North Hollywood Shootout: 44 Minutes That Changed Law Enforcement

February 28, 1997, is a day that forever changed the lives of many people right along with the policies and tactics used by the Los Angeles Police Department. On that day 26 years ago, two heavily armed men entered the Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard around 9:17 am and changed the course of history forever. The event would be hence known as the North Hollywood Shootout, or the North Hollywood Robbery. Here’s what happened.

North Hollywood Shootout suspect at trunk of car
The two suspects, Larry Phillips, Jr., and Emil Mătăsăreanu, bonded over bodybuilding and the mutual desire for wealth. The two started with robberies of armored vehicles to the banks themselves. (Photo credit: LAPD Museum)

The Culprits

To say Larry Phillips, Jr., and Emil Mătăsăreanu were outcasts doesn’t really even begin to explain who those two men were. At best they were outcasts, and at worst they were hardened criminals driven by the allure of having money and lots of it. But they weren’t always criminals. In their early years, they were just awkward boys that never quite fit in. Mătăsăreanu, an emigrant from Romania, had struggled to make friends in the US and was overweight. He was consistently bullied, was an unsuccessful businessman, and generally thought the world was out to get him. To escape, he turned to hobbies, like bodybuilding, to burn off the negative energy and boost his moods. That’s where he met Larry Phillips, Jr.

Larry Phillips, Jr., too had a difficult childhood. Phillips Jr.’s mother was said to be a prostitute who did hard time, and his father was a career criminal. He was born while his parents were on the run and watched as his father was arrested on his 6th birthday. He had a hatred of the police after that. After 9th grade he dropped out and, as a kindred spirit to Mătăsăreanu, he enjoyed bodybuilding and became obsessed with wealth. He tried to make it legitimately but quickly turned towards crime, selling illegal mortgages and deeds.

Police taking cover at North Hollywood Shootout
Officers took cover behind vehicles, which ultimately proved unable to withstand the onslaught of automatic fire from the suspects. (Photo credit: LA Times)

Before the North Hollywood Shootout

Sometime before 1993, both men turned their interests toward crime. The first robbery attributed to the pair was an armored car heist outside of Denver that only netted the men $25,000 in torn and tattered bills which were headed for destruction. They were sidelined for a while when they were pulled over and found to be in possession of what the police called a bank robbery kit that included rifles, pistols, ski masks, and radios among other items. The charges from that traffic stop landed Mătăsăreanu in prison for 71 days while Phillips earned 99 days.

Over the course of the following years, the pair would commit four more robberies. Two were robberies of armored vehicles outside of banks and then the pair graduated to the banks themselves. The armored vehicle robberies netted the pair only $122,000 while the bank robberies garnered them over $1.5 million. During the robberies, the men used automatic rifles and body armor to shock and overwhelm the victims. The robberies, and their tactics, earned the pair the nickname of the High Incident Bandits from the police.

The Day Willpower Defeated Firepower

By the morning of February 28th, 1997, Mătăsăreanu and Phillips had their tactics and weapons honed in for the robbery. They entered the Bank of America (BoA) branch around 9:20 am and quickly took control of the area. As the pair was entering the bank, LAPD officers happened to be driving by and witnessed the suspicious men, calling it in to dispatch. Then the officers heard shots being fired.

Inside the bank, the suspects went to the vault to demand large denomination bills without any ink packs, per their instructions, and then empty the ATM of the money inside. But unbeknownst to the pair, BoA had swapped out the ATMs from models that bank staff reloaded with cash to ones that were reloaded during off-hours, making it impossible for them to gain access to the cash inside.

Police and civilian during robbery
Police and civilians both were in harm’s way during the shootout after the robbery while the suspects attempted to flee. (Photo credit: LA Times)

Officers were getting conflicting reports of how many persons had entered the bank, so the initial plan was to surround the bank and take however many men into custody when they exited. Officers deployed at many points around the BoA building, barricading themselves behind cement walls and their vehicles. At 9:25, Phillips exited the bank. After taking in the scene, he opened fire on the officers from his full-auto Norinco Type 56 rifle. A moment or two afterward, Mătăsăreanu exited the building from another entrance and also fired from his rifle.

Officers returned fired from their pistols and shotguns but quickly realized that their rounds were not having any effect on the suspects. The rounds fired from the suspects’ weapons penetrated the police vehicles along with the civilian vehicles and other obstructions the police were using as protection. As officers on the scene tried to stay protected from the onslaught, SWAT was dispatched in to help with the situation. 

