This is the kind of thing you expect to see in a big-budget Hollywood action movie: two bank robbers holding off police for almost an hour, with numerous bystanders getting wounded in the process, and the bad guys dying at the end.
Except, in this case, it really happened.
On February 28, 1997, Larry Phillips, Jr., and Emil Mătăsăreanu entered the North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America at the corner of Laurel Canyon Road and Archwood Street. They’d spent months doing recon on the bank while planning how to hit the target. They loaded five rifles and around 3,300 rounds of ammo—contained in box and drum magazines—in the trunk of their car, donned 18-kilogram full-suit body armor that included trauma plates covering their vital organs, and took barbiturate phenobarbital to calm their nerves.
Obviously, this wasn’t their first rodeo. They met at a Gold’s Gym in Venice, California in 1989. Both were bodybuilders and weightlifters.
In 1993, they robbed an armored car outside a FirstBank branch in Littleton, Colorado, just the first of their robberies that culminated in North Hollywood. In October of that same year, they were arrested for speeding in Glendale, a town northeast of Los Angeles. When officers searched the car, they found two semi-automatic rifles, two handguns, more than 1,600 rounds of 7.62 x 39 rifle ammunition, 1,200 rounds of 9 x 19 mm Parabellum and .45 ACP handgun ammunition, radio scanners, smoke bombs, improvised explosive devices, body armor vests, and three different California license plates. Charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, the pair served one hundred days in jail apiece and were placed on three years’ probation. Most of their confiscated property was returned to them after their release.
On June 14, 1995, they ambushed a Brinks armored car, killing a guard named Herman Cook in the process. Then, in May of 1996, they robbed two Bank of America branches, netting $1.5 million. Due to their use of heavy weaponry, law enforcement dubbed the pair the High Incident Bandits.
Then came February 28, 1997. Driving a Chevrolet Celebrity that held two modified Romanian AIM assault rifles—an AK-47 style rifle—one modified Norinco Type 56 S-1, a semi-automatic HK91, and a modified Bushmaster XM15 E2S, they arrived at the bank at 9:30 a.m. They set their watch alarms for eight minutes, the time they estimated it would take for police to respond, a figure they arrived at by listening to police scanners.
Unfortunately for them, a passing cruiser saw them enter the building and radioed in a possible 211.
Meanwhile, in the bank, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fired off at least fifty rounds to discourage resistance, and intimidate bank employees and customers. They forced the manager to open the vault. In another snafu, Phillips argued with the manager when they discovered there wasn’t as much money as they’d anticipated, due to the bank changing its delivery schedule. Enraged, Phillips fired into the vault, destroying much of the money. Instead of the expected $750,000, they netted less than half that amount: $303, 305.
At 9:38 the two exited the building, Phillips through the north door, Mătăsăreanu through the south. Outside, they faced not only dozens of LAPD officers responding to a shots fired call, but news helicopters that, despite being fired on during the shootout, maintained their reporting of live updates. SWAT commanders used these updates to communicate time-sensitive information to officers on the scene.
The pair wasted no time engaging the officers, who were armed with Beretta 92-type sidearms chambered for 9mm, or .38 revolvers. One officer on the scene had a 12-gauge shotgun. The pair fired armor piercing rounds into the patrol cars blocking the front of the bank on Laurel Canyon.
Eight minutes after the firing began, Mătăsăreanu entered the Celebrity in an attempt to flee. Phillips stayed outside the vehicle, firing up to one hundred rounds from his HK91. It was at this point that one round almost struck Phillips, but he ducked behind the car and evaded it. He slung the HK91 and began using the AKM.
An alert was issued and, eighteen minutes into the firefight, SWAT teams arrived. They were clad in shorts and running shoes under their body armor as they’d been in the middle of their exercise routine and didn’t have time to change. They were armed with MP-5s and AR-15s. Officers commandeered an armored crash-delivery truck to ferry wounded police and civilians from the fire zone.
At 9:51, Phillips broke from the cover of the getaway vehicle, headed east on Archwood Street, and took cover behind a pickup, where he continued firing on police with his AKM. After expending the first magazine, he reloaded with a 75-round drum mag, but discarded the weapon after it stovepiped on him. At this point he was wounded in the wrist by a bullet that deflected off the AKM’s casing and went through his thumb. He drew his Beretta 92FS and resumed firing on officers. He was shot through the right hand, dropped the handgun, then retrieved it, and shot himself under the chin while simultaneously having his spine severed by an AR-15 round. Officers surrounded Phillips, stripped off his armor, cuffed him, and tried wrapping a body sheet around him to staunch the flow of blood from the AR-15 wound, unaware he had shot himself and died from the head wound.
Meantime, the Celebrity Mătăsăreanu was driving had all four tires flattened by gunfire. He exited the vehicle and, at 9:56, carjacked a pickup truck on Archwood three blocks from where Phillips died, but was unable to use it as the owner took the keys with him as he fled the scene. This after Mătăsăreanu went to the trouble of transferring all his weapons and ammo to the pickup. Helicopters from KCBS and KCAL recorded the action as Mătăsăreanu took cover behind the getaway car and engaged officers in a six-minute gun battle. He was unable to continue after at least one SWAT officer shot under the cars and wounded him in the legs. Raising his hands at least twice to show he was surrendering, he stopped firing. Officers radioed for an ambulance, but it took seventy minutes to respond, later citing standard procedure where an ambulance wouldn’t enter a hot zone when a suspect was still considered dangerous. Mătăsăreanu died from blood-loss trauma after being shot twenty-nine times in the feet and legs.
Most of the shootout was broadcast live by news helicopters, including Mătăsăreanu’s capture and Phillips’s death. The bank robbers fired approximately 1,300 rounds—one roughly every two seconds. Over 300 officers responded to the firefight, nearly 2,000 rounds were expended by both sides, seven civilians and eleven police officers were wounded, and numerous vehicles were shot full of holes.
Mătăsăreanu’s children sued LAPD officers, citing his civil rights were violated when he was allowed to bleed to death. The trial ended up deadlocked and was declared a mistrial. Mătăsăreanu’s family later dropped the suit with a waiver of malicious prosecution.
Thanks to the ineffectiveness of the police weapons, the Department of Defense gave the LAPD 600 surplus M16s, which were issued to patrol sergeants. LAPD units now carry an AR-15 in the vehicle as standard issue, as well as having Kevlar reinforced doors.
In 2004, two life-size mannequins of Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were put on display in the Los Angeles Police Department Museum, dressed in their armor and holding the weapons they used. And the getaway car, along with several patrol cars involved in the incident are on display at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum in Highland Park.
Only in Hollywood.