This article is about the real-life incident. For the Blues Traveler album, see North Hollywood Shootout.
The North Hollywood shootout, sometimes also called the Battle of North Hollywood, was an armed confrontation between two heavily armed and armored bank robbers and members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles on February 28, 1997. Both perpetrators were killed, twelve 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.
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 a self-inflicted gunshot wound; Mătăsăreanu was incapacitated by officers three blocks away, and subsequently bled to death before the arrival of medics 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 are possible suspects in two armored vehicle robberies.
Standard issue sidearms carried by most local patrol officers at the time were 9 mm 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, and a HK-91 rifle with high capacity drum magazines as well as a Beretta 92FS pistol. The bank 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. 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."
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 American police history. Both men had fired approximately 1,100 rounds,[vague] 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. (born September 20, 1970) and Decebal Stefan Emilian "Emil" Mătăsăreanu (born July 19, 1966, in Romania) first met at the 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 the pair robbed an armored car outside a branch of FirstBank in Littleton, Colorado.
On October 29, 1993, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu 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 one hundred days in jail and were placed on three years' 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 (M16) XM15 Dissipator. Additionally they had approximately 3,300 rounds of ammunition in box and drum magazines in the trunk of their vehicle.
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 and 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, both robbers had sewn watch faces onto the back of their gloves to check their timing inside the bank. 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 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, 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 thirty bank staff and customers and to discourage resistance. Phillips shot open the bulletproof door (it 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 went off, 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) feet away, opened fire for several minutes, wounding seven officers and three civilians. He also fired at an LAPD-owned helicopter, surveying above, forcing it to retreat to a safer distance. He briefly retreated inside, then reemerged through the north doorway, while Mătăsăreanu exited through the south.
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 caliberrevolvers, and a 12-gauge Ithaca Model 37pump-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. Additionally, the officers were pinned down by the heavy spray of gunfire coming from the robbers, making it difficult to attempt a headshot. Several officers acquired five AR-15s from a nearby gun store to combat the robbers.
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, cuffed 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 him being unfamiliar with the stick-shift vehicle. 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 for 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 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 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 "Fuck you! Shoot me in the head!". 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 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 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.
Aftermath and controversy
An inventory of the weapons used:
- An AR-15 converted to fire automatically with two 100-round Beta Magazines
- A semi automatic HK-91 rifle with several 30-round magazines
- A Beretta 92FS Inox with several magazines
- Three different civilian-model AK-47 style rifles converted to fire in fully automatic mode 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, even 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 headshot. Each robber was shot and penetrated by at least ten bullets, yet both were able to continue shooting.
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 5.56 mm AR-15 type 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.
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, and because there were still reports and/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. 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, 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, entitled 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out. In 2004, the Los Angeles Police Historical Society 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 robber's getaway car and Officer Martin Whitfield's LAPD squad car.
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Mătăsăreanu in 1982, as a teenager
Phillips as a child, with his father
A: Laurel Canyon Boulevard - B: Agnes Avenue - C: Ben Avenue - D: Gentry Avenue - E: Radford Avenue - F: Morella Avenue
1: Archwood Street - 2: Lemay Street - 3: Kittridge Street
LOS ANGELES (Craig Clough / CNS) - Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most violent days in the history of Los Angeles, but it doesn't seem that long ago to one of the officers who was involved in the North Hollywood bank shootout.
A dozen officers and eight civilians were injured on Feb. 28, 1997, during a 44-minute gun battle with two gunmen carrying fully automatic assault rifles and protected by full body armor.
"Twenty years is a long time, but it doesn't feel like 20 years. It feels like a lot less," said retired LAPD Officer John Caprarelli, who exchanged gunfire with robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu, who were killed in the gun battle.
"You know, you kind of really never forget it," he told City News Service. "That's how I would put it. You can never put that aside 100 percent."
