Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Decebal Stefan Emilian "Emil" Mătăsăreanu a.k.a. "The High Incident Bandits", were a pair of bank robbers famous for perpetrating a deadly shootout with Los Angeles officers after robbing a bank on February 28th of 1997.
Their robbery has since been named The North Hollywood shootout or The Battle of North Hollywood.
Larry Phillips, Jr.
Phillips was born in Los Angeles, California under the assumed name of Larry Warfel, to Larry Phillips Sr. and Dorothy Clay. His father had experienced several encounters with the law, which eventually culminated in him escaping the Colorado State Hospital on April 18th 1969, after being sent there the previous year for reasons unknown.Phillips' family was apparently well-functioning and normal, although Phillips Sr.'s association with small criminal enterprises affected the younger Phillips' life. He and his mother later moved to Kiowa, Colorado while Phillips Sr. stayed behind to work as a painter. On September 22nd 1976, just two days after he turned six, Phillips witnessed his father being arrested by federal agents, who had caught up with him after being (possibly) tipped off by Dorothy Clay. It was presumably this event that would reshape Phillips' personality, according to Phillips Sr. Dorothy would later divorce Phillips Sr. after he was released from jail after spending several months time, and she moved Phillips back to California.
Phillips Sr. continued to play a role in his son's life, taking him out to shooting ranges, wrestling matches, and the Rocky Mountains. It was at the Rocky Mountains that he would tell Phillips about his dislike of law enforcement, possibly helping to pave the road to Phillips' future. In 1983, Phillips dropped out of school following the ninth grade and decided to pursue a dream to make money. In the following year, he met one Sharon Santos, whom he later married. Phillips eventually took up a hobby of bodybuilding, planning to become "the next Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno". He gained a membership at the Gold's Gym and maintained it for five years. Phillips also became interested by infomercials about get-rich-quick schemes by Tom Vu. In September 2nd 1989, Phillips began taking the same path as his father, getting arrested and going to trial for stealing $400 worth of suits from a Sears store in Alhambra. In the same year, Sharon Santos had been impregnated with his own son. Sometime later at Gold's Gym, in the same year, Phillips met and befriended Mătăsăreanu, who had a similar interest in bodybuilding and weightlifting.
In September of 1992, Phillips went to Colorado where he formulated a scam scheme, contacting several local real-estate agents and claiming to be a prospective buyer named Mark Wright; shown over fifty properties by the agents, he ran his scam on at least two of them. Whenever he was shown a house by an agent, Phillips would watch the agent unlock the house's lock-box containing its keys and memorize said lock-box's combination. After purchasing the property, he would immediately sell it but make it look as if he were putting it up for rent. On October 6, Phillips, operating under his alias, met Cheryl Meyer, a Denver woman who found an advertisement of one of his properties up for rent in the Rocky Mountain News, at 1708 South Bryant Street. Meyer filled out a rental contract and was later approved by Phillips to rent the property. Meyer and her husband Steven later dropped by at the house to take a look at it when they ran into the owner, who confirmed the house wasn't for rent but was on sale and that the firm REMAX was the authorized seller.
The Meyers contacted an agent, who told them the confusion was all a scam and advised they meet up with Phillips, whom they were supposed to have an appointment with to give him the lease deposit, and also alert police. The Meyers carried it out the next day with the help of an undercover Detective Hogan, and when Phillips arrived, he was arrested. During his incarceration, the authorities eventually found out his real identity after tracing the car Phillips used during his attempted scam, a black Nissan 240SX, to his now-deceased mother Dorothy Clay. Held at an initial bail of $1,000,000, Phillips was soon released from custody after his wife Sharon withdrew her life savings of $10,000, which resulted in the decrease of the bail amount. Phillips' arrest led to a heavy strain on his relationship with Sharon, who became worried over her absence of savings, the possibility of her raising two children alone, and the fear of her husband cheating on her. Eventually, Phillips walked out of the house and fled. Ironically, he fled before he could be sentenced and suffered the same life of being on the run that his father had. Phillips soon sought shelter with Mătăsăreanu and the two began traveling.
