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2 killed in Bessemer bank robbery
Suspect tries to flee Wachovia branch with hostage, shot by police

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

BESSEMER — Police identified the suspect in Monday's fatal shooting of two tellers at a suburban bank branch as William Merriweather Jr. of Bessemer.

Bessemer police spokesman Sgt. Hank Edwards said investigation was ongoing and that as of Monday evening no official charges had been brought against Merriweather, described as being "in his 30s."

Two female bank tellers were fatally shot and two others wounded during the robbery Monday morning. Merriweather was shot by officers at the scene as he apparently tried to leave with a woman as a hostage. Bessemer Police Chief Nathaniel Rutledge said the suspect entered the Wachovia branch and opened fire on tellers after demanding money. He said it's believed only the lone gunman was involved, but investigators are checking out "speculation" there was a second suspect outside the bank.

Rutledge said the suspect entered the bank shortly after it opened at 9 a.m. He declined to elaborate further on what happened inside the bank but said video from surveillance cameras was being reviewed.

The suspect was hospitalized after being shot. He was released from the hospital Monday afternoon and booked into the Jefferson County Jail. Edwards said he did not believe Merriweather had hired a lawyer by Monday evening.

FBI spokesman Paul Daymond said at least one deputy was driving by the bank when he saw a man coming out of the bank with a hostage. Jefferson County sheriff's deputies said the man was holding a gun to the head of a woman when he tripped, giving officers a chance to shoot and capture him.

The police chief, at a news conference, said a passer-by realized what was going on when the gunman emerged with a hostage and tried to intervene. But the chief would not say what happened and the identity of the hostage was not released.

Victims identified

Wachovia spokeswoman Evelyn Mitchell said eight employees were inside the bank when the shooting occurred. Police identified the two dead tellers as Sheila Prevo and Eva Hudson. Their age and hometown were not given. Mitchell said Prevo had worked at Wachovia for just over two years, and Hudson had been with the company for nearly four years.

"It's a deep pain within when something like this happens," said Rutledge.

Two bank employees were taken to UAB Hospital. Police at the news conference said Anita Gordon was in critical condition and LaToya Freeman was treated and released.

Hospital spokesman Bob Shepard said a third person also was being treated — apparently the alleged gunman — but no further information was immediately available. The police chief, who answered few questions at the news conference, would not comment on whether any money was taken in the robbery.

Matt Watkins, who was in a nearby pharmacy, said he heard three shots — "pop, then pop-pop" — and looked toward the bank parking lot, where he saw a man, apparently the wounded suspect, "flopping around." He said he also saw a big man running toward woods, presumably the person who set off speculation about a second suspect.

Yellow crime scene tape was stretched around the one-story white brick building, which is beside a Motel 6 and fronts a four-lane section of highway on the edge of downtown Bessemer, a city of 30,000 on the southwestern edge of Birmingham. Evidence markers were placed on the asphalt in the parking lot, and police investigators appeared to be concentrating on the main entrance.

Watkins said he is a customer at the bank and familiar with the lobby.

"There were never any security guards," he said.

Surveillance video cameras are visible outside the bank, and the Wachovia spokeswoman said the company has "a number of processes and procedures to protect our branches and facilities."

"This is a tragic and unfortunate situation, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families," the bank said in a statement.

Mitchell said grief counselors were being provided for Wachovia personnel.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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