The North Hollywood shootout was an armed confrontation between two heavily armed and armored bank robbers and officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles on February 28, 1997. Both robbers were killed, eleven police officers and seven civilians were injured.
At 9:17 AM, Larry Phillips Jr and Emil Mătăsăreanu entered and robbed the North Hollywood Bank of America branch. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were confronted by LAPD officers when they exited the bank and a shootout between the officers and robbers ensued. The two robbers attempted to flee the scene, Phillips on foot and Mătăsăreanu in their getaway vehicle, while continuing to engage the officers. The shootout continued onto a residential street adjacent to the bank until Phillips was mortally wounded, including by a self-inflicted gunshot wound; Mătăsăreanu was killed by officers three blocks away. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu are believed to have robbed two other banks using virtually identical methods by taking control of the entire bank and firing automatic weapons chambered in intermediate cartridges for control and entry past ‘bullet-proof’ security doors, and are possible suspects in two armored vehicle robberies.
Local patrol officers at the time were typically armed with their standard issue 9 mm or .38 Special pistols, with some having a 12-gauge shotgun available in their cars. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu carried illegally modified fully automatic AKMs and an HK-91 rifle with high capacity drum magazines and ammunition capable of penetrating vehicles and police Kevlar vests. The bank robbers wore full suits of body armor which successfully deflected bullets and shells fired by the responding patrolmen. SWAT eventually arrived bearing sufficient firepower, and they commendeered an armoured truck to evacuate the wounded. Several officers also appropriated AR-15 rifles from a nearby firearms dealer. The incident sparked debate on the need for patrol officers to upgrade their capabilities in 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 longest and bloodiest events in US police history. This incident would later lead to California enforcing a highly restrictive law on firearms, including the controversial “10-round magazine-only” law for most firearms owned by state residents.
Larry Eugene Phillips Jr (born September 20, 1970 and standing at 6’4″) and Emil Decebal Mătăsăreanu (born July 19, 1966 in Romania and standing at 6’2″) first met at a Gold’s Gym in Venice, Los Angeles, California in 1989. They had a mutual interest in weightlifting and bodybuilding.
On July 20, 1993 the pair robbed an armored car outside of a branch of FirstBank in Littleton, Colorado.
In October 1993, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were arrested in Glendale, northeast of Los Angeles, California, 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 licence plates. Initially charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, both served one hundred days in jail and were placed on three years’ probation. After their release, most of their seized property was returned to them.
On June 14, 1995, the pair ambushed a Brinks armored car, killing one guard, Herman Cook, in the robbery. In May 1996, they robbed two branches of Bank of America in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, CA, 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.
On the morning of Friday, 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 loaded five rifles, one handgun, and approximately 3,300 rounds of ammunition in box and drum magazines into the trunk of their vehicle: two modified Norinco Type 56 S rifles, a modified Norinco Type 56 S-1, a semi automatic HK91 and a modified Bushmaster Dissipator. Phillips also carried a 9mm Beretta Model 92FS INOX, holstered underneath his jacket. Phillips wore a bulletproof vest and several pieces of home made body armor, covering his groin, shins, thighs, and forearms. To store box magazines for the rifles, in particular the HK91, he also wore a load bearing vest over the bulletproof one. Mătăsăreanu wore only a bulletproof vest, but included a metal trauma plate to protect vital organs. Additionally, both robbers had sewn watch faces onto the back of their gloves. Before entering, they took the muscle relaxer phenobarbital to calm their nerves.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, driving a white 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity, arrived at the Bank of America branch office 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, which they estimated was the average police response time. Phillips had been using a radio scanner to listen to police transmissions to determine this timeframe. As they walked into the bank, they were spotted by two officers, Loren Farrell and Martin Perello, in a patrol car driving down Laurel Canyon, and Officer Perello called out 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 an armed robbery.
As they entered the bank, 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 and Mătăsăreanu opened fire into the ceiling to scare the approximately thirty bank staff and customers and to discourage resistance. Mătăsăreanu shot at the bulletproof door that gained access to the tellers and vault, and the door, designed to resist only small-calibre rounds, broke open. The robbers forced assistant manager John Villigrana to open the vault, all of this after firing at least 150 rounds into the ceiling and door. After Villigrana opened the vault and filled the robbers’ money bag, Mătăsăreanu, enraged at the fact that only small amounts of money were in the safe, argued with Villigrana, demanding more. In another burst of anger, Mătăsăreanu reportedly fired a full drum magazine of 75 rounds into the bank’s safe, destroying the rest of the money. They were only able to get US$303,305, instead of the expected US$750,000 because the bank had altered the delivery schedule.
