In warlike pursuit captured on live TV, dozens of police officers tracked down and killed two heavily armed bank robbers in North Hollywood on Friday in the face of blistering automatic-weapons fire. Ten officers were wounded, including six in a spectacular eruption of firepower that draped a shroud of fear over a vast residential area of the eastern San Fernando Valley.
Three civilians were also hit by gunfire in a confrontation that recalled the apocalyptic 1974 gun battle between police and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Maoist kidnappers of heiress Patty Hearst, in South-Central Los Angeles.
The day brought renewed calls for gun controls and for better weapons to aid outgunned police.
In one of many scenes of inexplicably brazen conduct that appalled the nation, one of the robbers--braced for battle in full body armor--strode across the Bank of America parking lot near Laurel Canyon and Victory boulevards, spraying bullets at outgunned officers moments before he was shot to death on a nearby residential street. Police gunned him down when he stepped out from a hiding spot, apparently to face his death.
The identities of the two dead robbers had not been released by Friday night. At least two other suspects in the robbery were being sought. None of the officers or civilians wounded by gunfire was seriously injured.
The shooting spread rapidly down house-lined streets, placing dozens of square blocks under siege, sending pedestrians ducking for cover, scattering motorists and forcing homeowners behind locked doors for hours.
In pursuit of other possible suspects, police closed streets and freeways and even sealed off 10 nearby public schools. Residents living within the battle zone were advised to stay home or to call 911 for police escorts out of the area.
“I was scared to go out but I did, ‘cuz my grandma was out there too,” said a 12-year-old witness, Ramella Aleksanyan. “We saw a guy who they shot but he wasn’t really dead. He was kinda moving.”
In one of countless dramas videotaped by news helicopters--which also came under fire--one of the wounded officers was rescued from the bank parking lot by three colleagues who shielded him with a patrol car, scooped him inside and lurched away backward with one door open.
So lopsided was the disparity in weaponry that nine frantic officers, probably in violation of Los Angeles Police Department policy, barged into a North Hollywood gun shop and borrowed seven rifles and ammunition.
“They asked us if they could have some firepower, namely that would penetrate vests,” said the gun store owner, who asked that his name not be used.
When the gunfire stopped after about an hour, it seemed a miracle that so few were wounded.
Besides the shooting victims, an officer and a motorist were injured in a collision as police raced through the area. Three other officers sustained minor injuries during the manhunt. One officer who was shot was in surgery and a motorist was in critical condition Friday.
“These are very organized, brutal bank robbery suspects. They’re killers,” LAPD Cmdr. Tim McBride said into the television cameras, emphasizing the need for people to stay indoors.
Masked Gunmen Storm Bank
At least two heavily armed gunmen--suspects in earlier San Fernando Valley bank robberies--stormed the bank about 9:15 a.m., brandishing fully automatic weapons with 100-round clips.
Barking commands, the masked gunmen herded dozens of terrified customers into a vault.
Police said the robbers turned and fired their weapons back into the bank, wounding one person, as they were leaving with a cart loaded with bags of money. All the cash was recovered at the scene.
A call from a witness who saw the armored men walk into the bank brought the first police units, armed only with handguns. They were engulfed in a gunfight, with combatants and bystanders virtually rubbing shoulders.
Crystal Ransome was leaving the bank as the gunmen entered, pulling masks over their faces. She sought cover in her car when she heard gun reports. “I was laying down in my car, and the next thing I know, a cop is telling me, ‘Get out, get out!’ ” she said. “A cop ran me across the street. He was holding his gun drawn the whole time.”
Retreating from the surrounded bank, one robber took cover behind the getaway car--a white sedan--as it crept across the parking lot, blasting away in several directions and reaching inside for ammunition to reload. At one point, he apparently fired a round through the car window, either hitting or just missing his cohort at the wheel. Then he walked to a residential street, firing bursts of bullets along the way.
As police cautiously closed in, the gunman crouched in shadows between a large truck and a fence, but then stood. Walking along the sidewalk, he exchanged fire with his pursuers, falling after being hit, then jerking gruesomely from a shot to the head.
