A teller from the Regions Bank branch robbed in March by a knife-wielding woman told a Smith County jury on Monday that he "froze and evaluated my life," when he saw Vanessa Ashley Ashford, 28, who was wearing a ski mask, come into the bank lobby.
"I thought of my wife and wondered if I was about to die," Mason Wilson told the jury in the 241st District Court.
Wilson testified that Vanessa Ashley Ashford, who pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated robbery on Monday, came into the bank on March 29 and said, "This is a robbery and it's not a joke."
Ms. Ashford opted to have a jury decide her punishment for the robbery, which took place at 1810 SSE Loop 323. She took $7,000 in cash in a bag, which tellers also loaded with exploding dye packets. After Ms. Ashford traveled a short distance from the bank, the dye packets, which also contain tear gas and hot red paint, exploded inside her car, Smith County Assistant District Attorney Jason Parrish said.
The jury can give the defendant probation or up to life in prison at sentencing, Parrish said. Tyler police arrested her after she pulled over to place her outer clothing and the bag of money inside the trunk of her car.
The defendant also confessed to the Feb. 29 robbery of the Telco Credit Union, 620 W. Front St. in Tyler, Tyler police said in March. Ms. Ashford obtained $6,000 from that robbery. Parrish said Monday he would try Ms. Ashford in that case in a separate trial.
Wilson testified that the knife Ms. Ashford held was about 6 to 8 inches from him. He said about 2½ feet of counter space inside the bank lobby separated them.
The defendant asked Wilson and several other tellers to empty each of their drawers of cash. Prosecutor Jeff Wood asked Wilson what he remembered during that time. "My mind was in survival mode -- I knew I needed to protect these ladies and keep my co-workers and myself safe," he said.
Wilson said the effects of the robbery still linger for him. "I'm a little more paranoid. I have my guard up a lot more. ... It has changed me ..." he said.
Vicente Alfaro, who worked as a personal banker for Regions Bank on the day of the robbery, said "Everything seemed to go in slow motion on that day. ... The first thing I saw was a mask," he said of the ski mask Ms. Ashford wore.
Alfaro said he was sitting at a desk in the lobby and was about to push a button to notify police when the defendant told him to raise his hands.
Defense attorney Jeffery Grass told the jury in his opening statements that Ms. Ashford took responsibility for what she did by pleading guilty to the robbery.
Grass said there were other factors to consider, including that the defendant robbed the bank with a knife instead of a gun, whether she acted threatening during the robbery, and how much money she took.
He described the difficult life his client had while growing up as one of 11 children of a single mother in Palestine, wondering where her next meal would come from. Grass said Ms. Ashford became a certified nursing assistant and worked 16-hour days to support herself and a boyfriend who promised to take care of her financially if she would agree to pay his debts.
After Ms. Ashford's boyfriend left her, she went to Dallas to live with a brother, but soon found herself homeless and desperate, Grass said. That is when Ms. Ashford, who was on her way to Palestine to visit her mother, decided to rob the Regions Bank, sitting in the parking lot for an hour before doing so, Grass said to the jury.
He told the jury at the conclusion of his opening statement, "This country believes in second chances."