DNA science helps break Thousand Oaks murder case, officials say as they search for second suspect

Advancements in DNA science just over the past couple years allowed police to finally make an arrest in the killing of a Thousand Oaks bank teller 26 years ago, officials said Tuesday as they announced murder charges against one suspect and asked for the public's help to find another.

"This was a senseless, unprovoked and vicious murder," Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said at a news conference held at the Thousand Oaks Police Station.

Investigators from the Ventura County Sheriff's Office arrested Kevin Ray James, 55, of San Bernardino late last week on suspicion of murdering bank teller Monica Leech during a bank robbery in 1997 in Thousand Oaks. Prosecutors formally charged him on Monday with first-degree murder, committing murder while engaged in robbery and use of a firearm. He appeared in court by video Monday but has not yet entered a plea.

James personally used the firearm, prosecutors said in a complaint they filed Monday in Ventura County Superior Court. Nasarenko declined to identify what kind of gun it was, citing the ongoing investigation.

Detectives investigated the case "diligently and relentlessly" for many years, but the case eventually went cold for lack of evidence, Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said at the news conference attended by local and Los Angeles media.

Kevin James
Kevin James

Then two years ago in March 2021, investigators reopened the case and obtained further evidence, Fryhoff said. They were able to link James to the murder by amplifying and isolating tiny pieces of DNA evidence that could not be analyzed in the past, officials said.

Sheriff's officials declined to say why they were not able to identify a second assailant through the DNA evidence left at the scene.

No members of Leech's family spoke, but a photo of her surrounded by family members was displayed behind the county and FBI officials who appeared at the news conference.

Leech's widowed husband, Floyd Leech, said he didn't want to speak at the news conference but told The Star in an interview by phone afterward that the suspect's arrest was "kind of a two-edged sword."

"We are happy it got to this point, but it opens up a lot of wounds," said the 70-year-old Camarillo man.

He said the arrest doesn't really give him closure.

"Personally, I don't believe in the term closure," he said, adding that to him that "means we are slamming the door on it and the memories are gone and they'll never be gone."

"Grief is something that lasts forever," he said.

Held without bail

James was arrested Thursday on suspicion of murdering the 39-year-old bank teller during a robbery of Western Financial Bank on April 28, 1997. Investigators say he was one of two men who robbed the now-closed bank on Thousand Oaks Boulevard and killed Leech.

The defendant appeared on video at an arraignment Monday. Judge Derek Malan continued the court proceeding until April 13.

Several supporters who were identified as his fiancée, sister and grown children watched the brief proceeding.

"He didn't do anything," a woman identifying herself as James' fiancée told The Star.

Malan ruled that no bail should be set for James, removing the previous amount of $1 million.

The judge said he was removing bail of any sort because of the special allegation that James was attempting to rob a bank at the time the woman was killed.

It's standard for no bail to be allowed when prosecutors charge someone with murder during a robbery, said Joey Buttitta, a spokesman for the district attorney's office.

An attorney has been appointed to represent James, but he could not be reached for comment.

Kathleen Wilson covers Ventura County courts, crime and government issues. Reach her at kathleen.wilson@vcstar.com or 805-437-0271.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: DNA helps break 1997 Thousand Oaks bank robbery murder case