ST. JOSEPH, La. (AP) — A man whose family owns a store across the street from a bank branch in rural Louisiana took three bank employees hostage Tuesday, then released one of them nine hours later as negotiations continued to secure the others’ freedom, police said.
Louisiana State Police superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson confirmed the release of a female bank teller late Tuesday. He said authorities were talking with her about her ordeal.
Meanwhile, talks continued with the hostage-taker, identified only as a 20-year-old man from the northeastern-Louisiana community.
“It’s a fluid, active scene,” Edmonson told reporters. “We still have two hostages in there and a hostage taker.”
Police said they have no reason to believe any captive has been hurt.
“We feel like we’re being productive,” Tensas Parish Sheriff Rickey Jones said late Tuesday. “The negotiators are doing a good job.”
Earlier Tuesday, Edmonson said that the man had been calm and had made some demands, but he would not describe the demands or further identify the gunman.
“We’re still working with him to determine exactly what his intent is,” Edmonson said.
The gunman, carrying at least a handgun, took two women and a man captive about 12:30 p.m. at the Tensas State Bank branch in St. Joseph, and a negotiator talked with him throughout the afternoon, said Trooper Albert Paxton, a state police spokesman.
The red-brick bank is just off Louisiana Highway 128, a rural stretch of road cutting through cornfields. It is across the street from Trak convenience store, which the gunman’s family owns, in St. Joseph, the seat of Tensas Parish.
Edmonson warned that the standoff could last for some time.
“Our utmost concern right now more than anything else is the safety of those hostages,” he said.
More law enforcement people and equipment would be brought in, he said then. “We’ve got to be prepared to act,” Edmonson said.
The FBI, U.S. marshals, state police and local law enforcement officers were among those responding to the standoff.
Edmonson provided few details about the gunman, except to say he is originally from California and that his family settled in the Louisiana community and opened a convenience store.
“We’re negotiating with him,” Edmonson told CNN. “We’re talking with him. We’ve been on the phone with him. We actually talked to the hostages there. Nothing is more important to me than the safety of those hostages.”
He said some of the suspect’s relatives tried to approach the scene earlier, and that authorities were now working with them.
Mayor Edward Brown said that, as a general rule, the town’s most notable crimes are the occasional drug busts, and some residents are so frightened about what’s happening that they’ve left town.
“It’s a quiet town. Very little crime. So this is amazing,” Brown said.
The town of 1,200 is near the Mississippi River, downriver from Vicksburg, Miss., in northeast Louisiana.
Paxton said he believed that the Trak convenience store was evacuated, but there were few other occupied buildings within the perimeter that state police and the FBI set up.
Richardo (rik-AHR-doh) Miles, a 25-year-old farmworker, said he lives about a half-mile from the bank. He sat on his bicycle at a roadblock near an abandoned hardware store about a quarter-mile away, watching the activities of dozens of first responders, including paramedics and heavily armed men in camouflage.
A helicopter circled overhead in the overcast sky for a time as men, some carrying assault rifles, gathered in the street in front of the bank. Law enforcement trucks also hauled in construction lights, apparently to prepare in case the standoff lasted into the night.
Late Tuesday, authorities had received a request for food from those inside the bank building.
The sight of the state police bomb squad and SWAT team unnerved many people in the sleepy farm town, Miles said.
“It’s kind of startling for the residents. We’re not accustomed to this kind of activity,” said Miles. “Some people are pretty scared. They’re nervous.”
Tensas Parish lies along Mississippi River, but St. Joseph is about a mile from the riverbank and about two miles from a 3,000-acre oxbow lake that long ago was one of the river’s bends. Nearly one-third of the parish’s 5,000 residents live under the federal poverty level, according to U.S. Census figures. Farmland makes up more than 45 percent of the 600-square-mile parish, with most of it in cotton, feed grains, soybeans and wheat.