Kidnapped and threatened with dynamite, bank manager forced to commit $360,000 robbery to save her daughter’s life
In November 2000, Michelle Renee, a bank manager, was held hostage with her 7-year-old daughter Breea and forced to rob the bank where she worked in Vista, California. Take a look behind the scenes at some evidence that helped investigators solve the case.
“Single mom grind”
In 2000, Renee was a single mom working as a bank branch manager. “48 Hours” contributor Tracy Smith asked her about her life at the time.
“I was … on that single mom grind, you know,” said Renee. “I was running a bank and I had a career. I was loving where I was living. I really loved my job.”
Renee lived in Vista, California, with her daughter Breea and a roommate. On the night of Nov. 21, 2000, Renee and Breea were at home on the couch when three masked gunmen wearing all black broke into the house through the back door. They pointed guns at Renee and the 7-year-old’s heads and forced them down to the floor.
Held captive with duct tape
The gunmen bound Renee and Breea with duct tape. Renee recalled hearing Breea ask “Are you going to kill my mommy? Are you going to kill me?” One of the men said, “No, not if your mommy does everything that we tell her to do.”
Renee says one of the masked men, who did most of the talking, appeared to be the ringleader. He told her they had been watching her for months. They knew where Renee worked, and they wanted her to rob her bank the next morning
The intruders held Michelle and Breea Renee and their roommate hostage all night. They went over the game plan for the bank robbery and threatened to kill them if Michelle didn’t follow their instructions. In the morning the men strapped what they said was dynamite on Renee, her daughter and their roommate.
“You will disintegrate”
The intruders showed Renee what looked like a doorbell. She says she was told that it was a detonation device, and if she messed up, they could set off the dynamite. According to Renee, the ringleader told them, “If you try to run, you will disintegrate. If you try any funny business, you will all be killed.”
Michelle Renee drove her Jeep to the bank with the ringleader crouched in her back seat. He held a gun to her side while she drove and told her, “Do everything you would normally do.”
With dynamite on her back, Renee waited for the Brinks truck. She had her usual briefcase, but it was stuffed with a duffle bag she was instructed to fill with money from the vault. Once the Brinks truck arrived, she grabbed her briefcase and went into the vault. She stuffed the duffle bag with money as fast as she could
Take the money and go
A few minutes later, Renee walked out of the bank with $360,000 and handed it to the ringleader, who was waiting in her Jeep. He told her where to drive, took the money and said, “… go straight home. Don’t go to the bank. Don’t call the cops. Nothing.”
Renee rushed home and found Breea and their roommate unharmed. The men had removed the dynamite from their backs and left the house. But the ringleader had forgotten the dynamite on Renee’s back.
Renee, Breea and their roommate ran to the nearest neighbor who called 911 and authorities soon arrived. The bomb squad quickly determined that the dynamite used to threaten them had been fake all along. It appeared to be nothing more than cut up broomsticks painted red and strapped with wires and tape, made to look like real dynamite.
Reliving the trauma
After the kidnapping and robbery, Renee and her daughter were sent to a hotel. They would never live in the house again where they were held hostage. But investigators would later ask Michelle to return to the house and walk through the events of the night of the break-in and bank robbery the following morning.
Reenactment photos with dynamite
Prosecutor Tom Manning said that Renee’s story of what happened matched her roommate’s and Breea’s. Investigators also recreated the fake dynamite sticks and strapped them to Michelle, Breea and Kimbra’s backs again. They took photos of them that would later be used in court.
“Get that card”
During the hostage situation, Renee recognized the ringleader’s eyes – he had been at the bank hours before the break-in, posing as a customer. He had talked to Renee about opening a new account and had even left his business card. After the robbery she says she told investigators, “Check my desk. Get that card.” The name on the card was Christopher Butler.
Traffic stop arrest
Christopher Butler and Lisa Ramirez were arrested during a traffic stop on Dec. 1, 2000. In the trunk and glove compartment of the car, police found some damning evidence including Michelle Renee’s credit cards, money straps from the bank, a BB gun that looked like a real gun described by Renee, the duffle bag used to carry the money out of the bank, black clothing and ski masks like the ones Renee had described.
During the hours they were held hostage, Renee had heard the ringleader talking to a woman over a walkie-talkie. Renee said they called each other “Money One” and “Money Two.” Renee says she had recognized the voice. It was Lisa Ramirez, and she had been in the bank with Christopher Butler earlier that day. In her interview with investigators, Ramirez confirmed it was her voice on the walkie-talkie.
During his police interview, Butler denied having any part in the bank robbery, and tried to protect Ramirez. But Ramirez implicated Butler and the other suspects. She also told police it was her idea to use fake dynamite and kidnap the bank manager to commit the bank robbery.
Through interviews, investigators also identified the other two men who had held Michelle and Breea Renee hostage. One of those men was Christopher Huggins. His arrest records confirm that investigators recovered $93,000, part of his share of the stolen cash.
A fourth suspect, Robert Ortiz, was on the lam. Investigators determined he was the masked man who had held a gun to Breea’s head, and evidence showed he was the connection who had helped the men acquire guns. Ortiz was arrested in February 2001 in Wisconsin.
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