Mătăsăreanu was born in Timișoara, Romania. He was overweight and frequently suffering from headaches as a result of his epilepsy condition. His parents, Viorel and Valarie, who worked as a political dissident and (possible) State Opera member respectively, decided to move to the U.S. in 1974 after recognizing the difficult circumstances brought by the Romanian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Relocating to Los Angeles, California, the family instantly settled into the new, larger house, which Mătăsăreanu was especially fascinated with. However, Mătăsăreanu's school life was terrible, with the other students bullying him due to his unfamiliar accent and weight, leading to his affinity for computers and hanging around in his house. At sixteen years old, Mătăsăreanu came to aid Valarie in her state-care license to care for developmentally-disabled adults. By this time, he was able to gain a small group of friends. The life of the Mătăsăreanu family soon came to a tragic downfall when tensions between Viorel and Valarie became worse, resulting in a divorce that was apparently the factor in a series of unspecified arrests and a presumed financial ruin that left Valarie's state-care license suspended. In 1983, Mătăsăreanu enrolled into the DeVry Institute of Technology, specifically a three-year course in Electronics Engineering. His interests eventually widened, exemplified when he purchased a red 1983 Kawasaki GPz-550 motorbike that was modified by local mechanic Kenny Perez. However, he had difficulties in riding the bike and was always "left in the dust" by Perez and his group of friends.
In 1987, Mătăsăreanu graduated with an Electronics degree and opened a business whose early days were unspecified over whether it was successful or not. He also came to have an interest in firearms, always being seen cleaning several by a neighbor. Tensions continued to increase between Viorel and Valarie, and while this did not seem to affect Mătăsăreanu, he felt the pressure all the same when Viorel started persuading him endlessly to return to school and continue his studies. He would soon develop anger and attitude problems from the issues going on around him; on one occasion swinging a chainsaw in his next-door neighbor's face because the neighbor's dog walked onto his lawn. Sometime in 1989, Mătăsăreanu met Phillips at Gold's Gym and the two became fast friends due to their mutual interests in improving their physicality. He would later take in Phillips when he fled the law following an attempted scam scheme of his in Denver, Colorado and a resultant arrest; the two soon began traveling. In 1993, while on a trip to Romania to bring his grandmother over to the United States, Mătăsăreanu would meet his eventual wife Christina, of whom he would have a son with. He was described by Milton Thomas, a friend and coworker, as being very proud of his son, Emil Jr., showing him photographs every day at work "as if he was just born". Eventually the family would move into a rented multistory estate in Rowland Heights, Los Angeles, affordable due to Mătăsăreanu's recent exploits with Phillips. Life was going well for him until 1996, where after having a seizure, his wife and son left him.
Events Prior to the Shootout
During their travel, the two robbed a FirstBank-owned armored car at Littleton, Colorado, on July 20, 1993; there were no casualties. On October 23, 1993, at Glendale, California, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, driving in a brand-new red Ford Thunderbird that they rented from an airport, sped the car away from a gas station at high speeds. They were pursued by the patrolling Sergeant Ian Grimes, who eventually pulled them over. Grimes asked Phillips for his driver's license, to which Phillips attempted to make excuses that he accidentally left it at his home and Mătăsăreanu lying that the car belongs to Phillips' mother. However, Grimes, already aware of the car's status as an airport rental, ordered the two out of the Thunderbird, to which he noticed Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were both armed with 9mm Glock 17 pistols, which they were disarmed of.
