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Podcasts Norco '80
Chapter 1: The Robbery
Norco 80
23:45
Chapter 1: The Robbery
May 9th, 1980 began as a regular Friday in sleepy Norco, a small town about 48 miles east of Los Angeles, known mostly for its horse trails and old-western look. But around 3:30pm, five masked men with assault rifles robbed the Security Pacific Bank downtown.
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NORCO 80 EPISODE 1: THE ROBBERY

A QUICK WARNING:SOME OF THIS SERIES INCLUDES DESCRIPTIONS OF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE.

Officer: What's your full name? George: George Smith - Wayne Smith.

ON THE SIDE OF A MOUNTAIN IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, A BLEEDING MAN CRAWLS FROM THE SCRAGGLY BRUSH. A HELICOPTER HOVERS ABOVE.

Officer: Okay. You - you're aware I'm tape recording the conversation right? Okay, he nodded his head.Do you realize that you have a bullet in your back?There's a possibility that you may die. Do you realize that?

George: Yeah.Officer: With that in mind, do you wanna tell me anything about what happened?

AN OFFICER CUFFS THE MAN AND A DETECTIVE FLIPS ON A TAPE RECORDER. .

Detective: Did you get in a shootout with the cops in a bank in Norco? The Security Pacific Bank? How many of you were there?George: Five.Detective: What were their names?

George: Chris, Bill, Manny, George and Russ.

GEORGE SMITH IS THE FIRST SUSPECT FROM THE BANK ROBBERY THAT THE POLICE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO CAPTURE AND QUESTION. HE’S BEEN SHOT MULTIPLE TIMES.

George: I got three in my legDetective: Three rounds in your leg?George: Yeah.Detective: Where did you get the 3 rounds in your leg? George: At the bank

THE DETECTIVE IS WALKING GEORGE DOWN THE HILL TO A HELICOPTER.

Detective: We are going to do what we can George. But the helicopter can’t land here and we’ve got quite a ways to walk to get to where you can be picked up, do

you understand that? George: Oh goodness

THERE’S A DANGER GEORGE COULD PASS OUT BEFORE HE GIVES A FULL CONFESSION.

Detective: George, what's your full name? Come on, what's your full name?George: George Wayne Smith.Detective: How old are you George? George: I'm 27 years old.

Detective: Tell 'em where you're from George. George: Casper, Wyoming. Uh, no more questions.

Music

IT’S MAY 10, 1980. THE DAY AFTER ONE OF THE MOST INTENSE STANDOFFS THAT LAW ENFORCEMENT HAS EVER SEEN. AND IT ALL BEGAN WHEN GEORGE SMITH AND FOUR OTHER MEN TRIED TO PULL OFF A BANK ROBBERY IN NORCO, CALIFORNIA.

BUT THINGS WOULD QUICKLY GO SIDEWAYS.

Detective: Do you know that an officer has been killed?I'm telling you now an officer has been killed and you'll be taken into custody in San Bernardino County for the murder of one officer. Did you see them kill the officer?George: NO - I.Detective: Did you fire at any officers in this canyon area?

Officer: Testing 1-2-3

THAT SAME DAY, POLICE WOULD QUESTION A SECOND SUSPECT. A MAN NAMED CHRIS HARVEN.

Detective: You willing to talk to us about it?Chris: Whatever I can tell youDetective: You can probably tell us a whole lot then. Why don’t you start from the beginning, then.

Chris: You mean how the whole thing started?Detective: Yeah. There ain’t no place like the beginning, right?

WITHOUT EVEN ASKING FOR A LAWYER, THESE GUYS JUST SPILL EVERYTHING: THEY GET STRAIGHT INTO THE DETAILS. THE GETAWAY CAR THEY USED, THE WEAPONS THEY BOUGHT, THE BOMBS THEY MADE, EVEN THE DRUGS THEY CONSUMED BEFORE THE ROBBERY.

