A firefighter walks in front of a burning building.

Blasts from the Past: Two Unsolved Bombings Destroy Vacaville Banks

At different ends of the Twentieth Century, two sensational bombings took place at Vacaville banks.

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1990 Security Pacific Bank Bombing in Vacaville

Early on the Halloween morning of Oct 31, 1990, Vacaville residents living near the Security Pacific Bank were roused from their sleep by the sound of a tremendous explosion. When the locals peered outside to investigate, they saw chunks of the bank had been blown clear across the street and onto the rooftops of nearby houses. A fire ensued and before long there wasn’t much left of the bank that once stood on the corner of Alamo and Abacete Drives. A local construction company was hired to clear the rubble. 

So what happened? Had a gas leak caused the explosion or was something far more sinister to blame? The town wondered. A bank located across the street had in fact been robbed the previous month. Coincidence? Two other Vacaville banks had also been robbed that same September. Could all these somehow be related? The blast was being investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and members of the Solano County Fire Investigations Unit. 

At a press conference a few days later, officials declared arsonists were in fact responsible for the bank’s demise. Perhaps to the dismay of the perpetrators, the bank’s vault was the only thing that managed to survive the explosion. Investigators said they would now be turning their focus onto identifying the culprits. 

Nearly 33 years later and still no one has been held responsible. Could it really be that easy to blow a building to smithereens and get away scot free? Apparently so. As it turns out, Vacaville had witnessed a similar bank explosion some 77 years earlier, when Vacaville was a much smaller and quieter town. 

1913 Bank of Vacaville Bombing

Long ago on the night of Feb 12, 1913, an employee at Bentley’s Cafe on Main Street in downtown Vacaville was just finishing up his shift for the night. A friend accompanying the employee stood by as the worker collected the day’s money from the register. It was at this moment the friend caught a glimpse of a man standing outside the cafe’s window. Mistaking the man for someone he knew, the friend walked outside to say hello. But the stranger wasn’t very friendly. He put a gun to the friend’s face and ordered him back inside.

When the friend told the employee about his encounter with the masked man, the employee headed towards a telephone located by the cafe’s front window. The gunman, standing outside and ever vigilant of the pair’s movements, responded by firing his pistol through the window, narrowly missing the employee’s head.

The friend managed to duck under a counter and reach for the phone, only to discover the line had been severed. The two men tried to escape through the cafe’s back door, but they were stopped by another masked gunman waiting in the alley. Again, the pair was ordered back inside.

A Wells Fargo agent asleep in his downtown living quarters was awakened by the sound of gunfire. When the agent stepped outside to investigate, the gunman standing watch over the street approached the agent and ordered him inside as well. What were these gunman up to? The answer became clear in the moments that followed.

A series of thunderous explosions shook the downtown area. The blasts came from the Bank of Vacaville, located on Vacaville’s Main Street next to the Odd Fellows Building. The explosions had successfully penetrated both the outer and inner doors of the vault. Unfortunately for the robbers, one of the blasts also tipped over the heavy safe, obstructing the doorway made open by the explosion. The robbers were unable to retrieve the roughly $30,000 trapped inside. 

The loud blasts also jarred residents living in the area, so the bandits decided to flee before emergency responders had a chance to arrive. It was later learned the burglars had also stolen a car belonging to W.H. Buck and had severed the town’s telephone wires in an effort to elude capture. But the bandits only managed to cut the local wires. Officials were still able to notify surrounding areas to the presence of the armed fugitives.

Buck’s vehicle was located in Woodland the next day. Investigators suspected the group likely caught a train there bound for Sacramento. Sure enough, a number of suspects were taken into custody a few days later, but eye witnesses failed to positively identify the men. The suspects were let go, and no one was ever charged for the crimes.

Repairs were made to the Bank of Vacaville and a new safe installed. The Bank of Vacaville was incorporated in 1883 and played a key role in financing Vacaville’s agricultural and commercial expansion over the years. In 1920, the Bank finished construction of a new building, located at 500 Main Street and presently The Law Offices of David W. Knecht. The Bank of Vacaville would later merge with the Bank of Italy, eventually becoming part of Bank of America.

The two bank blasts separated by nearly eight decades remain unsolved to this day. Perhaps if modern surveillance or forensic technology had been around at the time, investigators would have more to go on.

And maybe such brazen bank bombings will be a thing of the past, with today’s criminals pulling off more modern heists with things like ransomwares and cyberattacks. Only time will tell.

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