A search was later made on the Thunderbird, where officers found the following: a PolyTech semiautomatic rifle with a folding stick that belonged to Mătăsăreanu; a Norinco MAK-90 semiautomatic rifle with a wooden stock that belonged to Phillips; a Springfield Armoury .45 pistol belonging to Phillips; a Colt .45 pistol belonging to Mătăsăreanu; 1,649 rounds of 7.62x39mm ammunition, most of them loaded into 30-round magazines; three Chinese-made 75-round drum magazines loaded with 7.62x39mm ammo; 967 rounds of 9mm JHP ammo; 357 rounds of .45 JHP ammo; six smoke bombs; two improvised explosive devices; a gas mask; two sets of National Armor Level III-A vests; two 200-channel, portable, programmable scanners with earpieces; sunglasses, gloves, wigs, ski-masks, and a stopwatch; two spray cans of gray Studio Hair Colour; three different California automobile license plates; and a sum of $1,620. It was possible that Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were speeding because they were urgently on their way to a safe house that they intended to store the above materials at.
The two were arrested and identified through DNA fingerprinting. On October 26, Phillips was charged for conspiracy to commit robbery, grand theft auto, unlawful weapons activity, carrying and concealing a loaded firearm, and perjury; Mătăsăreanu was charged for conspiracy to commit robbery, grand theft auto, unlawful weapons activity, and carrying a loaded firearm inside a car. The grand theft auto charges were eventually dropped during a November 8 preliminary hearing, along with Phillips' perjury charge due to a lack of evidence. Sometime on December, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were sentenced to 99 days and 71 days in prison, respectively, plus 36 days of probation for each of the two. Both completed their respective sentencings and were eventually released from prison. On July 14, 1995, at Los Angeles, California, around 12:25 p.m., the two robbed an armored car owned by Brinks before making their getaway in a dark-blue Chevrolet Cavalier, using automatic weapons and shooting the car's rear door open to get the money. The robbery left a security guard, 51-year-old Herman Dwight Cook, dead and the car's driver, 53-year-old Felipe Cortez, injured.
At 9:33 a.m. on March 27, 1996, another Brinks-owned armored car was fired at on a street by a pair of would-be robbers that might have been Phillips and Mătăsăreanu (it is not confirmed it this was their work) riding in a maroon-colored Ford Econolinel; the driver was slightly injured by flying glass. The armored car sped off and soon lost sight of the Econoline. On May 2 of the same year, the two made their escalation to personally robbing banks instead of armored cars when they stormed into a bank owned by Bank of America at Los Angeles' Van Nuys sometime before 10:00 a.m., armed with, again, automatic weapons. Approximately eight minutes later, the two made their getaway with $755,048. Almost a month later, on May 31 at 10:05 a.m., Phillips and Mătăsăreanu robbed another Bank of America-owned bank and left with $794,200, leaving two bank tellers injured. They had thought $2 million would be waiting for them, but due to new security measures, a significant portion of that money had been collected two days earlier. This robbery, in which Phillips and Mătăsăreanu had a flaw in their initial plan, would later become a foreshadowing to the event that would happen in North Hollywood.
The North Hollywood Shootout
On February 28, 1997, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu committed the actions that gained them widespread infamy across the country. Arriving at the Bank of America-owned bank at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in a blue 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity that had been sprayed white, the two exited the car at 9:17 a.m. after taking phenobarbital, a muscle-relaxing drug that was prescribed to Mătăsăreanu as an anti-convulsant, to calm themselves and walked towards the bank, both armed with one Chinese-made Norinco Type 56 Sporter assault rifle each and wearing bulletproof body armor suits. Two patrolling police officers that were in a cruiser nearby, Officers Loren Farrell and Martin Perello, spotted the armed robbers and Perello issued a 2-11 alert (the police code for an armed robbery) to other officers. Farrell and Perello positioned themselves behind a parked semitruck as Phillips and Mătăsăreanu forced 32-year-old Armen Iskaudaryan, a man who deposited $85 at one of the bank's ATMs, inside the bank at gunpoint, where they initiated the robbery, opening fire all over the bank's interior as means of intimidating the bank tellers and customers.
