JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A U.S. Marshal speaks with local emergency personnel Tuesday afternoon near the Tensas State Bank in St. Joseph, where a gunman was holding three bank employees hostage.
JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A U.S. Marshal speaks with local emergency personnel Tuesday afternoon near the Tensas State Bank in St. Joseph, where a gunman was holding three bank employees hostage.

Man releases 1 of 3 hostages from St. Joseph bank

Published 12:00am Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ST. JOSEPH, La. — A man, whose family owns a store across the street from Tensas State Bank, 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 ordeal. The remaining hostages include another female bank teller and a male bank employee.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued with the hostage-taker, identified only as a 20-year-old man from the community in eastern Louisiana. 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. “The negotiators are doing a good job.”

Edmonson said earlier Tuesday that the man has been calm and has made some demands, but the police official would not describe the demands or further identify the gunman.

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“We’re still working with him to determine exactly what his intent is,” Edmonson said.

Law enforcement officers from four parishes — including the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office — responded to the incident, according to the Tensas Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The gunman, carrying at least a handgun, took the hostages captive about 12:30 p.m. at the Tensas State Bank branch in St. Joseph, and the negotiator talked with him throughout the afternoon, said state police spokesman Trooper Albert Paxton.

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A Gulfstream jet registered to the U.S. Department of Justice landed at the Natchez-Adams County Airport at approximately 8:30 p.m., presumably carrying federal agents responding to the standoff.

A Louisiana State Police helicopter also landed at the airport Tuesday evening. Adams County Sheriff’s Office officials escorted a group of cars from the airport across the Mississippi River Bridge.

The red brick bank is just off Louisiana Highway 128, a rural stretch of road cutting through cornfields, and 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 will be brought in.

“This is a fluid situation. We’ve got to be prepared to act,” Edmonson said.

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.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also set up a no-fly zone within a 5-mile radius of the town for aircraft flying below 3,000 feet.

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.

At approximately 4:30 p.m., a family member of the gunman was arrested after he apparently tried to rush toward the bank.

“It was a family member trying to get there to help out,” Edmonson said. “When someone else comes in the scene that doesn’t belong, we have to stop what we’re doing and address those particular individuals.”

Richardo 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 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.

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 the 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.