The first-responding officers outside heard the gunfire from the bank and made another radio call to summon additional units, and proceeded to take cover behind their patrol car, weapons trained on the bank doors. Additional patrol and detective units arrived while the robbers were inside the bank, taking strategic positions and surrounding the bank on all four corners. At around 9:32 AM, Phillips exited the bank through its north doorway and Mătăsăreanu through its south doorway. Both encountered several LAPD patrol officers, who had arrived after the first-responding officers radioed the “shots fired” call. Television news helicopters responded to the “shots fired”. SWAT commanders used the live helicopter broadcasts to pass critical, time-sensitive information to the officers on the scene. Officers shouted repeatedly for Phillips and Mătăsăreanu to drop their weapons, but none of the officers fired.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu began to engage the officers, firing rounds into the patrol cars that had been positioned on Laurel Canyon in front of the bank. Officers immediately opened fire. The patrol officers were armed with standard Beretta 92F and Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols and Smith & Wesson Model 15 .38 calibre revolvers, Officer James Zaboravan also carried a 12-gauge Ithaca Model 37 pump-action shotgun, but this weaponry could not penetrate aramid body armor worn by Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, that protected much of their bodies and provided more bullet resistance than standard-issue police Kevlar vests. The robbers’ heads were their only vitals that were unprotected but most of the patrolmen’s weapons had insufficient range. Multiple officers and civilians were wounded in the seven to eight minutes from when the shooting began to when Mătăsăreanu entered the robbers’ white sedan to make a getaway. He ushered Phillips to get into the vehicle as well, but Phillips remained outside of it, retrieved an HK91 from the trunk, and continued firing on officers and helicopters while crouching behind the cars in the parking lot, possibly providing covering fire for Mătăsăreanu. Phillips fired from 60 to 120 rounds from the HK91, until it was struck in the receiver and magazine by police bullets, and Phillips was hit in the shoulder. He later retrieved a Norinco Type 56 S-1 from the trunk of the Celebrity.
After LAPD radio operators received the second “officer down” call from police at the shootout, a tactical alert was issued. The SWAT team had just started an exercise run when they received the call and had no time to change, and were thus wearing running shoes and shorts under their body armor. They arrived 18 minutes after the shooting had started, armed with AR-15s. The SWAT officers spotted and commandeered an armored truck that was doing its scheduled cash delivery, which they used to extract wounded civilians and officers from the scene towards the end of the shootout.
At 9:52 Phillips, who had been using the getaway vehicle as cover, split from Mătăsăreanu, turned east on Archwood Street, took cover behind a parked truck, and continued to fire at the police with his AKM. However, the gun suffered a malfunction. Erroneously reported as a “stovepipe” jam, in reality a round had become jammed while feeding into the chamber, also trapping the spent cartridge from the previous round. He made an attempt to remove the drum and clear the jam, but ultimately discarded the weapon after failing to clear it, possibly due to being wounded in the left hand and forearm. After abandoning the rifle, Phillips drew a Beretta 92FS pistol and continued firing at police. He was then shot in the right hand, briefly dropped the pistol, retrieved it, and placed the muzzle of his pistol under his chin and shot himself. As his body fell in a crouch-like demeanor, a police bullet hit him in the back of the neck, and several others struck him as he was down. After the firing stopped, officers in the area surrounded Phillips, cuffed him, and removed his ski mask. His body was later covered with plastic sheeting.
Mătăsăreanu’s vehicle was rendered nearly inoperable after its tires were shot out. At 9:56, he attempted to carjack a yellow 1963 Jeep Gladiator pickup truck on Archwood, three blocks east of where Phillips died, and transferred all of his weapons and ammunition from the getaway car into the truck. However, sources say Mătăsăreanu was unable to start the truck, because the driver had turned the vehicle and fuel pumps off, leaving the keys in the ignition while others say that it was because the driver had taken the keys with him after leaving the car. As KCBS and KCAL helicopters hovered overhead, a patrol car driven by SWAT officers quickly arrived. Mătăsăreanu left the truck, took cover behind the original getaway car, and engaged them for 2 1/2 minutes of almost uninterrupted gunfire. Mătăsăreanu’s chest armor deflected a bullet from one of the SWAT officers. At least 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 his defeat, officers swarmed him to pin him down. As he was being cuffed, SWAT officers asked for his name, to which he simply replied “Pete”. When asked if there were any more suspects, he reportedly laughed and retorted “Fuck you! Shoot me in the head!”. The police radioed for an ambulance, but Mătăsăreanu, swearing erratically and still goading the police to shoot him, died before the ambulance could reach the scene almost seventy 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 2 gunshot wounds in the thigh.
Most of the incident, including the death of Phillips and the death 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 city-wide TAC alert. By the time the shooting had stopped, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu had fired about 1,100 rounds, approximately a round every two seconds.
Aftermath and controversy
The two well-armored men had fired approximately 1,100 rounds, while approximately 650 rounds were fired by police. 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 deflect pistol bullets and shotgun pellets, while Mătăsăreanu’s chest armor even successfully withstood a hit from a SWAT operator’s AR-15. Each man was shot and penetrated by at least ten bullets, yet both were able to continue shooting. The ineffectiveness of the standard police patrol weaponry in penetrating the robbers’ body armor led to a trend in the United States toward arming selected police patrol officers with semi-automatic 5.56 mm AR-15 type rifles. Seven months after the incident, the Department of Defense gave 600 surplus M16s to the LAPD, which were issued to each patrol sergeant; other cities, such as Miami, also moved to supply patrol officers, not just SWAT teams, with heavier firepower. 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 and 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.
The LAPD did not allow Mătăsăreanu to receive medical attention, stating that ambulance personnel were following standard procedure in hostile situations by refusing to enter “the hot zone,” as Mătăsăreanu was still considered to be dangerous. Some reports indicate that he was lying on the ground with no weapons for approximately an hour before ambulances arrived. A lawsuit on behalf of Mătăsăreanu’s offspring 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, 19 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 Department Museum 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.
The getaway vehicle and some of the LAPD patrol cars involved in the shootout are now on display at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum in Highland Park.