Chris: We smoked a lot of pot and drank a lot of booze. That’s the only way I could handle it.Detective: And how much marijuana did you smoke?Chris: As much as we could.

[tape recorder restarts]Stupid. I can’t deny anything about it. The whole thing is stupid.

IN THESE TAPES, YOU CAN HEAR THAT THE ROBBERS ARE STILL PROCESSING WHAT THEY JUST DID. LIKE WHEN A DETECTIVE ASKS CHRIS HARVEN IF THEY HAD PRACTICED THE ROBBERY AHEAD OF TIME.

Detective: Had you guys rehearsed the operation? Chris: No rehearsal.Detective: Well it went pretty smoothly for no rehearsal. Chris: Smoothly?!

Detective: I mean, you guys went in there like a bunch of professionals from what I understand.Chris: I thought it was a botched job from the word go.

HE TELLS THE HOMICIDE DETECTIVE - IT WAS “A BOTCHED JOB FROM THE WORD GO.”

Chris: Everything we would have expected to go wrong went wrong.... you know everything that I said would go wrong went wrong.

Theme Music

I’M ANTONIA CEREIJIDO, AND FROM LAIST STUDIOS AND FUTURO STUDIOS THIS IS NORCO80, A SERIES ABOUT ONE OF THE MOST VIOLENT BANK ROBBERIES IN U.S. HISTORY

MUSICIN THIS SERIES, WE LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENED THAT DAY IN MAY OF 1980, AND WHAT WOULD HAPPEN AFTER ALL THE GUNSMOKE CLEARED AWAY.

IT’S A STORY THAT BRINGS UP A LOT OF QUESTIONS — QUESTIONS THAT STILL FEEL PRESENT TODAY. AROUND ACCESS TO GUNS, THE PURPOSE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT IN SOCIETY, AND THE SEDUCTIVENESS OF ​SURVIVALISM​.

AND WE’RE GONNA LOOK AT HOW THE SHOCK OF THE NORCO BANK ROBBERY WOULD SPREAD FROM A SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TO POLICE ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY... AND PUSHED POLICE TO DEMAND BIGGER, MORE POWERFUL WEAPONS. AND HOW THAT CONTRIBUTED TO THE KIND OF POLICING WE’RE STILL GRAPPLING WITH TODAY.

BUT ABOVE ALL, WE ARE GOING TO TELL THE STORY OF HOW FIVE DISAFFECTED YOUNG MEN MADE A PLAN THAT WENT SPECTACULARLY WRONG.

George: The officer wasn’t supposed to happen. Billy wasn’t supposed to happen. None of that was supposed to happen, I f***d up.

MUSIC OUT

THE YEAR OF THE BANK ROBBERY–1980–WAS AN ANXIOUS TIME. THERE WAS A LOT GOING ON. VIOLET CRIME WAS ON THE RISE AND LIKE TODAY, THE ECONOMY WAS TAKING A NOSEDIVE, AND AN UNPOPULAR PRESIDENT WAS FINISHING OUT HIS FIRST AND LAST TERM...

News reel: In 1976 candidate carter promised to lead America to great new heights....In 3 1⁄2 years, millions of American workers find themselves out of work and confidence has fallen to the lowest levels in our nation’s history.

TODAY CLIMATE CHANGE IS THE EXISTENTIAL CRISIS WE LIVE WITH, BUT BACK THEN IT WAS THE COLD WAR.

Protesters: No nukes! No War!

NUCLEAR WEAPONS WERE A POTENTIAL WORLD-ENDING THREAT. AND IN A NATION PRIMED FOR AN APOCALYPSE, RELIGIOUS GROUPS PREACHING THE END TIMES WERE ATTRACTING FOLLOWERS.

