North Hollywood shootout
The North Hollywood shootout was a confrontation between two heavily armed and armored bank robbers, Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu, and members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles, California, on February 28, 1997. Both robbers were killed, 12 police officers and eight civilians were injured, and numerous vehicles and other property were damaged or destroyed by the nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition fired by the robbers and police.
|North Hollywood shootout|
Larry Phillips Jr. (left) and Emil Mătăsăreanu (right) in 1993 after being arrested in California for speeding
|Location||North Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.|
|Date||February 28, 1997 |
9:17 a.m. – 10:01 a.m. (UTC-8)
|Target||A branch of the Bank of America|
|Bank robbery, shootout|
|Weapons||Two automatic Norinco Type 56 S rifles |
Automatic Norinco Type 56 S-1 rifles
Semi-automatic Heckler & Koch HK91 rifle
Automatic Bushmaster XM-15 E2S Dissipator rifle
|Deaths||2 (both perpetrators)|
|Perpetrators||Larry Eugene Phillips Jr.|
Decebal Ștefan Emilian Mătăsăreanu
At 9:17 am, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu entered and robbed the North Hollywood Bank of America branch. The two robbers were confronted by LAPD officers when they exited the bank and a shootout between the officers and robbers ensued. The robbers attempted to flee the scene, Phillips on foot and Mătăsăreanu in their getaway vehicle, while continuing to exchange fire with the officers. The shootout continued onto a residential street adjacent to the bank until Phillips, mortally wounded, succumbed to a self-inflicted gunshot wound; Mătăsăreanu was incapacitated by officers three blocks away and subsequently bled to death before the arrival of paramedics more than an hour later.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu are believed to have robbed at least two other banks using similar methods by taking control of the entire bank and firing illegally modified automatic weapons chambered for intermediate cartridges for control and entry past 'bullet-proof' security doors, and were suspects in two armored car robberies.
Standard issue sidearms carried by most local patrol officers at the time were 9mm pistols or .38 Special revolvers; some patrol cars were also equipped with a 12-gauge shotgun. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu carried illegally modified fully automatic Norinco Type 56 S-1s (an AK-47 variant), a Bushmaster XM15 Dissipator with high-capacity drum magazine, and a Heckler & Koch HK-91 rifle, as well as a Beretta 92FS pistol. The robbers wore mostly homemade, heavy plated body armor which successfully protected them from handgun rounds and shotgun pellets fired by the responding officers. A police SWAT team eventually arrived bearing sufficient firepower, and they commandeered an armored truck to evacuate the wounded. Several officers also appropriated AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles from a nearby firearms dealer. The incident sparked debate on the need for patrol officers to upgrade their firepower in preparation for similar situations in the future.
Due to the large number of injuries, rounds fired, weapons used, and overall length of the shootout, it is regarded as one of the most intense gun battles in U.S. police history. Combined, the two men had fired approximately 1,100 rounds in total, while approximately 650 rounds were fired by police. Another estimate is that a total of nearly 2,000 rounds were fired.
Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. (September 20, 1970 - February 28, 1997) and the Romanian-born Decebal Ștefan Emilian "Emil" Mătăsăreanu (July 19, 1966 - February 28, 1997) first met at a Gold's Gym in Venice, Los Angeles, California, in 1989. They had a mutual interest in weightlifting, bodybuilding, and firearms. Before meeting, Phillips was a habitual offender, responsible for multiple real estate scams and counts of shoplifting. Mătăsăreanu was a qualified electrical engineer and ran a relatively unsuccessful computer repair business.
On July 20, 1993, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu robbed an armored car outside a branch of FirstBank in Littleton, Colorado. On October 29, they were arrested in Glendale, northeast of Los Angeles, for speeding. A subsequent search of their vehicle - after Phillips surrendered with a concealed weapon - found two semi-automatic rifles, two handguns, more than 1,600 rounds of 7.62×39mm rifle ammunition, 1,200 rounds of 9×19mm Parabellum and .45 ACP handgun ammunition, radio scanners, smoke bombs, improvised explosive devices, body armor vests, and three different California license plates. Initially charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, both served 100 days in jail and were placed on three years of probation. After their release, most of their seized property was returned to them, except for the confiscated firearms and explosives.
On June 14, 1995, the pair ambushed a Brinks armored car in Winnetka, killing one guard, Herman Cook, and seriously wounding another. In May 1996, they robbed two branches of Bank of America in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, stealing approximately US$1.5 million. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were dubbed the "High Incident Bandits" by investigators due to the weaponry they had used in three robberies prior to their attempt in North Hollywood.
