It was 9:38 in the morning on February 28, 1997 when two gun men marched out of the Bank of America in North Hollywood and rained hellfire upon the LAPD.
Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, a former real-estate grifter, and Emil Dechebal Matasareanu, 30, a 283 pound man who suffered from painful seizures, strode out through the glass doors wearing black masks and full black gear over layers of bulletproof armor with numerous belts of ammo around their waists. They brought immediate destruction bullet by bullet to the North Hollywood neighborhood as they fired an estimated 1100 rounds of armor piercing bullets.
The two men were armed with three fully automatic AK-47's, a .223 Bushmaster rifle, a .308 semiautomatic H&K, and a semiautomatic 9mm Beretta handgun. In contrast, the arriving officers had only their standard issue 9mm Beretta with fifteen rounds apiece.
The first response team awaited outside the bank as the two gun men were shooting inside apparently upset at the lack of funds. (Reportedly, there was only 300,000 dollars compared to the 1.7 million they made off their last two heists). Once the gun men were outside, officers fired round after round into Phillips and Matasareanu, but the bullets just bounced off their weighty armor. Then, the gun men unloaded their automatic rifles filled with hundred round clips and devastation followed.
Wounded pedestrians screamed, officers cried out that they were shot, and the hail of life shredding bullets brought the thunder of doom upon those unlucky to be on the corner of Laurel Canyon Blvd. and Archwood St. that morning. Lethal rounds burned through concrete, ripped through iron fences and cars like butter, and tore through the walls of local businesses as patrons and owners fell to the ground praying that they would survive the ordeal.
In the first five minutes, three civilians and nine officers were injured in the shootout.
Outgunned, officers rushed into a nearby gun store and requested heavier guns and ammo that could break through armor and break bones. Armed with heavier firepower, those officers entered back into the gun battle that would rage on for almost an hour.
Soon, more than 200 police were on hand for the siege. Dozens of police cars, armored personnel carriers, fire engines, and ambulances arrived to help subdue the attackers and attend to the injured.
The deadly shootout was covered by police helicopters who hovered over the scene despite drawing fire from Phillips and Matasareanu. At one point, the police cameras captured footage of one of the gun men calmly opening the trunk of their car, tossing in his assault rifle and selecting another to continue his barrage of bullets.
During the shootout, nine elementary schools were shut down and residents of the middle class neighborhood nearby were advised to stay in their homes. Occurring close to Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros. studios, the busy Hollywood freeway was closed in both directions which back up traffic for miles.
As the gun men continued their murderous assault, it became apparent that they were trying to breach an escape route through the developing police containment. For over twenty minute, it looked like it was a standoff between the heavily armed and armored gun men and the beleaguered LAPD, but around 9:52, Phillip's rifle jammed. Quickly, before any officer could react, he drew another gun and shot himself in the head. Matasareanu, now alone, limped over to their getaway car and slowly drove away, firing randomly out his window.
At 9:56, Matasareanu stopped at an abandoned pick up truck and began transferring weapons from the car and entered the pickup truck. Police officers approached, surrounding the vehicle. Matasareanu got out of the pickup and fired upon the officers. A fierce firefight raged on as the police crouched behind vehicles and closed in on the remaining bank robber. Eventually surrounded, Matasareanu, bleeding from over 29 wounds, challenged the approaching officers to just shoot him in the head. Within the hour, he died.
During the one of the bloodiest shootouts in America, seven civilians were wounded and eleven LAPD officers were injured. Miraculously, nobody, other than the robbers, was killed.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the North Hollywood Shootout. In 1997, more than 1100 banks were robbed in the Los Angeles area. Now, less than 90 robberies are committed each year. The LAPD, once criticized for their lack of ability handling the dangerous criminals that breed in California, are now one of the top law enforcement agencies in the United States specializing in emergency response tactics and new modes of security to prevent crimes like the North Hollywood bank robbery from happening again.
But the question needs to be asked, especially in this new post-9/11 world and a new generation of kids raised on Grand Theft Auto and movies like HEAT, will the LAPD be prepared for another shootout, this time with armed gangs or terrorists and what will be the price to life and liberty if they are not?
Phillips and Matasareanu were not trained assassins, nor were they members of deadly street gangs like Mara Salvathrucha 13. Both had served only brief stints in jail for possession of burglary equipment. The fact that two untrained men held off an assault by over 200 police officers brings up the issue of what the LAPD will do the next time when it is not two novice bank robbers but a group a trained and deadly killers.
Only time, the true test of any action, will tell.
WORLD - CITY LIVING
Copyright © 2010 Crowbar
North Hollywood HEAT: Ten Years Later
Copyright © 2010 Crowbar
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