Archival: The bible says in the twinkling of an eye millions of people will suddenly disappear...because the rapture will come and Christ will return [cymbal]

AS WE CLOSE OUT ON 2020, A TRYING YEAR TO SAY THE LEAST, IT’S INTERESTING TO LOOK BACK AT ANOTHER TIME WHEN PEOPLE FELT LIKE THE WORLD WAS ENDING. WHEN LIKE TODAY, IT FELT LIKE THERE WAS SO MUCH UNCERTAINTY IN THE AIR, AND ​ALL O​ F THESE THINGS, ALL OF THIS TENSION, WOULD COME TO A HEAD DURING THE NORCO BANK ROBBERY OF MAY 9, 1980.

WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK. MUSIC - BREAK

CHAPTER ONE, THE ROBBERY.

Detective: Do you remember me? From homicide?George: Sure.Detective: Okay. I'm gonna tape record our conversation again. Okay? George: Um hum.

ONCE THE HELICOPTER ARRIVED AT THE HOSPITAL, GEORGE SMITH WAS HOOKED UP TO AN IV AND A DETECTIVE CONTINUED TO QUESTION HIM.

Detective: How did you get the van?George: Uh I didn't get it. I had uh Manny and Billy and Russ got it.

HE WALKED THE DETECTIVE THROUGH THE DAY OF THE ROBBERY. BEFORE THE MEN WOULD EVEN GET TO THE BANK, THEY NEEDED TO HIJACK A CAR. THE DETECTIVE ASKED THEM HOW THEY WOULD DO THAT.

Detective: How did they do that? Who did they kidnap? Do you know? George: The owner of the van.

GEORGE SAYS THEY HAD TO KIDNAP A MAN. [MUSIC BUMP]

IT WAS 1980, BUT GARY HAKALA’S VAN WAS HOLDING ON TO THE KITSCHY STYLE OF THE 1970S

Gary: it was just your typical 70s Dodge van. With the shag carpet on the floor. A bench seat all the way around with a closet on the driver’s side.

THE STORAGE CLOSET WAS ESPECIALLY HELPFUL. GARY USED THE VAN FOR HIS CANNING BUSINESS.

Gary: I was canning dehydrated food. I had a greenhouse with a thousand tomato plants going.

AT THE TIME BUSINESS WAS BOOMING. SOME WEEKS, IT BROUGHT IN AS MUCH AS A MILLION DOLLARS.

SO GARY WAS FEELING OPTIMISTIC ON A BRIGHT SUNNY DAY IN MAY, AS HE

DROVE ACROSS THE INLAND EMPIRE TO PICK UP SOME SUPPLIES

Gary: That day was had more things happen that, you know, where all the stars lined up for my benefit and all the stars lined up to work against m​ e

THE INLAND EMPIRE IS A SPRAWLING REGION THE SIZE OF WEST VIRGINIA, STRETCHING ALL THE FROM THE BORDER OF LOS ANGELES TO AREAS AS FAR AS ARIZONA. UP UNTIL THE 1950S, IT WAS KNOWN MAINLY FOR IT’S ORANGE AND LEMON TREES.

Archival: Among California crops, citrus occupies one of the king spots.

BUT IN THE 1980S IT BECAME A DESTINATION SUBURB FOR FAMILIES AND SMALL BUSINESSES LIKE GARY’S. MORE SPACE AT AN AFFORDABLE PRICE.

AROUND 11:30 THAT DAY, GARY MADE WHAT HE THOUGHT WOULD BE A QUICK STOP AT A SHOPPING MALL IN BREA, CALIFORNIA.

Gary: I've really got to go to the restroom, and as I am pulling to the parking lot there's a low rider. And there's three guys in there and they’re glaring at me. I was 35 years old and I thought it was quite a little rooster at the time. You know, I'd coached wrestling and wrestled a little in college. And I you know, I probably had a little inflated opinion of how bad I was. But, you know, I'm glaring back at ‘em. I pull around to park. And as I went to the back of the trailer, I had a huge master padlock.

