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44 minutes of terror

first_imgLike the many holes still left by the hail of bullets, the spectacular gunbattle transformed the Los Angeles Police Department, boosting its reputation after the Rodney King debacle while greatly improving its armed response. With Los Angeles once considered the bank robbery capital of the world, with up to 900 heists a year, the LAPD implemented tactics after the shootout that cut robberies to fewer than 90 last year. The shootout also left indelible marks on scores of cops and civilians. Many still suffer the depression, the nightmares and the flashbacks of battle-scarred soldiers. And in a case of life imitating Hollywood, which many said mirrored the bank-robbing movie “Heat” of 14 months earlier, the shootout then inspired made-for-TV documentaries and movies. “Our officers faced two savage individuals hellbent on destruction, who had brought with them automatic weapons and had prepared for an unspeakable amount of violence,” said Deputy Chief Michel Moore, commander of the Valley Bureau. “Our officers, though themselves not similarly equipped … rose to the challenge.” City officials will conduct an anniversary ceremony today to honor those who helped stave off the North Hollywood bank bandits. The gunmen in “Heat” had nothing on these guys. Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, was a gruff-looking man with a pencil mustache – a former grifter once arrested for real-estate fraud. He had a wife and two children. Emil Dechebal Matasareanu, 30, was a scraggly haired, 283-pound native of Romania who suffered painful seizures after being struck in the head by a mental patient at his mother’s home-operated day-care center. He had brain surgery months before his death and was estranged from a wife and two kids. A civil-rights lawsuit later filed on behalf of Matasareanu’s two young children alleged he was deliberately allowed to bleed to death. It ended in a deadlocked jury, with the city ultimately agreeing to pay $50,000 in legal fees. The former Altadena residents had once served a brief stint in jail for possessing what Glendale police said was a virtual bank robbery kit. The two were later tied to two San Fernando Valley bank heists netting $1.67 million, as well as an armored truck robbery in which the guard was killed. The cash was never found. Ready for a fight Veteran police Detective Jimmy Grayson, who participated in the exhaustive search for the money from California to Colorado, suspected it was all spent on guns, ammunition and previous medical expenses. “It all makes sense,” he said. “If you had money stashed, why go out and do another robbery? They were living large.” Phillips and Matasareanu triggered the Bank of America alarm at 9:15 a.m. Apparently enraged to find only $304,000 in its coffers, they beat a bank branch officer. Slavic Zlatkin was waiting in a van for his father to make a deposit when the bandits walked out, firing their automatic weapons. “I heard what was like a sledgehammer,” said Zlatkin, now 33, of North Hollywood. “I got out of the van, the (car) window next to me shatters. I said, whoa!” Carlos Lemus, a tire store employee heading to the bank to cash his paycheck, had turned around when he realized he’d forgotten his wallet. “It’s the luckiest thing I ever did,” said Lemus, 48, who still works at the Goodyear shop. Across the region, hundreds of police officers from various departments raced to North Hollywood to help quell the violence, including SWAT members who scrambled from Griffith Park, where they’d been training in running shorts. Military veterans quickly recognized the telltale “blat” of the Russian-designed AK-47 assault rifle. In machine-gun mode The robbers, clad in cut-up Kevlar, emptied 100-round clips from a variety of weapons, sending hot rounds through concrete walls, iron fences, dozens of cars and through the walls of a nearby ice cream parlor and pizza joint. A golden retriever was shot in the nose while on the way to his vet. “Does any unit know how many officers are down?” asked a police radio dispatcher. “More than one, more than one,” responded a frantic officer recorded on audiotape. During the standoff, frustrated police ran into the now-defunct B&B Gun Shop to grab high-powered weapons and ammo. One man in a house behind the bank was so traumatized by the gunfire, according to his family, that he went into a diabetic coma within six months and died. “My husband, who had diabetes, was very sick; he started shaking,” said Yolanda Arreola, 64. “The robbery scared him to death.” Jose Haro had hit the floor in his locksmith shop across the boulevard from the bank when three police officers sought refuge in his kiosk. Haro made his way into a nearby cleaners, where he pulled a woman to safety just as bullets shattered a window. “After everything was over, I saw the bullet holes in my kiosk and my arms started to swell,” said Haro, 73, who received an award from the county. “For eight months, I didn’t sleep during the night.” Lasting impact Dr. Jorge Montes, a dentist, risked his life to treat two wounded officers in his second-story office. For his trouble, he suffered nightmares and a nervous tic in one eye. His father, worried during the ordeal, suffered a heart attack and died later from the anxiety, Montes said. “The sound of bullets was so nerve-racking, it was as if we had no windows here,” said the dentist, who also received an award. During the shootout, most police remained calm, despite ineffective weapons, faulty radios and a command post relocated four times. One seriously wounded officer who later quit the force and became a minister said: “I heard the devil; he told me: `You’re gonna die, you’re gonna die.”‘ It had been 13 years since Officer John Caprarelli had fired his service revolver. During the robbery, he was one of the first cops at the scene. He would fire 26 rounds from his 9 mm Baretta. Before a national TV audience, Caprarelli ran to a street corner to draw fire from Phillips, emptied his gun, then leapfrogged over a fire hydrant for cover. He can still hear the thump-thump of bullets whizzing through walls, or the phtt-phtt sound of rounds in the trees overhead. He was the last man to stare into Phillips’ eyes before the gunman shot himself after his assault rifle jammed. “It was a proud day overall, a proud day for the department,” said Caprarelli, a North Hollywood community-relations officer who received awards for his valor. “Time heals,” he said, crediting God for his recovery. “I knew nothing about post-traumatic stress. I didn’t know I’d have to wake up each night at 1 a.m. in the morning, reliving the shootout. “I can’t watch war movies anymore, like `Wake Island.’ I can’t stand the auto gunfire. I saw `Heat’ before it happened – I bought it – but I can’t watch it now. “It tears me up.” [email protected] (818) 713-3730 If you go A ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the North Hollywood shootout will be held at 4 p.m. today in the plaza across from Bank of America, 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Ten years ago today, two men armed with automatic weapons and clad in body armor did more than rob the Bank of America at 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. For 44 thunderous minutes, they marched down the street, spraying stores and homes with 1,100 armor-piercing bullets, and wounding 11 police officers and six bystanders. The more than 300 law enforcement officers fighting for their lives fired back with 750 rounds. And the nation watched the terror unfold as news helicopters broadcast images of what became known as the North Hollywood shootout. When it was over, the two bandits lay dead – one after shooting himself and the other after bleeding to death from 29 gunshot wounds after telling police, “F— you. Shoot me in the head.” NORTH HOLLYWOOD – LAPD Officer Edward Brentlinger remembers crouching behind a wall, popping his pistol as two masked bank robbers fired back with AK-47 machine guns. Wounded bystanders screamed and other officers cried out that they’d been shot. Brentlinger’s 27 shots merely bounced off the heavily armed – and armored – bandits. “I could see the material on their (bulletproof) jackets go `poof,”‘ recalled the award-winning North Hollywood Division community-relations officer. “They were some badass guys. “We didn’t have the firepower to stop them.” last_img
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