War Zone: The North Hollywood Shootout, 10 Years Later: A Decade Ago, Two Gunmen Robbed the North Hollywood Branch of Bank of America and Touched off a Gunfight with the LAPD That Remains One of the Bloodiest Days in U.S. Law Enforcement History. What Lessons Were Learned from That Terrible Day, and How Might a Repeat of It Be Avoided?

Article excerpt

February 28, 1997. Los Angeles policeman Loren Farell and his partner Martin Perello were minutes into their daytime patrol as they drove past the North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America on their way to one of the five calls they had received that morning. As they passed the bank, Perello instinctively looked over at it, as all police are trained to do whenever passing a business considered to be a high robbery risk. Calmly entering the bank were two men clad in black jumpsuits and ski masks, each carrying an AK-47 assault rifle. Their intent was clear.

Perello swung the car around and Farell put out an "officer needs help" call that put the entire city on high alert as he and Perello parked their car in the bank's south parking lot. Within minutes, other police arrived on the scene in response, thanks in part to there being other patrol cars in the vicinity, and also to the fact that the North Hollywood police station was only two miles away. Farell and Perello immediately began directing their fellow officers to lock down the bank so the robbers could be contained, but that plan was complicated by the sound of automatic gunfire.

"If you've ever heard an AK-47, they are so damned loud, we didn't even know if he was out in the streets. We didn't know where he was," recounts Farell, a veteran of the Vietnam War as well as the LAPD.

He and Perello initially thought that the gunmen had begun to execute bank patrons, but what really happened was that moments after entering the bank, the gunmen fired into the ceiling to get the attention of the customers. They then shot their way into the bank tellers' secure area in order to gain access to the vault and blasted out the locks to the bank's ATM safe. One of the gunmen then went outside of the bank to look around and spotted the police officers cordoning off the area.

The scene outside the bank--was one of sheer pandemonium, Farell says, since the sound of gunfire panicked every civilian in the area. The police at the bank were simultaneously trying to find cover for themselves--they knew a shootout with the gunmen was inevitable--as well as lock down the bank itself and get nearby civilians to safety before the real shooting started. They did not have to wait long.

The gunman raised his AK-47 and sprayed the area in a 180-degree arc of gunfire that wounded at least two, possibly three, police officers immediately. The gunman then went back into the bank to regroup with his partner. Shortly afterwards, the two gunmen emerged from the bank and engaged the police in what would become one of the worst shootouts in U.S. law enforcement history.

The gunmen were Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu, two longtime friends who had embarked on a career of violent crime together. Prior to this robbery, Phillips and Matasareanu had stolen nearly $2 million in various heists, including three attacks on armored cars and two previous bank holdups. Their specialty was paramilitary-style "takeover robberies" in which they dressed in full body armor, equipped themselves with military firearms and raided their targets using brute force. In their first robbery, these tactics resulted in the shooting of two Brinks armored car employees. Phillips and Matasareanu killed Brinks hopper (the person tasked with shuttling valuables from locations to the vehicle) Herman Cook and wounded the driver. In every other robbery, the pair never failed to threaten their victims with violence--a threat they were more than ready to make good on.

Prior to raiding the North Hollywood bank, Phillips and Matasareanu took muscle relaxants, which left them moving in a slow and almost casual manner. Both were body builders in excellent shape. Clad in their armor, they cut a frightful appearance and right away, the police on site realized they were not up against ordinary opponents. Once Phillips and Matasareanu exited the bank, they opened fire on any policeman in sight as they intended to blast their way through the police cordon to escape. …