GARY DECIDES TO LOCK UP THE VAN, JUST IN CASE

Gary: Well, as I went to the back of the van – there’s no windows in the back – this low rider pulls up to the side of the van. I didn't hear him and I turned around. And boom, three doors are open.

THREE MEN IN MILITARY FATIGUES JUMP OUT

Gary: And then I thought, well, the parking lot is full of people. I thought, well, I'm going to be OK if I'm calm and I don't agitate these people. I'll be OK.

That was wrong

NEXT THING GARY KNOWS, ONE OF THE MEN iS ON TOP OF HIM

Gary: He's a cracking my head with the gun. He has reinforced nylon tape. Almost impossible to break this stuff. And he tapes me from the wrists up to my elbows and my ankles to my knees. He puts a sack over my head.

A SECOND MAN JUMPS INTO GARY’S VAN.

Gary: I don't know why I said this, but I said take my glasses and put them in the glove compartment.

AND THEN A THIRD MAN JUMPS IN THE VAN AND STARTS TO HACK AT THE SHELVES INSIDE THE VAN CLOSET WITH A KNIFE.

Gary: There’re nails sticking out and splinters of wood. And he says, get in the closet. It's a foot wide. And I said, well, I can't fit in there. Puts the gun practically in my mouth. And it's surprising how small an area you can fit in when you have no options.

THE VAN TAKES OFF WITH GARY CRAMMED INTO THE BACK CLOSET

Gary: As, I'm in there, my shoulders under pressure, my testicles are getting smashed. Remember, I stopped by to pee and, you know, I've got to go to the bathroom. I'm getting cut up in there from the nails and broken stuff. I worked the sack off my head in there and I could see out the back window. I can smell the dairy farms. I'm trying to keep track of the turns so I can figure out where we're going. Pretty soon I'm I give up. I'm lost where we are.

THE VAN PULLS INTO WHAT GARY THINKS IS A CONSTRUCTION SITE WHERE HE SEES TWO OR THREE MORE PEOPLE IN THE SAME MILITARY FATIGUES AS HIS KIDNAPPERS.

Gary: I'm very I guess in some ways innocent person. But it was the first time I'd really smelled marijuana. One of them was on that. I remember the smell. And they started throwing things into the van. I could hear like nylon bags and so on. And I could feel the weight of the van go down under the weight. Then I hear the racking of rifle actions from my ear. It was semiautomatic rifle actions. As they're loading it up, my shoulder is under such immense pain. You know, I think it's out of the socket. My arms and legs have gone numb from the tape, I've got to pee so bad. I’m afraid if I wet my pants that’s all it’ll take to have them go off on me.

All of a sudden. We bounced off a curb and went across the street.

And, you know, it's a go, go, go. I can hear a kid scream. There's a door opens. I didn't know at that point it was the bank.

WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK

WE’RE BACK.

IN THE 1980S, THE GREATER LOS ANGELES AREA WAS KNOWN AS THE BANK ROBBERY CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. ACROSS THE COUNTRY, BANK ROBBERIES HAD GONE UP MORE THAN FIFTY PERCENT FROM 1975 TO 1980. AND ACCORDING TO AN FBI INVESTIGATOR, UP TO A THIRD OF BANK ROBBERIES HAPPENED IN LOS ANGELES. AND THERE WAS AN EASY EXPLANATION FOR THIS

Archival: More and more and more cars

THE CALIFORNIA FREEWAY SYSTEM. IT WAS UBIQUITOUS. CALIFORNIA’S POPULATION HAD BOOMED WITH THE ADVENT OF CAR CULTURE AND WHILE FREEWAYS MADE FOR A MUCH SPEEDIER COMMUTE, THEY ALSO ALLOWED FOR A MUCH QUICKER GET AWAY IF YOU WERE A ROBBER.

