One Of The Most Violent Police Shootouts In Modern American History Happened In L.A. 20 Years Ago
At around 9:17 a.m. on February 28, 1997, a white '87 Chevrolet Celebrity pulled up to the Bank of America branch at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. The two men in the car were Larry Phillips, Jr., 26, and Emil Mătăsăreanu, 30. What happened next has been burned into the memory of the LAPD (and police departments around the country) as one of the most violent and dramatic police shootouts in modern American history.
According to the National Geographic Channel, Phillips was the mastermind of the pair. In addition to his love of guns, Phillips also had a love/hate relationship with wealth. Phillips' brother, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times in 1997 on the basis of anonymity, "described scary outings in which Larry would drive him through the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and then park outside the homes of the well-known to watch them come and go, visualizing himself in their places. 'If those people knew how close he was, not just once, but on a daily basis, their skin would crawl,'" Phillips' brother said. Beyond that, he added that his brother was an extremely manipulative person. "You can't imagine how manipulative my brother was," he continued. "He tried to break your mind down and then build it up again so that you would become one of his crew."
This tactic worked particularly well on Mătăsăreanu—who was unemployed and suffered from epilepsy and followed Phillips's command. He also had an impressive build at 286 pounds. One report adds that Mătăsăreanu "had been suicidal since he underwent brain surgery in 1996."
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu first met at a gym around 1989. The pair had been suspects in at least three armed robberies throughout Los Angeles since then, and were referred to by the LAPD as the High Incident Bandits. They were also wanted for murder.
As the duo pulled up to the Bank of America in February '97, their nerves were calmed by the muscle relaxer phenobarbital, and the trunk of their car was stocked with multiple fully-automatic machine guns, several hand guns, and 3,000 rounds of ammunition (most in 100-round drums).
"The robbers had five fully automatic weapons: three Norico 7.62-by-39-millimeter Chinese Model 56S-1 assault rifles; a Heckler and Koch .308-caliber Model 91; and a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, Model XM15-ES2," an L.A. Times report from March 1997 notes. "LAPD spokesman Jason Lee said all three weapons resemble the AK-47 and that it is illegal to possess any of these rifles in California."
The two then entered the bank, decked head-to-toe in black ski-masks and body armor, and immediately opened fire.
The bandits planned to haul in nearly $750,000, adds the Crime Museum, but only ended up with about $303,000 from the bank's vault.
According to National Geographic, as Philips and Mătăsăreanu entered the bank, two officers driving by on Laurel Canyon (by sheer coincidence) spotted the ski-masked pair and suspected that they were the notorious High Incident Bandits. The officers circled back to the bank and radio in a suspected "211" (code for armed bank robbery).
At around this same time, a civilian witness who had seen the two armed men enter the bank also called the police and reported the incident. Then-Chief of the LAPD Willie Williams reports that the first back-up arrived at the bank at 9:21 a.m., followed by several more officers, and aerial support arrived by 9:24 a.m. "The suspects continued their assault inside the bank as additional Department personnel arrived," Williams writes, adding that 50 rounds were believed to be fired inside the bank during this time.
Finally, at 9:25 a.m., "Phillips emerged from the north doors of the bank into the entrance alcove." With his assault rifle in hand, Phillips spotted the battery of officers awaiting him and begins "firing his fully automatic rifle toward officers at the intersection of Archwood Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard."
Meanwhile, "Mătăsăreanu exited the bank onto the south alcove and began firing bursts of automatic gunfire [to the] north, south, and west," Williams continued. "Over a period of several minutes, Mătăsăreanu re-entered and exited the bank approximately three times. Each time Mătăsăreanu exited, he sprayed the areas north, south, and west along Laurel Canyon Boulevard with automatic rifle fire."
What followed was a 44-minute gunfight that played out on live television, moved across several city blocks, and saw Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fire "more than 1,100 rounds from their AK-47s and other weapons. Police returned more than 500 rounds."
Phillips was killed by a headshot on live TV during the shootout. Mătăsăreanu eventually surrendered to authorities after being shot 29 times. He was rushed by two officers and handcuffed with his face down into the asphalt on Archwood Avenue, near Morella Avenue. He would bleed out and die within an hour.
Twelve police officers and eight civilians were also wounded from the morning's firefight, notes City News Wire. Remarkably, all survived.
“It is nothing short of full-scale military battle facing this kind of thing,” said Bill Rehder, the then-bank robbery coordinator for the FBI’s Los Angeles office, notes Los Angeles Daily News. “I’ve never seen anything like it. There hasn’t been anything like it.”
The event also reminded some of the LAPD's gunfight with the Symbionese Liberation Army in May 1974.
"The situation today was much more dangerous than the one we faced in 1974," Patrick E. McKinley, a founding member of the LAPD SWAT team, told the Times in 1997. "We had a fixed position, we had them contained, but this was a moving gun battle and you couldn't know where it was going to end."
"Twenty years is a long time, but it doesn't feel like 20 years. It feels like a lot less," retired LAPD Officer John Caprarelli, who was present at the shootout, told City News Wire."You know, you kind of really never forget it. That's how I would put it. You can never put that aside 100 percent."