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‘Friendly’ bank invites robbery, lawsuit says

LOS ANGELES — Washington Mutual Inc. says it moved tellers out from behind counters to encourage “friendly customer service in a welcoming retail environment,” a design it proudly patented.

WaMu customer Jaime Quiroz Sanchez, a real-estate agent and landlord from Lancaster, says the coffeehouse approach to banking got him robbed at knifepoint of $20,805.

As Sanchez explains it, he was mugged outside the Palmdale branch in April by a man who had seen his cash at one of WaMu’s “teller towers,” kiosks arranged in a circle where khaki-clad employees stand in close proximity to customers, without a teller window or glass barrier in sight.

More than a dozen people looked on as the teller took the money out of two small envelopes, holding $100 bills up one at a time for inspection, then walked away to confer with the branch manager.

“It seemed like an eternity to me,” Sanchez recalled. “He left $20,000 sitting on that little podium. How many times have you looked at a pile of money like that? I looked to the right and the left, and everyone was looking at me. And I could tell the people weren’t having good thoughts.”

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in August, Sanchez accused Washington Mutual of negligence and reckless misconduct. The Seattle-based savings and loan, the nation’s largest, did not immediately file an answer to the lawsuit, which seeks punitive damages and damages for emotional injuries in addition to the stolen sum.

“As a crime victim, he deserves our sympathy,” said WaMu spokesman Timothy J. McGarry. But McGarry declined to discuss specifics of the case, citing the litigation.

In Sanchez’s view, the staff at WaMu’s Palmdale branch had every reason to accommodate him. Although his personal deposits were at other banks, he had about a dozen mortgages with WaMu on his personal and investment properties as well as credit lines secured by the real estate.

Sanchez said most employees knew him well, because for several years he had visited the branch at least once a month to make mortgage payments and conduct other business.

He said that the $20,805 in cash consisted of rental payments from his tenants and that he wanted to combine that money with his credit lines to obtain a $375,000 cashier’s check to buy a small office building.

According to Sanchez, the teller conferred with the branch manager and then refused to accept the cash deposit on the grounds that his driver’s license had expired. Instead, the teller suggested that Sanchez renew the license at a nearby Department of Motor Vehicles office and return afterward, he said.

Sanchez said he told the teller he didn’t feel comfortable leaving the branch with all that cash. “He said, `I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do,’ ” Sanchez said.

According to Sanchez, the bank’s security cameras recorded images of the bandit inside the branch and then outside as he left. The man accosted him as he approached his car, Sanchez said, and after a brief struggle robbed him at knifepoint and fled on foot. No arrest has been made.

Robert K. Scott, the Irvine attorney who filed the lawsuit for Sanchez, said the new design of WaMu’s Palmdale branch was faulty. Customers with large amounts of cash should be able to conduct transactions in private, he said.

The robbery also could have been prevented if the thrift had held the cash until Sanchez could return with a renewed license, he said.

“At the very least, they could have had the security guard walk him out to his car,” Scott said.

Washington Mutual has been in the vanguard of an industry push to open customer-friendly branches designed more like a Starbucks or a casual retail store than an old-fashioned bank. In 2004, WaMu obtained a patent for its design, called Occasio, which features a “concierge” to greet customers, the free-standing stations where they discuss transactions with tellers.

Washington Mutual says it has addressed the security problem —tellers at its newfangled branches don’t have cash that a robber could reach. When customers deposit money, it is put through a slot leading to a safe box. If they want money, they are given a ticket with which they can obtain cash from a machine in the branch.