AND SOME OF THESE BANK ROBBERS WERE SO PROLIFIC, THEY EVEN GOT THEIR OWN NICKNAMES. LIKE THE “YANKEE BANDIT” WHO WAS KNOWN FOR WEARING A YANKEE CAP DURING HIS HEISTS. ONE TIME HE ROBBED 6 BANKS IN 4 HOURS.

AND YET, WHILE BANK ROBBERIES COMMONPLACE, MOST OF THEM WERE KIND OF UNEVENTFUL. A MAN DRESSED IN A SUIT OR UNASSUMING OUTFIT WOULD POLITELY TELL A BANK TELLER THAT HE HAD A GUN IN HIS POCKET AND THE TELLER WOULD HAND OVER A FEW THOUSAND DOLLARS.

BUT THE BANK ROBBERY THAT GEORGE SMITH WOULD CARRY OUT WAS DIFFERENT.

IT DIDN’T HAPPEN IN LA IT HAPPENED IN NORCO, A SMALL TOWN IN THE INLAND EMPIRE ABOUT AN HOUR EAST OF LOS ANGELES.

AND IN 1980 THE TOWN DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A FREEWAY RUNNING THROUGH IT. IN FACT, LOCAL RESIDENTS HAD THEIR OWN UNIQUE WAY OF GETTING AROUND.

Sharon: Norco is a horse community. People came together and, you know, rode their horses

SHARON DICKENS WORKED AT THE LOCAL SECURITY PACIFIC BANK. LOCATED ON THE MAIN DRAG OF NORCO, A PLACE WITH MORE HORSE TRAILS THAN SIDEWALKS.

Sharon: I don't remember there being crime during that time. Everybody knew

everybody...

SHARON ACTUALLY KNEW GEORGE SMITH.

George Smith was one of our clients, was one of our customers. I knew him from the bank. He had real thick, curly hair and he wore glasses. If I had seen him walk through the door at the bank in his street clothes by himself, I probably would have said, “hi, George.”

BACK IN THE HOSPITAL THE DAY AFTER THE BANK ROBBERY, GEORGE WOULD TAKE THE DETECTIVE THROUGH THE ACTUAL HOLDUP.

Detective: Summarize how you guys planned it George: We planned on doing it on a Friday

GEORGE HAD PURPOSELY PICKED TO HIT THE BANK ON A FRIDAY. PAY DAY... SHARON DICKENS WAS WORKING THAT DAY AT THE BANK

Sharon: This Friday was not a typical Friday. In fact, we all talked about how strange it was. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. Normally the branch on a Friday would be jam packed. And it was not.

SHARON REMEMBERS IT WAS CASUAL FRIDAY AT THE SECURITY PACIFIC BANK. THE TELLERS WORE LEVI’S AND T-SHIRTS.

Sharon: We were all in the teller line, as we were expecting the crowd to come on Friday, and we heard this tremendous noise.

Sharon: What it was was the four of them hitting both of those double doors at one time.

GEORGE WAS THE TIME KEEPER. HE HAD A TIMER IN HIS HAND SET TO ​TWO MINUTES​. ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY SECONDS. THAT’S HOW LONG HE FIGURED THEY HAD TO GET IN, GET THE MONEY, AND GET OUT BEFORE COPS WOULD ARRIVE.

Sharon: and it was like Time seemed to stand still for a minute, nobody moved, nobody said anything-until the command was given to hit the floor.

SHARON DROPPED TO THE GROUND BUT COULD STILL SEE THE ROBBERS.

Sharon: That’s when the suspects took their positions. One jumped up on the counter right in front of me. One stayed by the door

Officer Dvorak: Who stood by the door and called the time that you had? George: I did

SHARON DIDN’T RECOGNIZE GEORGE.

Sharon: They had military fatigues on, they had ponchos, ski masks, camouflage pants, boots, and BIG guns.

Officer​: Did you guys have any machine guns? George: All AR'S.Officer: AR15's?George: Yeah.