Outside, Farrell reported a 'shots-fired' alert and continued calling in officers to the bank's perimeter. Inside the bank, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu began experiencing difficulties in acquiring the money fast enough: due to new security measures, banks broke their money down into seperate lockable boxes to slow down any robbers; plus, Bank of America heavily varied its delivery times to its banks, and as a result, the sum of money at the Laurel Canyon bank was shorter than they expected. The two eventually left with $303,305 and three dye packs, the latter of which were hastily put in by the unknowing assistant bank manager. At that time, small teams of police officers were surrounding the side of the bank: Sergeant Larry Haynes and Officer Martin Whitfield were surrounding the northern side of the bank; Officers Farrell and Perello the southern side of the bank; Officer Edward Brentlinger the northeastern side; and Officers James Zboravan and Stuart Guy, as well as Detectives Tracey Angeles and William Krulac, the bank's western doorway.
It was this moment that Phillips exited the bank, at 9:24 a.m. Spotting Haynes and Whitfield, as well as three present civilians, all of them distanced about 200 feet away from him, Phillips opened fire on Haynes' and Whitfield's police cruisers with his assault rifle, riddling both vehicles with numerous bullets. The gunfire alerted all other civilians nearby and panic became on the rise. Phillips raged about with his firearm for several minutes, eventually wounding seven police officers (including Officer Whitfield, Sergeant Haynes, Officer Zboravan, and Detective Krulac) and two civilians. Phillips also began firing at an LAPD-owned helicopter that had arrived to survey his movement, forcing it to fly away to a safer saltitude. Because of Phillips' body armor, officers weren't able to shoot him down with their pistols and even Officer Zboravan's Ithaca Model 37 pump-action shotgun. When four SWAT officers (Don Anderson, Steve Gomez, Peter Weireter, and Richard Massa) arrived, Phillips retreated back into the bank, then reemerged with Mătăsăreanu, both carrying a large bag containing the money they stole.
However, the three dye packs inside the bag were set off, ruining the money and Phillips and Mătăsăreanu's goal to successfully rob the bank. The two resorted to their escape plan, opening fire on officers and civilians, injuring Officer Guy and civilian Tracey Fisher, and also further wounding Officer Whitfield and Sergeant Haynes. Soon, they began to move back to their Chevrolet Celebrity for their getaway; at that point, Mătăsăreanu was shot twice in the right buttock and the left forearm. Phillips then opened fire on a group of police officers attempting to flank the two from an Archwood Street backyard; Detective Earl Valadares was hit in the head by flying debris and seriously wounded. Mătăsăreanu boarded the Chevrolet and started its engine while Phillips decided to cover him with a Heckler & Koch M91A3 semiautomatic rifle. Eventually, the rifle was struck in the receiver and magazine by bullets fired from police, rendering it partially useless; Phillips was also hit in the shoulder. He soon discarded the rifle after firing a few more times one-handedly and utilized a Norinco Type 56 S1 assault rifle. However, it began jamming a few times, and Phillips also became delayed by side-effects induced by the phenobarbital he ingested, leaving him confused and with a lack of coordination.
Finally, when the assault rifle became permanently jammed, Phillips discarded it and opened fire with a 9mm Beretta Model 92FS semiautomatic pistol. Police fired back and Phillips was soon shot in the right hand, causing him to accidentally drop his pistol. Picking it up, Phillips used it to commit suicide by shooting himself up the chin. As he fell to the ground, he was struck by bullets fired by police. There had been a possibility that Phillips' suicide was accidental when he tried to reload the pistol one-handedly with his uninjured hand, but this has never been confirmed. Meanwhile, Mătăsăreanu, who had begun driving on Archwood Street at the time of Phillips' suicide, made a decision to abandon the Chevrolet and carjack another vehicle, as the Chevrolet had been fired on by police officers, leaving two flat tires and a windshield riddled by at least four bullets. Coming across a red Ford Tempo and blocking it, Mătăsăreanu fired at the driver, but he escaped unharmed.
