FINLEYVILLE – A woman on her way to make a deposit at Huntington Bank in Union Township Tuesday afternoon not only witnessed the bank being robbed, but also decided to follow the getaway car.
Outraged that the bank she uses was being robbed just before Christmas, Melissa Spochacz decided to follow the two armed men in their 20s who entered the bank shortly before 4 p.m. to rob it.
“I work every day for my money and Christmas is coming and I’ve got three kids. I can’t stand a thief. I’m not about to let you steal money I work for every day for my three kids,” said Spochacz, of Monongahela, whose 12-year-old son was with her.
The bank robbers fled in a white Jeep Cherokee, but, in his haste, the driver misjudged the contours of the bank’s driveway and drove over a mulched hillside, ripping out the vehicle’s oil pan and leaving a dark liquid trail.
That, said Southwest Regional police Chief John Hartman, helped authorities locate the vehicle. Police contacted area auto mechanics for advice on how far a vehicle could travel without oil and found the Jeep ditched in a tow yard about two miles from the bank.
“Once you wreck the car, it pretty much confounds your plan, whatever your plan was,” Hartman said.
The two men, both black and one wearing a bright orange hunting jacket and the other carrying a book bag, entered the bank as Spochacz was sitting in her car putting together a deposit. She had paid bills the day before and learned her account had a negative balance of $12, so had gone to the bank to make a deposit to cover the overdraft and have enough to purchase Christmas gifts.
As she walked to the front door, she saw one of the men with a gun jump over the counter and realized a robbery was taking place.
She and her son, Tyler Ryan, ran to their car and quickly left the parking lot. She stopped at the first traffic signal she came to and, because her cellphone wasn’t working, yelled at a passerby that the bank was being robbed.
Then a sense of civic duty came over Spochacz and she told her son they needed to return to the bank and try and get a license plate number for police.
Upon returning, they saw the getaway vehicle swerving from the bank onto Route 88. Spochacz said the passenger-side door on the Jeep flew open and for a second she thought the man was going to fall out. Instead, a red dye pack inside a money bag exploded, causing him to throw the bag onto the road.
The SUV then made a sharp left and drove through a parking lot between First Presbyterian and St. Francis of Assisi churches with Spochacz behind, following the Jeep over a concrete barrier.
As they continued past the elementary school and further down Finleyville-Elrama Road, Spochacz fished around in her car, managing to find a purple crayon and a slip of paper to jot down the vehicle’s plate number. She pulled over and asked a man on the street to call 911, giving him the license plate number. Police later learned the license plate had been stolen but were not sure if the SUV had been stolen, too.
Hartman said the robbers may have been trying to reach state Route 43. Hours later, police were unsure if the men were still at large in the area and were advising residents to remain cautious. In addition to Southwest Regional, the state police, its Record and Identification unit and the FBI were investigating the robbery.
Back at the bank, Tyler watched as some motorists driving down Route 88 scooped up bills in the road. Hartman said that money was returned to police but he could not say how much had been recovered or how much the robbers may have gotten away with.
Had she not had her son in the car with her, Spochacz said she may have continued following the Jeep. But as she stood outside the bank, she shuddered to think what could have happened.
Bank clerks inside the building told her the men appeared nervous and were both carrying silver pistols. Spochacz was just seconds from being inside the bank because a woman in a car ahead of her was driving under the speed limit.
She would remember that in her nightly prayers she said.
“I thank God for that lady driving slow.”