Events of February 28
On the morning of February 28, 1997, after months of preparation, including extensive reconnoitering of their intended target - the Bank of America branch located at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard - Phillips and Mătăsăreanu armed themselves with a semi automatic HK-91 and several illegally converted weapons: two Norinco Type 56 S rifles, a fully automatic Norinco Type 56 S-1, and a fully automatic Bushmaster XM15 Dissipator.
They filled a jam jar with gasoline and placed it in the back seat with the intention of setting the car and weapons on fire to destroy evidence after the robbery. Phillips wore roughly 40 pounds (18 kg) of equipment, including a Type IIIA bulletproof vest and groin guard; a load bearing vest with multiple military canteen pouches for ammunition storage; and several pieces of homemade body armor created from spare vests, covering his shins, thighs, and forearms. Mătăsăreanu wore only a Type IIIA bulletproof vest, but included a metal trauma plate to protect vital organs. Additionally, each man had a watch sewn onto the back of one glove, in order to monitor their timing. Before entering, they took the barbiturate phenobarbital, prescribed to Mătăsăreanu as a sedative, to calm their nerves.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, driving a white 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity, arrived at the Bank of America branch at the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Archwood Street in North Hollywood around 9.17 am, and set their watch alarms for eight minutes, the police response time they had estimated. To come up with this timeframe, Phillips had used a radio scanner to monitor police transmissions prior to the robbery. As the two were walking in, they were spotted by two LAPD officers, Loren Farrell and Martin Perello, who were driving down Laurel Canyon in a patrol car. Officer Perello issued a call on the radio, "15-A-43, requesting assistance, we have a possible 211 in progress at the Bank of America." 211 is the code for robbery.
As they entered the bank, each armed with a Norinco Type 56 S-1 rifle, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu forced a customer leaving the ATM lobby near the entrance into the bank and onto the floor. A security guard inside saw the scuffle and the heavily armed robbers and radioed his partner in the parking lot to call the police; the call was not received. Phillips shouted "This is a fucking hold up!" before he and Mătăsăreanu opened fire into the ceiling in an attempt to scare the approximately 30 bank staff and customers and to discourage resistance. Phillips shot open the bulletproof door (which was designed to resist only low-velocity rounds) and gained access to the tellers and vault. The robbers forced assistant manager John Villigrana to open the vault. Villigrana obliged and began to fill the robbers' money bag. However, due to a change in the bank's delivery schedule, the vault contained significantly less than the $750,000 the gunmen had expected. Phillips, enraged at this development, argued with Villigrana and demanded more. In an apparent show of frustration, Phillips then fired a full drum magazine of 75 rounds into the bank's safe, destroying much of the remaining money. Phillips then attempted to open the bank's ATM, but due to a change in policies, the branch manager no longer had access to the money inside. Before leaving, the robbers locked the hostages in the bank vault. In the end, the two left with $303,305 and three dye packs which later exploded, ruining the money they stole.
Outside, the first-responding officers heard gunfire from the bank and made another radio call for additional units before taking cover behind their patrol car, weapons trained on the bank doors. While the robbers were still inside, more patrol and detective units arrived and took strategic positions at all four corners of the bank, effectively surrounding it. At approximately 9:24 am, Phillips exited through the north doorway and after spotting a police cruiser 200 ft (60 m) away, opened fire for several minutes, wounding seven officers and three civilians. He also fired at an LAPD helicopter which was surveying above, forcing it to withdraw to a safer distance. He briefly retreated inside, then reemerged through the north doorway, while Mătăsăreanu exited through the south exit.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu began to engage the officers, firing sporadic bursts into the patrol cars that had been positioned on Laurel Canyon in front of the bank. Officers, armed with standard Beretta 92F, Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols, Smith & Wesson Model 15 .38 caliber revolvers, and a 12-gauge Ithaca Model 37 pump-action shotgun, immediately returned fire. The officers' weaponry could not penetrate the body armor worn by Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, and most of the LAPD officers' service pistols had insufficient range and poor accuracy at long distances. An officer was heard on the LAPD police frequency approximately 10 – 15 minutes into the shootout, warning other officers that they should "not stop [the getaway vehicle], they've got automatic weapons, there's nothing we have that can stop them." Additionally, the officers were pinned down by the heavy spray of gunfire coming from the robbers, making it difficult to attempt a head shot. Several officers acquired five AR-15 style rifles from a nearby gun store to combat the robbers.
