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By Kendra Sitton

Paul Kruze also contributed to this report

Photo, left by Jake Rose:  Chase bank collapses as arson fire engulfs downtown La Mesa branch

June 4, 2020 (La Mesa) -- “Crazy people burned down my bank!” a customer explained to the teller at a Chase branch on Grossmont Ave. early Monday, June 1.

Branches of Chase Bank and Union Bank were both burned to the ground after protests turned fiery late Saturday night. Despite riot police and other reinforcements from the San Diego Sheriff's department, La Mesa Police and Heartland Fire were overwhelmed as rioters overran the citywreaking havoc that slowed responses.

“It’s a total loss,” said Diana Rodriguez, managing director of corporate communications at Union Bank.

JP Chase spokesman Peter Kelley told ECM, “We’re here to help our customers and communities. We’ll review the site as we continue to serve the community. Impacted customers can find other nearby branch locations on the Chase mobile app and .”  Chase did not respond when asked whether the company will rebuild its downtown La Mesa branch.

On Monday morning, the first day the banks reopened since the events, other branches of those banks saw additional customers. Despite the influx, the Grossmont Center location of Chase Bank was able to quickly process customers so there was almost no line by 10 a.m.

Across town, a very different scene was playing out. At the Union Bank branch on Lake Murray Blvd., an employee explained to customers waiting in a line wrapping around the sidewalk that they were seeing four times as many customers as usual that morning and did not have the staffing levels to accommodate it. According to that employee, another Union Bank branch in Santee was also impacted by the protests: its windows were boarded up and they were not seeing customers. The two branches being closed created a huge line at the Lake Murray branch.

“We do expect that as a result of Spring Street [branch] not being available that the other branches will see added volume. That's inevitable,” Rodriguez said.

Regular customers are being redirected to three proximate Union Bank branches in Lemon Grove Ave., Euclid Ave., and Lake Murray Blvd.

At the Lake Murray Branch, customers standing in the sun, six feet apart, grew impatient on the warm morning. A regular customer of that branch said she had never seen it so crowded despite coming several times per week as part of her job.

Another customer was at the branch for the first time after the closure of the Spring Street location.

“It’s hard to believe something like this would happen, especially in La Mesa,” said the woman.

Photo, left by Miriam Raftery: Flames flared up at burned Union Bank on Sunday afternoon, May 31

In addition to crowding at other branches, the fire has brought up other logistical concerns. Rodriguez said funds left at the night deposit box at Union Bank before 9:30 a.m. on Friday, May 29 were processed as usual but those who deposited after that point need to call the bank for assistance. All ATM deposits were processed and credited to the proper accounts, so customers do not need to worry in that case.

Union Bank’s safety deposit boxes were inside a fireproof vault but Rodriguez expects that many items will have smoke damage. The vault is currently inaccessible. A barrier has been placed around the remains of the bank and a security has been engaged to protect the vault. Staff are working with law enforcement to access the vault.

“We have proactively reached out to those clients who have safety deposit boxes with us via email last night. And for those who don't have email, via letters to let them know that as soon as we are able to safely access those safety deposit boxes that we will invite them in by appointment so that they can access their content,” Rodriguez said.

None of the employees at Union Bank have lost their jobs because of the situation. Instead, they are being redistributed to nearby branches.

Meanwhile, Union Bank promises to rebuild its La Mesa branch.

“We are absolutely going to rebuild the La Mesa branch. We are committing to doing that,” Rodriguez said.

Photo, left from a video livestreamed Saturday night shows one of several arsonists inside the Randall Lamb building, a block from the two banks, which also burned down.

Videos live-streamed by multiple people during the long night of mayhem reveal that many people participated in the brazen destruction of these properties as well as looting and vandalism at dozens of other La Mesa businesses. It is not yet known who organized these crimes, but reports have surfaced of roving bands of criminals taking advantage of large protests around the country to commit crimes. 

If you have any information on those who destroyed any of these properties, please contact the Federal Bureau of  Investigation (FBI).

Kendra Sitton is a local editor at San Diego Community Newspaper Group who also serves as the editor of San Diego Uptown News and Downtown News. A freelance reporter for ECM and other publications, she has won awards in 2019 for her articles on San Diego Police Department policies regarding transgender civilians and other LGBTQ issues. She holds a degree in mass communications with minors in sociology and global cultural studies at Concordia University Irvine.Her coverage for ECM has included border, immigrant and refugee communities, land use issues and the recovery of Deerhorn Valley ten years after the Harris wildfire.

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