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Robbers kill Clearwater bank officer

Two young men robbed a suburban bank Friday, shooting the branch manager to death and forcing a half-dozen others onto the floor while taking an unknown amount of cash.

The men, possibly teenagers, used at least one gun to take control of the AmSouth Bank, said Chief Detective Frank Palombo of the Clearwater Police Department.

The branch manager, 48-year-old Margaret Stevens-Kofskey, was taken from her office to the front of the vault, where she was shot, Palombo said.

It was the first time since October 1986 that a Tampa Bay area bank employee was killed in a robbery, authorities said.

The robbers stayed no more than a minute before fleeing the bank and eluding scores of police officers.

Late Friday, police were searching for two young white men _ one who was wearing a baseball cap and the other who may have been wearing a plaid, flannel shirt. They appeared to be between ages 14 and 23, Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

Police were tipped to the robbery when the bank's silent alarm went off at 2:41 p.m. Friday.

Officers arrived to find about eight people "totally freaked out by the whole thing, totally panicked," Palombo said.

As the manager's body was removed from the building some six hours after the shooting, investigators said they had few leads.

They reviewed the bank's surveillance cameras, though it was not clear if the cameras had photographed the robbers. Police also questioned several young men in the area who even vaguely matched descriptions of the robbers.

Among them was Brian Marsalek, 18, and his friend, Craig Yonke, 19.

Marsalek said he had gone to the bank because he was worried about his sister, Gina, 21, who sometimes cashes her checks there. The two teenagers did not find her.

"We just came up here to look for my sister and see what's going on," Marsalek said. "She hadn't been home in a while."

Shelor said investigators doubted whether the robbery was linked to several other recent holdups, including one Friday at a bank in nearby Tarpon Springs.

No weapon was found at the AmSouth branch, at 3021 Enterprise Road near a shopping plaza and busy McMullen-Booth Road.

The investigation created a grim scene.

As rush-hour traffic crawled by, volunteer police explorers wearing Latex gloves walked gingerly though a vacant lot west of the bank, stooping to sort through weeds. After sunset, they poked with flashlights among the bank's shrubs.

Officers taped three sheets _ normally used to cover murder victims _ across the bank's front door.

"If someone said that happened in Tampa, I wouldn't blink an eye," said Kelly Lynn, who lives in the area and gets her hair done next door to the bank.

"Now that it's happened around here, it's scary," she said.

In Countryside, car vandalism is a more typical crime, she said.

"There are very few homes in this area under $100,000," said Ginger Garnett, who sells homes for Re/Max Today. Garnett's office is in Oakbrook Plaza, next door the AmSouth branch.

When she returned from visiting a property Friday afternoon, she encountered police officers in the hallway.

"The officers told us to lock our doors," she said.

When told of the suspects' descriptions, she wondered about a car with four youths that had parked next to her about 2:15. They looked too young to be out of school, "and they looked at me real funny like," she said.

"What bothers me so much is that the criminals are getting so much younger, and they're doing it for jollies," she said.

Later, across the street, Robin George, 25, arrived for work at Norton's Bar & Grill. She had been warned about the robbery. Her sister, who also works at the bar, had been called.

But George wasn't prepared for what happened when she got out of her car with her 5-year-old nephew, Nicholas. A bystander announced, "One of the ladies over there got her brains blown out."

Nicholas "had never heard anything like that," George said.

"I just told him a lady got shot. He wanted to know why. I said, "I don't know.'

"He said, "Did they catch him?' I said, "Yes.'

"What could I tell him? They're running around in our neighborhood?"

In addition to several recent bank robberies in north Pinellas, federal investigators around the country have noticed a recent increase in violent bank robberies.

"Bank robberies are normally quick," said Special Agent Larry Curtin of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Tampa.

"Robbers want three things _ to get in, get the money and get out without being detected or anyone getting in their way."

FBI agents in Los Angeles and other areas have noticed a trend of so-called "takeover holdups" in which youths accost or injure people inside banks.

But out of 8,300 bank robberies since 1990 in Southern California, only one has resulted in a death, said FBI Agent Bill Rehder, a bank robbery expert. "To have a fatality is not the usual situation."