Sharon: I did attempt to push my silent alarm, but the suspect who was on the counter in front of me said “if any effin’ alarms go off, the effing bullets are gonna fly.” so I said uh uh, I aint gonna be no hero.” And then he yelled to get up, and that’s when he threw the bag down in front of me and gave the command to everybody to empty their money into the bag.

George: 30 seconds left. At one minute and 30 seconds I said time 30 seconds.

THEY NEEDED TO BE OUT IN HALF A MINUTE. ONE OF THE ROBBERS DRAGGED THE BRANCH MANAGER TO THE BACK VAULT.

Sharon: At that time I heard one of the suspects yelling “time time.”

Officer: What did you say? George: Time, time.

Sharon: “We’re taking too much time.” So then I said to the suspect on the counter, “You want this? “ And he said, “yes, I want it.” So I took the bag from me and then he looked at me and he goes, “I want you on the floor.” So I sat down. And he said, “no, I want you face down.” And that is the only time that I thought, “this man's going to kill me.” Because he said it a couple of times. I want you face down on the floor. And the only thing I could think of at that time was my three girls being without a mother.

George: At 2 minutes I said time again and now Detective: then you guys all left the bank is that correct George: yes we did

Sharon: And then, they exited

GEORGE AND THE OTHERS HAD MADE IT OUT, MONEY IN HAND. IN TWO MINUTES, JUST LIKE GEORGE HAD PLANNED. NO ONE WAS HURT, NO ONE HAD DIED. THIS COULD’VE BEEN LIKE SO MANY OF THE OTHER BANK ROBBERIES AT THE TIME.

George: I should’ve made it a minute and 30 seconds instead of 2 minutes. I f***d up.

GEORGE TELLS THE DETECTIVE, I SHOULD’VE MADE IT A MINUTE AND 30 SECONDS INSTEAD OF TWO MINUTES. I F***D UP.

THE COPS HAD ALREADY ARRIVED.

Radio Traffic “I’ve been hit!”

NEXT TIME ON NORCO 80.

The cup would pull into the parking lot at the exact second that they came out and that’s where the gunfire erupted.

NORCO 80 IS WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY ME, ANTONIA CEREIJIDO AND BY SOPHIA PALIZA-CARRE.

THE SHOW IS A PRODUCTION OF LAIST STUDIOS IN COLLABORATION WITH FUTURO STUDIOS. LEO G IS THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER FOR LAIST STUDIOS. MARLON BISHOP IS THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER FOR FUTURO STUDIOS. JOAQUIN COTLER IS OUR ASSOCIATE PRODUCER. JUAN DIEGO RAMIREZ IS OUR PRODUCTION ASSISTANT. MARIALEXA KAVANAUGH IS OUR INTERN. EDITING BY AUDREY QUINN. FACT CHECKING BY AMY TARDIFF. ENGINEERING BY STEPHANIE LEBOW. ​A​ND ORIGINAL MUSIC BY ZACH ROBINSON.

SPECIAL THANKS TO JAMES KIRKLAND, TERESA DERUYTER WAGES, AND CURT ROTHSCHILLER, OUR WEBSITE IS DESIGNED BY ANDY CHEATWOOD AND THE ​​DIGITAL AND MARKETING TEAMS AT LAIST STUDIOS. THE MARKETING TEAM​ ​OF LAIST STUDIOS CREATED OUR BRANDING. THANKS TO THE TEAM AT LAIST ​​STUDIOS, INCLUDING: KRISTEN HAYFORD, TAYLOR

COFFMAN, KRISTEN​ ​MULLER, AND LEO G.

IF YOU WANT TO HEAR MORE ABOUT NORCO 80, PLEASE FOLLOW OR SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST ON APPLE PODCASTS, SPOTIFY, NPR1, THE IHEART APP OR WHEREVER YOU GET YOUR PODCASTS. AND PLEASE, DON’T FORGET TO RATE AND REVIEW THE SHOW.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.