Bank customers exposed to mysterious substance
Three CIBC branches hit; police still seek suspects
Greg McArthur and Gary Dimmock
The Ottawa Citizen

CREDIT: Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen
Firefighters clear the CIBC branch at St. Laurent Shopping Centre yesterday after customers and employees were exposed to an unknown irritant. Similar incidents occurred at two other CIBC branches.


They thought the women had gone from bank to bank, pulling frauds and spreading poison. In all, three banks would be shut down across town and their customers infected.

But two young women, handcuffed minutes after the crime, were just trying to do some banking.

It was a case of mistaken identity and late last night, police let them go. So with the two women, 16 and 20, now cleared, police have renewed the search for whoever -- or whatever --unleashed the poison that forced CIBC to close their doors at three branches.

It all started just after 2 p.m. when someone walked into a Carling Avenue CIBC branch and tried to open an account, but for whatever reason, a teller thought they were trying to pull a fast one.

Moments later, people in line waiting to do some banking felt like they were choking. Others had scratchy throats and itchy eyes.

One minute, just a suspected fraud. The next, a bank teller feared their customers had been exposed to some sort of poison -- a pepper spray-like substance swirling in the air.

Paramedics, firefighters and police rushed to the bank around 2:09 p.m. Then, two more calls for help came shortly before 3:30 p.m. Dozens of other CIBC customers across town, at branches on St. Laurent Boulevard and Ogilvie Road were reporting similar symptoms.

In each case, they were ushered outside and kept isolated, some behind yellow police tape, others in an OC Transpo bus.

Some 25 customers and bank employees, complaining of headaches and itchy eyes, stood outside the Ogilvie Road branch as police arrested two young women.

At first, police believed they were investigating a 'bizarre' fraud case, and suspected two women had tried to open questionable accounts at all three banks around the same time customers began feeling sick.

There was a path of chaos with paramedics, police and the fire department's hazardous materials team rushing to all three banks.

"It's scary and frightening," said paramedic Robert Davidson, as his patients recovered from respiratory problems outside the Carling and Preston location.

One of the suspects was arrested shortly after 3:30 p.m outside the CIBC branch at the Gloucester Centre on Ogilvie Road. The second suspect, wearing tight jeans and a yellow shirt emblazoned with the Number 7, was handcuffed at 4:28 p.m.

She didn't resist arrest as two female officers patted her down and carefully removed her identification and a $20 bill from her pockets.

They also gently removed earphones from around her neck, tucked under a mop of braided hair, with ill bank customers craning for a good look.

Police believed the women tried to defraud all three banks moments before customers and employees started feeling ill. Or so they thought.

Last night, at 10 p.m, detectives working around the clock cleared both women, saying in fact security tapes showed they had only been to one of the banks in question and had nothing to do with the rash of poisonings.

The fraud case now ruled out, authorities are now searching for the culprits behind the poisonings. Symptoms lasted about an hour and no victims -- including an infant -- were hospitalized.

One by one, bank employees first, then customers at the Ogilvie, were escorted to a waiting ambulance to be checked by a paramedics and a public health nurse.

When the first bank employee stepped out of the ambulance with a clean bill of health, she danced a jig in the parking lot to applause.

The customers, including a mother and infant child, were not clapping. Rather, they were sitting on the pavement, wrapped in blankets, waiting for their turn.

Tammy Thompson, 34, got turned away from the St. Laurent Blvd. branch just after 3 p.m. She had to make a deposit by day's end, so onto the CIBC branch down the road at the Gloucester Centre. She made it just in time.

"I thought it was a holdup. They started closing the doors and told us that if we stayed we were staying at our own risk. So I did the deposit and left," Ms. Thompson said.

Unlike the other customers, Ms. Thompson didn't stick around to checked by paramedics. She felt fine and needed to take care of some errands.

Her deposit slip indicates she was banking at 3:48 p.m. -- 10 minutes after the authorities got a call about the poisoning.

As she drove off, the fire department's hazardous material team was entering the bank in search of the contaminant.

Authorities are now investigating what happened and anyone with information is asked to call them.

 The Ottawa Citizen 2004