The North Hollywood Shootout: Game-Changing Crime

(left) Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr., (right) Deceba Stefan Emilian “Emil” Mătăsăreanu, perpetrators of the North Hollywood Shootout.

On 28 February 1997, at 0917 hours, two would-be bank robbers walked into the Laurel Canyon Boulevard Bank of America branch in the quiet community of San Fernando Valley, a semi-independent urbanized area of north Los Angeles. Dressed in matching suits of aramid body armour and each armed with one Norinco MAK-90 semi-automatic rifle, the two men stepped over the threshold of the bank, and into American law enforcement history. 

Inside the bank, the robbers acted quickly. Spraying gunfire throughout the bank to intimidate the customers and employees, they issued demands to the employees for all the money from the vault. However, unbeknownst to Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, two Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, Loren Farrell and Martin Perello, had seen them enter the bank.  Sitting in their cruiser, the two officers called in a 2-11, LAPD code for an armed robbery, and waited for backup. As gunfire was heard from inside the bank, Farrell reported shots fired, calling more officers to the scene.

Meanwhile, the robbery was lasting longer than expected. Due to recently improved security methods, Bank of America branches stored all monies in separate lockboxes to slow down thieves. As the robbers hastily loaded cash into their duffels, LAPD officers surrounded the bank. At 0924, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu had secured around $300 000 (along with three dye packs secretly placed by the bank’s assistant manager), and Phillips chose this moment to exit the building.

Map of the North Hollywood shootout. The bodies of Phillips and Mătăsăreanu are shown in red.

As he emerged into the street, Phillips spotted Sergeant Larry Haynes and Officer Martin Whitfield, in partial cover behind their cruiser across Laurel Canyon Blvd. He then opened fire, riddling the vehicles with bullets and wounding seven LAPD officers. The officers frantically returned fire, but it soon became clear that their Beretta 92FS pistols were not powerful enough to penetrate Phillips’ body armour. Even Officer James Zboravan’s Ithaca 37 shotgun proved useless, and after a four-man SWAT team arrived, Phillips reentered the bank.

Shortly after, he reemerged with Mătăsăreanu and the duffel bag containing the stolen money. At this point, the dye packs in the bag went off, ruining the money and rendering the robbery a failure. The two men resorted to “Plan B”– simply to escape with their lives. They opened fire indiscriminately on officers and civilians, further injuring Ofc. Whitfield and Sgt. Haynes and wounding Officer. Stuart Guy. As they moved towards their getaway car, a white 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity, several officers attempted to flank them from a lot on Archwood Street. Phillips fired on the group, severely wounding Detective Earl Valadares. 

Ofc. Stuart Guy lies wounded near his cruiser.

Mătăsăreanu entered and started the getaway car, while Phillips retrieved a Heckler and Koch M91A3 rifle from the vehicle and laid down cover fire. Soon after, however, the rifle was struck by several police bullets, destroying it. Hit in the shoulder, and disoriented from the phenobarbital he had taken before the robbery, Phillips grabbed a Norinco Type 56-S1 and attempted to fire one-handed. The weapon jammed repeatedly, and Phillips discarded it but continued firing with a Beretta 92FS. Hit in the hand, he dropped his pistol, and, upon retrieving it, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Seeing Phillips go down, Mătăsăreanu abandoned the Celebrity (now with at least two flat tires and a shattered windshield). Fleeing on foot, he then attempted to hijack a Jeep pickup belonging to aeronautical engineer Bill Marr. Mătăsăreanu took a Bushmaster XM15 E2S “Dissipator” rifle from the trunk of the Celebrity, boarded Marr’s vehicle, and attempted to start it. However, the Jeep had a manual transmission, which Mătăsăreanu did not know how to operate. This rendered the Jeep useless and left Mătăsăreanu effectively trapped.

At this point, a SWAT team armed with AR-15 rifles closed in. Noticing Mătăsăreanu was wearing no armour on his legs, they fired under the cars, hitting the robber over twenty times. Mătăsăreanu fell, then surrendered, and the SWAT officers quickly surrounded and cuffed him. As Mătăsăreanu dared them to kill him, the officers radioed for an ambulance but not offer medical treatment of any sort themselves. At 1001 hours, he expired from blood loss and bullet trauma; the ambulance arrived nearly 70 minutes after, far too late.

The shootout’s aftermath was nothing less than the progressive militarization of America’s police forces. Mindful of the fact that standard service weapons had proven ineffective against the robbers’ combination of aramid and homemade body armour, the LAPD began to consider issuing more powerful weapons to their officers. Several months later, a Department of Defense shipment of 600 surplus M16s arrived; these were issued to each patrol sergeant. By the next year, regular officers were allowed to carry .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols (previously restricted to SWAT team members) and Kevlar plating had been installed in the doors of all LAPD cruisers.

That same year, Congress approved the 1033 program, a controversial scheme that allowed the DoD to transfer any type of surplus equipment to police forces at little of no cost. In particular, the program states that "all law enforcement agencies [may] acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission". This is considered to have been a direct response to the North Hollywood shootout.

Mătăsăreanu’s Bushmaster XM15 E2S, modified to fire automatically and equipped with a high-capacity “Beta-mag”.

Phillips’ suit of body armour, which offered excellent protection from police firearms.

Phillips takes cover behind an abandoned police cruiser.

Interview: Dana Barsuhn

This month’s featured artist is danabarsuhn. A street photographer from North America!

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Full name

Dana Barsuhn

City and country where you live

Eagle Rock, California, United States

How you started with street photography?

A friend and fellow street photographer and author Ibarionex Perello came across some random photographs of mine and suggested me to join him and documentary photographer Emilio Banuelos for a collaborative workshop in Downtown Los Angeles. The focus of the weekend was more on how we see and connect with photographs we take rather than all the technical stuff you are usually exposed to. I came away with a whole new take on how to see the world around me, and that influenced my motivation to walk the streets with my camera.

Would you say you have changed your way of shooting since then? If so, how?

Back then, I was a lot more intentional about shooting on the street, now it’s just part of my everyday life, I shoot whatever, whenever, wherever… and I don’t shoot as many pigeons anymore!

Why street photography? How often do you go out to capture moments?

The idea of stepping out my front door with my camera and making photographs out of everyday life, like a visual diary in a sense, appeals to me. I don’t have to drive somewhere, fly somewhere, etc., just put the camera around my neck and go. Don’t get me wrong, going places that are unfamiliar is always stimulating, however, I’ve always believed that the biggest challenge is to take photographs in your immediate everyday environment. That being said I would have to say photographing on the street was a lot more intentional for me in the beginning, but now has become more of an everyday, personal documentary type of pursuit.

I agree with you, the biggest challenge is to take pictures of your everyday environment. Nothing like knowing your own streets. Would you be afraid of getting tired of it though? Some photographers would simply grow tired of the same streets/places.

It’s all about perception really. If you want to look at everything as black and white then sure the same old streets can get monotonous. But if you change the game and look at your surroundings in a different way you can always find a way to make it interesting again.

What is then for you street photography? Do you consider yourself a street photographer?

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