Twenty years ago, one of the wildest shootouts the country had ever seen unfolded in Los Angeles’ North Hollywood neighborhood — and live on the television sets of people across the country.
On the morning of February 28, 1997, two heavily armed men wearing body armor burst into a Bank of America branch, took a little more than $300,000 and fired their way out.
Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu shot at everything in their path — including police, bystanders, and a news helicopter — in an attempt to get away. They had Kalashnikov rifles filled with armor-piercing bullets that tore through cement, buildings and cars, spraying shredded fragments of glass, metal and concrete as they went.
The gory gunfight is forever etched into the memories of former LAPD SWAT officer Rick Massa and Dr. Jorge Montes, a dentist whose office became an impromptu emergency room for wounded officers. They are just two of the heroes of a shootout that riveted the nation.
Phillips and Matasareanu “had no care for life,” Massa recalled. “And this was obvious when they came out of the bank and started shooting at anyone that moved. They didn’t care.”
The shots the pair fired were seen and heard around the world, as the ensuing confrontation with police was broadcast live on television. By the time it was over, 12 police officers and eight civilians would be injured, and the two robbers, Phillips, 26, and Matasareanu, 30, would be dead.
Incident changed how patrol officers are armed
“The poor uniformed police officers at that time were definitely outgunned,” Massa said. At that time, he said, LAPD patrol officers didn’t carry assault rifles, and didn’t have weapons that could pierce body armor.
But the weapons Phillips and Matasareanu had could penetrate the officers’ vests “like a hot knife through butter,” Massa said.
“The Battle of North Hollywood,” as it came to be known, would change how routine police patrol officers are armed in Los Angeles and beyond.
“Our units carry AR-15s now,” Capt. Johnny Starling of the California Highway Patrol West Valley division. “We don’t have to confront suspects as close instantly. Even our patrol cars have Kevlar side panels. Before they were made of sheet metal that couldn’t stop bullets.”
Police departments across the country are better equipped today as a result of the shootout, Burbank Police chief Scott LaChasse said. “We carry urban police rifles now,” he said. “We can deploy much differently because of that. You now have the firepower so you can take suspects down at a distance.”
‘Multiple officers shot’
Massa was getting ready for a jog at the police academy that morning with fellow SWAT team member Steve Gomez when they heard frantic reports of a shooting at a North Hollywood bank.
Massa changed into his SWAT gear, but Gomez didn’t have time — in news footage from the day, he can be seen firing at the robbers while wearing shorts.
“Multiple officers shot,” the 911 dispatcher could be heard saying on the radio.
Another of the SWAT members, Donny Anderson, joined his colleagues.
The robbers seemed to have had some practice. The FBI said it suspected them in two other similar suburban bank robberies, the Associated Press reported at the time. Police in nearby Glendale told the news service that Phillips and Matasareanu had been arrested in 1993, after officers discovered weapons, smoke bombs and disguises in their car during a traffic stop.
On February 28, the duo had planned to rob the bank of $750,000, according to multiple news reports, but a change in the delivery schedule left much less money inside. An angry Matasareanu destroyed some money when he shot 75 rounds into a safe. The money they did manage to leave with was ruined by dye packs.
As the robbers exited, the undermanned police responding to the robbery call couldn’t know that they were about to be participants in the most brutal kind of live television drama.
It would soon Montes, whose dental office still is just across Laurel Canyon Boulevard from the bank, into an emergency triage doctor for wounded police.
From inside the office, Montes could hear the gunshots. The patrol officers’ pistols sounded like toys compared to the deafening blasts of the robbers’ assault rifles, Montes said.
Then two injured officers — rookie cop Sgt. James Zboravan and Detective William Krulac — scrambled up to his second-floor office.
A dental office turned field hospital
“I had to improvise,” Montes said. “I put gloves on to deal with the blood.”
The dentist said Zboravan suffered gunshots to the back, and Krulac had shrapnel sticking out of his ankle. Montes remembered using gauze and gel normally meant for dental surgery to slow the officers’ bleeding.
The shrapnel sticking out of Krulac’s lower leg particularly worried Montes. “I told him I don’t want to take it (the shrapnel) out because I don’t know if it’s crossing an artery, vein or bone marrow,” he said.
“He came back Monday with his wife to thank me, with the shard still in his ankle,” Montes went on. “If I had taken it out, he would have bled to death because the (blood) clotting would have not worked.”
Zboravan was amazed that Montes didn’t hesitate to help. “I am just grateful for his bravery, his selflessness,” he said. “He didn’t have to open his doors to us. He could see what was happening because he had a 180 degree view from his office.”
Today Zboravan has two degenerated discs in his back — something to remember the shootout by, he said.
With the help of the dentist, first responders and others, all 12 injured police officers and eight civilians survived the carnage.
The gunmen didn’t. Phillips died first, in a sickening moment that was broadcast live. In news footage, Phillips can be seen walking down a side street randomly firing a pistol, then getting shot in the hand and losing his grip on the gun.
“He drops it, picks it up, put the gun under his chin and presses the trigger,” Massa explained.
“As he goes down, an unknown uniformed patrol officer fires at him and hits him in the upper torso, through the side, misses his armored vest and severs his spine.”
Phillips dropped to the ground, dead. It was unclear which bullet killed him.
The final confrontation
Later, the trio of SWAT members who scrambled to get there from the police academy squared off with Matasareanu. Both sides used vehicles as shields.
Massa remembered being worried that the gunman would come around and shoot all three of them. “I see his feet,” he said, recounting his thought process in that moment.
“I’m going to do what I can to put him down. I shoot and hit him two or three times in the ankle, underneath the cars, which drops him.”
While Massa and his SWAT partners were laying “prone out” and aiming their guns at Matasareanu, he says they hit the robber 28 times, until he stopped shooting. The three SWAT team members rushed to Matasareanu, who could be seen on TV in a fetal position, breathing heavily, lying among streams of blood pouring from his wounds.
Massa removed the ski mask the gunman had been wearing. “Why don’t you just put a round through my head?” Massa remembered him saying. The two exchanged a few words, then Massa cuffed him and turned him over to the detectives, the SWAT officer said.
There were shell casings strewn everywhere like confetti, holes in the bank’s walls and gouges in sidewalk, Massa recalled.
Matasareanu would bleed to death 56 minutes later. His family sued the LAPD afterward, arguing that police “murdered” the 30-year-old by not providing him with medical aid. The case ended in a mistrial and was later dismissed, the AP reported.
By the day’s end, more than 2,000 rounds had been fired — more than half of them by the robbers. The Battle Of North Hollywood would go on to inspire a TV movie and a Megadeth song, titled “44 Minutes” for the length of the shootout.