Mătăsăreanu then came across a group of cars and confronted an aerospace engineer named Bill Marr, who had been trying to drive to his workplace at the Van Nuys airport in his 1963 Jeep Cherokee pickup truck but had to reroute to Archwood Street due to police blockage from the shootout. Mătăsăreanu fired at Marr, wounding him and forcing him to flee on foot; he tried to get into the house of 69-year-old Dora Lubjensky, who thought he was an intruder and called police, leading them to briefly assume afterwards that Marr was a possible third gunman. Meanwhile, Mătăsăreanu retrieved a Bushmaster XM15 E2S "Dissipator" semiautomatic rifle from the trunk of the Chevrolet when he noticed police officers closing in. He boarded Marr's Jeep and tried to get it started, for Marr had left the keys, but the Jeep was a stick-shift type, which Mătăsăreanu was unfamiliar with, and this left the Jeep useless as a getaway vehicle. A SWAT team eventually arrived and fired at Mătăsăreanu with their AR-15 assault rifles for two-and-a-half minutes. They noticed that Mătăsăreanu wasn't wearing any armor on his legs and fired under the vehicles, hitting him over 20 times in the legs. Mătăsăreanu fell and surrendered to authorities. When officers surrounded him, he called himself Pete and taunted them to kill him. By 10:01 a.m., he eventually died from trauma induced by excessive blood loss coming from two gunshot wounds in his left thigh; this happened before an ambulance called in reached the scene almost seventy minutes later.
In the hours following the shootout, LAPD officers continuously searched throughout North Hollywood neighborhoods for anymore gunmen, with residents being told via broadcasts to stay inside their homes until further notice. Due to the usage of illegally-modified firearms and Phillips and Mătăsăreanu straying heavily from the usual trend of attempted bank robbers holding a siege at a bank, instead directly engaging police officers in a heated gunfight, police departments around the U.S. received a lot of changes in their firepower: officers were allowed to carry higher-caliber semiautomatic pistols and even semiautomatic AR-15 rifles; 600 surplus products of the latter were sent to the LAPD as standard-issue firearms. Additionally, due to the heavy destruction inflicted upon numerous LAPD police cruisers, bullet-resistant Kevlar plating was put on newly-created cruisers.
On the year following the shootout, a total of nineteen officers involved in the shootout (including those injured by Phillips and Mătăsăreanu) received the Los Angeles Police Medal of Valor for their heroic actions and also met then-President Bill Clinton. The names of the officers, in alphabetical order by surname, are:
- Officer Don Anderson
- Detective Tracey Angeles
- Detective Vincent Bancroft, Jr.
- Officer Edward Brentlinger
- Officer Anthony Cabunoc
- Officer John Caprarelli
- Detective Thomas Culotta
- Officer Edwin Dominguez
- Officer Steven Gomez
- Detective Kevin Harley
- Officer Richard Massa
- Sergeant Israel Medina
- Officer Charles Perriguey
- Officer Todd Schmitz
- Officer Conrado Torrez
- Detective Lawrence Winston
- Detective Phillip Wixon
- Officer James Zboravan
- Officer Richard Zielinski
Mătăsăreanu's death sparked a high amount of controversy directed at the LAPD, for officers refused to allow medical attention to him, alleging that ambulance personnel were following the standard procedure of refusing to enter "the hot zone" during extreme situations in which the perpetrator(s) are considered highly dangerous, plus the fact that a possible third gunman might be waiting to ambush emergency personnel. However, these allegations are easily countered by live aerial shots that view Mătăsăreanu lying on the ground unarmed for an approximate hour before ambulances arrived at the scene, and the failure to find a third gunman. Mătăsăreanu's family would go on to file a lawsuit against the LAPD for intentionally allowing him to bleed out. It was tried in the United States District Court in February and March 2000, with it ending in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked; the lawsuit was later dropped on an agreement by the Mătăsăreanu family. An investigation conducted by The Los Angeles Times in 2017 later determined that a series of mishaps and mistakes, mainly by paramedics, was responsible for Mătăsăreanu's slow death.
