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The statute of limitations expired at midnight Sunday for the nation’s biggest bank robbery, in which two men got away with 540 million yen in cash from a Kobe bank in 1994, police said Monday.

One of the two men police believe were involved committed suicide in 1997. The other, Yoshihiro Morimoto, 51, a former gangster, evaded capture even though more than 130,000 police officers took part in investigating the Aug. 5, 1994, robbery.

The incident took place at around 9:20 a.m. in the parking lot of the bank’s Chuo Ward branch.

Three employees were unloading three metal cases containing cash when two men confronted them with what looked like a handgun and forced them into the bank vehicle. The two men then took the cases and fled in a van.

Police issued an arrest warrant in October 1999 for Morimoto. His suspected accomplice, Kim Il Chol, 58, committed suicide in November 1997 after he had been questioned by police.

Morimoto, believed to have fled to South Korea just after the robbery, gave a female friend several million yen in cash and asked her to exchange them for dollars.

The woman grew suspicious and turned over some of the 10,000 yen bills to police, who identified Morimoto as a suspect after confirming that the numbers on the bills matched those of the stolen money.

Police pursued Morimoto in Shizuoka, Tokyo, Toyama and Aichi prefectures, and dispatched investigators to South Korea and Hong Kong, where he was believed to have traveled on a forged passport.

The statute of limitations was to expire last August but was extended after police confirmed that Morimoto had spent a total of 239 days abroad.

Investigators are still trying to track down Morimoto in South Korea, because they can arrest him if they can prove he has spent more than 239 days abroad since the crime.

Chiba mall raid

CHIBA (Kyodo) Six to seven men attacked three guards with clubs at a shopping center in Inage Ward, Chiba, early Monday and made off with bags containing about 77 million yen in cash, police said.

One of the guards, Noriyoshi Nozawa, 49, was seriously wounded when he was hit on the head and other areas of his body in the attack, which occurred in One’s Mall Shopping Center at around 1:50 a.m., police said.

The two other guards suffered minor injuries. Nozawa and his coworkers had collected cash at 10 locations in Chiba Prefecture before coming to the shopping center, police said.

The assailants fled in a brown station wagon after grabbing about 90 out of 190 bags from a cash transport vehicle, police said, adding the getaway car had a Sodegaura, Chiba, license plate with the numerals “5766.”

Two of the robbers covered their faces in white towels and wore helmets.

According to the security company that employs the guards, they were collecting and delivering money to about 30 locations mainly in Chiba Prefecture from Sunday night.

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