Two locations adjacent to the north parking lot provided good cover for officers and detectives. Police likely shot Phillips and his rifle with their handguns while Phillips was still firing and taking cover near the four vehicles adjacent to the North wall of the bank (gray Honda Civic, Ford Explorer, white Acura Legend, and Chevrolet Celebrity). One location that Officer Zielenski of Valley Traffic Division used for cover was the Del Taco restaurant West wall, 351 feet from Phillips. Officer Zielenski fired 86 9mm rounds at Phillips and may have hit Phillips at least once. The other location that proved advantageous for the LAPD was the back yard of 6641 Agnes Avenue. A cinder block wall provided cover for detectives who shot at and may have struck Phillips with 9mm rounds from their pistols. Detective Bancroft fired 17 rounds and Detective Harley fired between 15 and 24 rounds at Phillips from a distance of approximately 55 feet. After Mătăsăreanu backed the Chevrolet Celebrity out of the handicapped space in the North parking lot, Phillips likely received a gunshot wound to his left hand, based upon helicopter news footage that showed him react to pain. At the same approximate time, LAPD gunfire struck the Heckler & Koch rifle that Phillips was firing, rendering it inoperable. LAPD injured Phillips by holding two places of cover, and prevented an easy getaway.
Arrival of SWAT team
After LAPD radio operators received the second "officer down" call from police at the shootout, a tactical alert was issued. The SWAT team arrived 18 minutes after the shooting had begun. They were armed with AR-15s, and wore running shoes and shorts under their body armor, as they had been on an exercise run when they received the call. Upon arrival, they commandeered a nearby armored truck, which was used to extract wounded civilians and officers from the scene.
Deaths of the gunmen
While still in the parking lot, Mătăsăreanu was shot twice in the right buttock and the left forearm, forcing him to abandon his duffel bag of money, enter the getaway vehicle, and start the engine. Phillips retrieved the HK-91 from the open trunk and continued firing upon officers while walking alongside the sedan, using it for cover. As Phillips approached the passenger's side of the getaway vehicle, he was hit in the shoulder and his rifle was struck in the receiver and magazine by bullets fired by police. After firing a few more shots with one arm, Phillips discarded the HK-91 and retrieved the Norinco Type 56 before exiting the parking lot and retreating onto the street while Mătăsăreanu drove down the road.
At 9:52 am, Phillips turned east on Archwood Street and took cover behind a parked semi-truck where he continued to fire at the police until his rifle jammed. Unable to clear the jam, he dropped the rifle and drew a Beretta 92FS pistol, which he began firing. He was then shot in the right hand, causing him to drop the pistol. After retrieving it, he placed the muzzle under his chin and fired; he was simultaneously shot by a bullet that severed his spine. Officers across the street continued to shoot Phillips' body several times while he was on the ground. After the firing had stopped, officers in the area surrounded Phillips, handcuffed him, and removed his ski mask.
Mătăsăreanu's vehicle was rendered inoperable after two of its tires were shot out and the windshield covered in bullet holes. At 9:56 am, he attempted to carjack a yellow 1963 Jeep Gladiator on Archwood by shooting at the driver, who fled on foot, three blocks east of where Phillips died. He quickly transferred all of his weapons and ammunition from the getaway car, but was unable to operate the Jeep due to the driver engaging the electrical kill switch before fleeing. As KCBS and KCAL helicopters hovered overhead, a patrol car driven by SWAT officers quickly arrived and stopped on the opposite side of the truck to where the Chevrolet was stopped. Mătăsăreanu left the truck, took cover behind the original getaway car, and engaged them two-and-a-half minutes of almost uninterrupted gunfire. Mătăsăreanu's chest armor deflected a double tap from one of the SWAT officers, which briefly winded him before he continued firing. At last one SWAT officer fired his AR-15 below the cars and wounded Mătăsăreanu in his unprotected lower legs; he was soon unable to continue and put his hands up to show surrender.
Seconds after Mătăsăreanu's capitulation, officers rushed him to pin him down. As he was being cuffed, SWAT officers asked for his name, to which he replied "Pete". When asked if there were any more suspects, he reportedly retorted "F--- you! Shoot me in the head!". Ambulance personnel were following standard procedure in hostile situations by refusing to enter "the hot zone", as Mătăsăreanu was still considered to be dangerous, and because there were still reports or the belief that there was a third gunman still loose. Some reports indicate that he was lying on the ground with no weapons for approximately an hour before ambulances arrived, and was groaning in pain and pleading for help. The police radioed for an ambulance, but Mătăsăreanu, loudly swearing profusely and still goading the police to shoot him, died before the ambulance and EMTs were allowed to reach the scene almost 70 minutes later. Later reports showed that Mătăsăreanu was shot over 20 times in the legs and died from trauma due to excessive blood loss coming from two gunshot wounds in his left thigh.