Meanwhile, as the getaway vehicle drove off in another direction, police shot out its tires. The driver pressed on at low speed. On a residential street nearby, he rammed an approaching car. After it eluded him, he shot through the window of an oncoming truck, apparently to scare away its driver, who fled to a nearby house.
From her porch, homeowner Tagui Guzubashyan saw the robber get into his truck but abandon it when he couldn’t get it started. Methodically, he began to unload weapons from his car trunk, picking his way across the carpet of bullet casings and glass.
Just then a patrol car with automatic weapons blazing out its windows pinned the gunman down behind his car. Three SWAT officers tumbled from the car and opened fire, taking cover behind the wheels.
“We heard maybe 200 or 300 shots,” Guzubashyan said. “It was horrible. It was like in the movies.”
Finally, a helmeted officer in shorts took a prone position behind the police car to shoot the man’s legs. The man died on the street in handcuffs.
In the confusion attending the battles, several pedestrians were detained by officers who ordered them to lie spread-eagled on the asphalt; they were later released after it was determined they were not involved.
Search for Missing Suspects
About 30 minutes after the last gunshots, a mounting army of police and SWAT team members deployed carefully around a backyard littered with equipment and junk. After sizing up the situation for more than an hour, they deployed a police battering ram to break down a wall and part of a tool shed where they thought a suspect was hiding.
Officers unleashed police dogs, but after about 30 minutes of searching, the SWAT team determined that no one was in the yard.
At 2 p.m., Police Chief Willie L. Williams announced that the police had cleared the last areas where suspects might have been hiding. Twenty minutes later, television stations reported that the police had found a trail of blood in the yard.
The Hollywood Freeway, closed during the battle, reopened about 2 p.m., averting a potential traffic nightmare as commuters headed home for the weekend. But many streets remained closed.
The search for what police believed were two or three more robbers continued through the afternoon with no further success.
Friday evening, Williams said police believed there had been only two men in the holdup. However, a large force continued to search surrounding streets with dogs while police escorts shuttled residents in and out until late in the night as officers in helicopters kept watch.
A source familiar with the rapidly unfolding investigation said authorities have strong reason to believe that the men killed in Friday’s shootout also were responsible for two robberies last May.
That source said the techniques employed by the robbers resembled those used by gunmen who robbed a Bank of America branch in Van Nuys on May 2, and another B of A branch in Canoga Park on May 31.
He said the robbers in those earlier heists used high-powered weapons, fired rounds in the banks and operated with “military-like precision.”
“The MO and physical description are not just close, they are right on,” the source said of the May robberies and Friday’s. “The weaponry, including the high-velocity rounds, were fired in all these robberies. And that’s an anomaly.”
Although it has been nine months since the previous robberies--a long hiatus for bank robbers--the heists last May netted the culprits a substantial sum of money, sources said. That could account for the long break between robberies.
The number of bank robberies in Southern California has generally been declining for the past several years, from 2,355 in 1991 to 1,126 in 1996, according to the FBI.
Orange County has mirrored that drop-off, according to statistics from the state Department of Justice. In 1995, the latest figures available, robbers hit 190 county banks and escaped with an estimated $1.1 million, records show.
Those figures compare to 249 banks robbed of $1.4 million in 1993, and 388 banks losing $972,000 in 1991, records show.
For Fullerton Police Chief Patrick E. McKinley, the shootout stirred powerful personal emotions. As a 29-year LAPD veteran and a founding member of its SWAT team, McKinley knew dozens of the officers involved.
“When that kind of trauma hits, it takes bravery and gallantry and I’m proud of the job they did today,” said McKinley.
But Friday’s grisly scene reminded McKinley of LAPD’s May 1974 clash with the Symbionese Liberation Army. McKinley served as LAPD’s field commander in the department’s most famous shootout until Friday.
“The situation today was much more dangerous than the one we faced in 1974,” said McKinley. “We had a fixed position, we had them contained, but this was a moving gun battle and you couldn’t know where it was going to end.”