiling.
At that point, it was probably still going as planned.
One of the employees used his or her feet to call 911. By the time Estell made it to the roof, police were on the scene.
Fearing capture, Estell ran across the shopping center’s roof, and shattered a window to an empty office building that’s connected to the bank, police said. He entered the empty office space and then left minutes later. He ducked back in after a police officer standing outside of the shopping center spotted him.
The manhunt was on. More than 200 police officers from 54 agencies showed. Police spent the next hour and a half, shutting down all the businesses in the shopping center’s first floor.
After checking for the gunman and locking all the business doors, police evacuated the buildings using a South Suburban Emergency Response Team armored vehicle.
Tom Grochowski, the Mr. G’s Ranch Barber Shop owner, said he was alone in his business when a police officer walked in and asked if he had a ladder. Grochowski said the police officer saw Estell on the roof and locked the barber in the adjacent garage.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Grochowski said. “There was so much firepower here, they had the place surrounded. He didn’t have a chance.”
Six or seven minutes later, police let him out of the garage and into his barber shop, where Grochowski waited in the corner with a police officer until he was escorted out about 5 p.m.
“I had a (mole) taken off my head so I told all my grandkids that I was grazed by a bullet,” Grochowski said.
Finding the robber
With the entire complex secured and all of the first-floor businesses cleared out, police doubled their efforts on the second floor, where Estell was last seen.
Police found the knapsack stuffed with stolen bank money, but the weapon Estell was said to have used for the robbery was nowhere in site.
They used robots and surveillance equipment to determine that he was in the western half of the office space. For the final three to four hours of the search, police officers went through the site piece by piece looking for Estell.
Villanova said that different ceiling panels had been removed, leading them to believe Estell was scooting around on top of the air ducts.
At first, they tried to smoke him out using leftover pepper gas Oak Lawn police bought but never used for the NATO Summit. Villanova said the police emptied four tanks of pepper spray above the ceiling hoping to locate him but with no luck.
The pepper spray didn’t affect Estell, but Villanova said the spray was so thick he had a hard time breathing the following day in the office, as the gas had settled into the carpet.
When the gas didn’t work, the officers used electric buzz saws to begin peeling away chunks of the ceiling and the insulation.
Villanova said he was “a little worried,” that Estell had improbably vanished, but officers had found a piece of his clothing in the office space — leading him to believe that he was close. They also found blood on the office wall near where he had scurried up into the rafters.
Estell was found about 12:35 a.m., hiding in a 15-inch wide space between the fire wall and the heating and air conditioning ducts. He was coated with dust and grime and all police could see was his hand.
“When they told him to get his hands up, he could only get one up,” Villanova said. “He was wiggling and squirming and making himself as small as possible, and he found himself in a position he couldn’t get out of.”