After reentering and leaving the bank several times while shooting at police, the suspects made their way to their vehicle to attempt to leave the area around 9:35 am. At 9:38 am, a Lieutenant gave the command for available units to proceed to a given gun store and acquire effective weaponry. (The weapons taken from the store were never fired during the incident.)

Around 9:45 am, members of LA SWAT arrived at the command post and were directed to the area of the bank to help rescue injured officers and civilians with the help of an armored truck and its staff. Around the same time, the suspects were attempting to leave the parking lot, when Phillips approached the rear of the car and exchanged his rifle for another rifle from the trunk and more magazines. (Reports later would show that his original rifle had been hit and was inoperable.)

Police presence after robbery
In the aftermath of the North Hollywood Shootout, and with two suspects down, the LAPD continued its search of additional suspects and victims well into the night of February 28, 1997. (Photo credit: LA Times/LAPD Museum)

The suspects left the bank parking lot and headed east along Archwood Street. Around 9:50 am, Phillips was seen crouching, trying to clear his rifle of a malfunction. He then discarded the rifle and began to use a Beretta pistol. While engaged with officers from a nearby intersection, Phillips was seen dropping his pistol, picking it back up, and placing it under his chin. At the time he pulled the trigger, he was hit by a round in the neck by an officer, went down, and was taken into custody without any further incident.

Mătăsăreanu continued east in the vehicle while trying unsuccessfully to commandeer another for escape. He was able to gain access to a truck and was in the process of transferring weapons and ammo to the truck when he encountered the SWAT team.  After an intense exchange of gunfire, around 9:58 am Mătăsăreanu appeared severely wounded, disorientated, and dropped his rifle. He was then taken into custody. Because information wasn’t clear, the officers on the scene were not positive that there weren’t any more suspects. Ultimately, both suspects passed from their wounds and after an incredibly intense 44 minutes, the robbery ordeal was over.

According to reports, nearly 1,000 rounds of ammunition were fired toward officers in the barrage as the suspects tried to make their getaway. As the moments went by, 11 officers were shot in the deluge of bullets. Reports from that day state that Phillips was wearing over 40 pounds of armor including coverings fashioned from patches of Kevlar for his arms and legs while Mătăsăreanu only had a bullet-resistant reinforced vest. The suspects were also wearing tactical vests loaded with magazines of ammunition for the rifles.

North Hollywood Robbery Infographic
The overall numbers for the suspects and LAPD on the day of the North Hollywood Shootout are staggering. (Photo credit: P. Penzella/LAPD Museum)

The Aftermath

After the ordeal was over, an examination of the suspects revealed the body armor, hundreds of rounds of ammunition on their bodies, and the extent of their injuries. The Norinco rifles they both carried were illegally altered to be fully automatic. Phillips also had the Beretta 92FS. Mătăsăreanu was found to be carrying a Bushmaster .223 rifle that had been altered to be fully automatic too. The car was also examined, and it was reported that there was an H&K Model 91 .308 rifle and a Norinco Type 56 rifle. Inside the truck that Mătăsăreanu was attempting to take was another Norinco rifle, which also had been altered to be fully automatic.

After reviewing the incident, the LAPD took a hard look at its response and how it could do better in the future. The Department took on the suspects with department-issued 9mm pistols, shotguns, and a few officers had rifles chambered in .223. It was decided that in addition to ongoing training for department-wide preparedness for any future incidents of this magnitude, officers would have the option to use .45 ACP pistols, AR-15s chambered in .223, and 12-gauge shotguns in addition to upgraded pistol ammunition options. Police vehicles were reportedly upgraded with Kevlar panels in the side to help protect officers from rounds.

While, unfortunately, this probably won’t be the last major bank robbery of its kind. But the North Hollywood Shootout left its indelible mark on LAPD and beyond. Law enforcement and tactics, not to mention available firepower, have adapted so hopefully future incidents won’t have nearly the same impact.

Patti Miller is one of the most awesome females in the tactical/firearm (or any) industry. Imagine a tall, hawt, dangerous Laura Ingalls Wilder type with cool hair and a suppressed blaster and you'll be getting the idea. What's interesting is that in addition to being a willing brawler and intrepid adventuress, she's also an Ent/Ogier level gardener and a truly badass baker.

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