One of the bank robbery suspects lies on the ground where he was shot by police in an exchange of gun fire near Archwood Street and Hinds Avenue in North Hollywood, Friday, Feb. 28, 1997, where he later died. | Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The day isn't just remembered for the heroics of some of the outgunned officers, or the way the incident played out on live television, but also for how it forever changed law enforcement.
"They (the suspects) were armed and prepared more than the officers responding. That was a game changer," City Councilman Mitchell Englander told CNS.
"That was a wakeup call," he said. "Not only is this weaponry available to the mass market, but anybody can deploy it for any reason. So the (police) weaponry changed ... the tactics and the training changed. Every law enforcement agency in the country changed in how to respond to those incidents."
Phillips and Matasareanu had meticulously planned the armed robbery at the Bank of America branch at 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. for months, and had even calculated the expected LAPD response time by listening to police scanners. But they did not foresee that two police officers would happen to drive by and see them as they entered the bank.
By the time they exited the bank eight minutes later, police had surrounded the building and the robbers immediately unloaded their illegally altered assault rifles, striking multiple officers.
Caprarelli, a 15-year veteran, was the senior lead officer for nearby Studio City at the time.
"At that point we couldn't just sit there, we had to try and help these guys calling over the radio, `I'm hit, I'm hit.' It was just very surreal," he recalled.
Caprarelli came within inches of dying several times. At one point he took cover behind a cinder block wall, only to have Phillips spray bullets that went right through it. At another point, he ran up behind Phillips and fired at him six times from close range, striking the suspect, "but because of all that body armor he had on, it just got his attention," Caprarelli said.
"It was just like, `Who is that?' He turned around and started to point the rifle at me, and luckily it jammed."
Caprarelli ran and dove over a fire hydrant in one of the famous TV clips from that day.
In all, the robbers fired about 1,200 rounds at officers, civilians and even a police helicopter. But hundreds of officers converged to surround the area, preventing their escape. An injured Phillips took his own life and Matasareanu surrendered but bled out at the scene.
The shootout didn't end there for Caprarelli. That same night, bad dreams and the beginnings of post-traumatic stress disorder began to take hold.
"My wife said, `You know, you were yelling, giving warnings in your sleep.' I was like, `I don't remember any of that,"' he said. "From the first night, I started to experience post-traumatic stress stuff. And they had never told us about any of this stuff."
Not understanding what was wrong with him, Caprarelli never sought any professional help and turned down the LAPD's optional offer for a session with a therapist. He said he started drinking heavily, eventually suffering a stroke in 2002 that sidelined him from the force for a year.
He never worked in the field again, but after a year of rehab, he was able to come back and work desk duty, retiring in 2009. He was honored with the Medal of Valor, the LAPD's highest honor, and the National Association of Police Organizations' "Top Cops" award for his actions on the day of the shootout.
"It look me a long time to figure out that I'm not crazy, this is normal for someone who was involved in something like this so intimately. And now I know how to deal with it," Caprarelli said. "And over the years, I'm fine with it. But yeah, if I hear gunshots I get all ramped up, my heart starts racing, and that's a piece of it, but I understand it now."
Police in Los Angeles eventually became better equipped as a result of the shootout. Were it to happen Tuesday, one of the first officers responding would likely be armed with his or her own assault rifle.
"Not only are police more equipped, but the tactics deployed are all different, in like how to take cover to reduce risk to the officers and the general public," said Englander, who is also a reserve officer with the LAPD and chair of the council's Public Safety Committee.
And how to help officers with PTSD has also changed, as officers involved in shootings now undergo mandatory mental evaluations. For Caprarelli, the evaluation was optional, and he said if he had gotten help right away, things might have turned out differently for him.
After retiring, Caprarelli wrote a book about his experiences, "Uniform Decisions: My Life in the LAPD and The North Hollywood Shootout," and he regularly speaks to police groups about the importance of recognizing the seriousness of PTSD.
Caprarelli and Englander planned to be on hand for a shootout remembrance event at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the LAPD's North Hollywood Division. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Police Commission President Matt Johnson, Chief Charlie Beck and Councilman Paul Krekorian are also scheduled to attend.