Most of the incident, including the death of Phillips and surrender of Mătăsăreanu, was broadcast live by news helicopters, which hovered over the scene and televised the action as events unfolded. Over 300 law enforcement officers from various forces had responded to the citywide TAC alert. By the time the shooting had stopped, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu had fired about 1,100 rounds, approximately a round every two seconds.
Weapons and armor
- A Bushmaster XM-15 converted illegally to fire full auto with two 100-round Beta Magazines
- A Heckler & Koch HK-91 semi automatic rifle with several 30-round magazines
- A Beretta 92FS Inox with several magazines
- Three different civilian-model AK-47 style rifles converted illegally to fire full auto with several 75- to 100-round drum magazines, as well as 30-round box magazines.
It was speculated during news reports that Phillips had legally purchased two of the AK-47s and then illegally converted them to full automatic. However, as Phillips was a convicted felon it was not possible for him to legally purchase firearms.
The two well-armored men had fired approximately 1,100 rounds, while approximately 650 rounds were fired by police. Following their training, the responding patrol officers directed their fire at the "center of mass", or torsos, of Mătăsăreanu and Phillips. However, aramid body armor worn by Phillips and Mătăsăreanu covered all of their vitals (except their heads) while providing more bullet resistance than standard-issue police Kevlar vests, enabling them to absorb pistol bullets and shotgun pellets, while Mătăsăreanu's chest armor, thanks to a metal trauma plate, successfully withstood a hit from a SWAT officer's AR-15. The service pistols carried by the first responding officers had insufficient range and relatively poor accuracy, and additionally they were pinned down by the robbers' high rate of fire, making it difficult to attempt a head shot. Each robber was shot and penetrated by at least 10 bullets, yet both were able to continue shooting.
Aftermath and controversy
The shootout contributed to motivating the arming of rank-and-file police officers in Los Angeles and nationwide with semi-automatic, selective fire, and automatic rifles. The ineffectiveness of the standard police patrol pistols and shotguns in penetrating the robbers' body armor led to a trend in the United States toward arming selected police patrol officers, not just SWAT teams, with heavier firepower such as semi-automatic AR-15 style rifles. SWAT teams, whose close quarters battle weaponry usually consisted of submachine guns that fired pistol cartridges such as the Heckler & Koch MP5, began supplementing them with AR-15 rifles and carbines. Seven months after the incident, the Department of Defense gave 600 surplus M16s to the LAPD, which were issued to each patrol sergeant; LAPD patrol vehicles now carry AR-15s as standard issue, with bullet-resistant Kevlar plating in their doors as well. Also as a result of this incident LAPD authorized its officers to carry .45 ACP caliber semiautomatic pistols as duty sidearms, specifically the Smith & Wesson Models 4506 and 4566. Prior to 1997, only LAPD SWAT officers were authorized to carry .45 ACP caliber pistols, specifically the Model 1911A1 .45 ACP semiautomatic pistol.
On June 12, 1998, LAPD Chief of Police Bernard C. Parks released to the Board of Police Commissioners a memorandum detailing his review of officers' use of force during the February 28, 1997 North Hollywood shootout. The memorandum contains many details about the shootout including badge numbers of officers and detectives, where they positioned themselves in the perimeter around the robbers with distances of fire, and how many rounds they fired from their weapons. Parks commended department personnel for their actions to "distract" the robbers and "obstruct" the robbers from attempting to evade police. The memorandum lists the injuries of all officers who received injuries at the hands of the robbers.
A lawsuit on behalf of Mătăsăreanu's children was filed against members of the LAPD, claiming that Mătăsăreanu's civil rights had been violated and that he was allowed to bleed to death. The lawsuit was tried in United States District Court in February and March 2000, and ended in a mistrial with a hung jury. The suit was later dropped when Mătăsăreanu's family agreed to dismiss the action with a waiver of malicious prosecution.
The year following the shootout, 18 officers of the LAPD received the departmental Medal of Valor for their actions, and met President Bill Clinton. In 2003, a film about the incident was produced, titled 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out. In 2004, the Los Angeles Police Museum in Highland Park opened an exhibit featuring two life-size mannequins of Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fitted with the armor and clothing they wore and the weaponry they used. Also on display at the museum is the robbers' getaway car and Officer Martin Whitfield's LAPD squad car.
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