In 2003, an American film inspired by the shootout, called 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out, was released. In 2004, the Los Angeles Police Department Museum opened an exhibit showcasing Phillips and Mătăsăreanu's weapons and body armor, while their getaway vehicle and several police cruisers involved in the shootout were put on display at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum in Highland Park.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu used mostly automatic weapons and wore ski-masks with dark sunglasses to conceal their identities in their robberies; the weapons were all illegally modified either by them or during black-market circulation. Before their robberies, they would presumably examine the bank schedules and pinpoint the days when they should strike. Using devices that scan police radios, they were able to time their robberies in order to make successful getaways before police officers could even arrive. During the North Hollywood shootout and presumably their other robberies, the two were armed with the following weapons:
- Phillips used the following firearms in order:
- A Norinco Type 56 Sporter semiautomatic rifle converted to fire automatically with 75- to 100-round drum magazines and 30-round box magazines
- A Heckler & Koch M91A3 semiautomatic rifle
- A Norinco Type 56 S1 semiautomatic rifle converted to fire automatically with 75- to 100-round drum magazines and 30-round box magazines
- A 9mm Beretta Model 92FS semiautomatic pistol
- Mătăsăreanu used the following firearms in order:
- A Norinco Type 56 Sporter semiautomatic rifle converted to fire automatically with 75- to 100-round drum magazines and 30-round box magazines
- A Bushmaster XM15 E2S "Dissipator" semiautomatic rifle heavily modified into a selective-fire weapon firing from two 100-round "Beta Magazines"
The two initially targeted armored cars owned by banks, but they eventually escalated to robbing banks. Whenever they robbed banks, Mătăsăreanu would always shoot open the security vaults and threaten the managers and tellers to empty it out, while Phillips would threaten customers at gunpoint.
- Phillips and Mătăsăreanu both bear some similarities to five men who perpetrated a shootout with Norco, California police officers on May 9, 1980, in an event known as the "Norco shootout". The five men (identified as 17-year-old Belisaro Delgado; Delgado's brother Manuel, whose age at the time was unspecified; 30-year-old Christopher Gregory Harven; Harven's 27-year-old brother Russell; and 28-year-old Gregory Wayne) also robbed a bank using a multitude of weapons, including an assault rifle, and opened fire on responding police officers and civilian bystanders, killing one officer named James Evans and injuring nine other officers. In the end, both Delgado brothers were killed (Belisaro by a shotgun pellet wound to the back of the head, Manuel from a following shootout with a SWAT unit) and the other three were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Also used in the shootout were homemade explosive devices, and a total of 33 police vehicles, including a helicopter, were damaged.
- It is never known as to who was responsible for the murder of security guard Herman Cook. The question is never addressed by most sources of the North Hollywood shootout, except for NorthHollywoodShootout.com, which theorizes that Mătăsăreanu might've been the murderer, as evidenced by a phone call he later made to his mother Valarie after the Brinks armored truck robbery, in which his voice was described as being panicked.
On Criminal Minds
Phillips and (indirectly) Mătăsăreanu were mentioned in Hit when an unsub used Phillips' name as an alias when she texted 911. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu might've also served as some inspiration for Caleb Dale Sheppard, who committed a series of notorious bank robberies in the Los Angeles area, using an automatic firearm that they would fire into the ceiling in order to intimidate bystanders. During one of the robberies, his murder of a deliveryman, a bank employee, seems to be an obscure reference to the murder of security guard Herman Cook.
- National Geographic documentary on YouTube
- Los Angeles Times articles:
- LAPD Online's list of 19 LAPD officers involved in the shootout awarded with the Los Angeles Police Medal of Valor
- TheFreeLibrary.com article about Mătăsăreanu's final words to officers
- RCDSA.org, a website about the Norco shootout