Authorities Sunday were investigating whether two heavily armed bandits gunned down during a bungled bank heist in North Hollywood funneled money from a pair of earlier robberies--which netted at least $1.3 million--to subversive paramilitary or criminal organizations.
“The way they struck and the way they handled their weapons, one would have to expect that they got some training somewhere,” said Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Tim McBride, acknowledging that investigators are “looking for ties” to nefarious groups although no such evidence has yet turned up.
“We are investigating their backgrounds and the steps they took that brought them to the day of infamy,” he added. “We’re trying to follow the money trail.”
While investigators probed for possible connections to clandestine organizations, other details about Friday’s gun battle began to emerge:
* Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms worked to trace where and how the gunmen obtained what were believed to be fully automatic weapons.
* Sources disclosed that the FBI, even before Friday’s incident, had been looking into the possibility that the two extraordinarily lucrative bank robberies in the San Fernando Valley in May were the work of an organized group with connections to political or terrorist groups either in this country or internationally. Those robberies are now believed to be the work of Emil Dechebal Matasareanu, 30, and Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, both of whom died in last week’s gun battle. Because the timing of all three robberies came just after large deliveries of cash, one source said, “It’s obvious these guys did their homework.”
* Records show that Phillips was arrested in 1991 in the city of Orange on weapons-related violations while under investigation in an elaborate real estate fraud scheme.
A spokesman for police in Denver said Phillips had been arrested there on residential burglary charges in 1992. Matasareanu, meanwhile, had financial problems, according to court records that chronicled disputes over payment of credit card and rental car bills.
* Matasareanu’s mother said her son was a sharpshooter and computer whiz who had grown increasingly despondent in past months, causing her to fear he was suicidal and might hurt somebody.
“He was wrong, and I apologize to the victims,” said Valerie Nicolescu of her son. “But no one was killed but him and the other man. Put that in the paper.”
She said she blames the other dead gunman for leading her son astray.
Nicolescu said her son was a man haunted by demons that were not always visible to her or his ex-wife. When Matasareanu was 8, incessant bullying by schoolmates forced him to turn to computers as a refuge, Nicolescu said.
He became an expert and programmed arcade and video games, eventually earning a degree at 19 from DeVry Institute of Technology, Nicolescu said. But things began to unravel by 1993. Matasareanu and his wife and young son, whom he had retrieved from post-Communist Romania, were living with Nicolescu and running a home care service for the mentally disabled. They tried to expand by buying a property in Pasadena, but ran into financial trouble, Nicolescu said.
The next year, the facility was closed because of an allegation--which Nicolescu said was false--made by a neighbor that Matasareanu had abused one of the six residents. She said health authorities forced her son out of the home, and he left with his wife and son. His mother began to hear from him less and less often.
In August 1996, Matasareanu split up with his wife after having a seizure, Nicolescu said. She spoke to him rarely, for the last time during the holidays when he asked her for money and said he never wanted his son to see him again.
“He cannot handle it anymore,” she said. “Those were his words. . . . He just said to me that he wanted to die. His actions were more of a suicide mission.”
Nicolescu stressed that her son worked hard all his life helping the mentally disabled. “He was not a monster,” she sobbed. “He was a human person.”
Christopher Leveaux, a friend of Nicolescu’s who was with her all Saturday and while police interviewed her, said she told him that Matasareanu had recently wiped his name from computer files, including his bank account. He also said she had pleaded with Matasareanu in their last phone call during the holidays not to kill anyone.
Nicolescu said she did not believe her son was involved with any underground political or terrorist group.
Law enforcement investigators, however, said Sunday that the circumstances of Friday’s attempted robbery and the two other heists make them suspect otherwise.
“These guys knew when there would be large sums of money in the bank and they knew exactly how long they had after the silent alarms were tripped,” said McBride, of the Los Angeles Police Department. “They had a good, well-conceived plan.”
That plan, however, was foiled Friday largely because witnesses spotted the gunmen in full body armor carrying automatic weapons into a Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. When the robbers emerged, they were confronted by officers and tried to shoot their way to freedom with their superior firepower.
The two men indiscriminately sprayed bullets at officers and civilians before they were each fatally shot in the head in a battle that stunned the nation with its live, televised pictures of the blood bath.
Eleven officers and six bystanders were injured during the assault. Two officers still hospitalized Sunday were reported to be in good condition, the LAPD said. The most seriously injured, Officer Martin Whitfield, 29, of the Van Nuys station, was said to be in “good spirits” and receiving numerous visitors. Officer Stuart Guy, 31, of the North Hollywood station, also was improving.
McBride declined Sunday to elaborate on what detectives were learning about the gunmen, but sources close to the case said that the department has mobilized its organized crime and anti-terrorist divisions to help.
The FBI also is trying to determine how the money from the previous heists was spent.
Long before Friday’s incident, FBI authorities were looking into the possibility that the robberies of Bank of America branches in the San Fernando Valley in May were carried out by a sophisticated gang of gunmen with potential ties to criminal groups. Investigators looking into those robberies had dubbed the gunmen the “High Incident Bandits” because they made off with so much money.
Generally, most bank robbers succeed in walking out with only a couple of thousand dollars, authorities said. It’s rare when a holdup nets hundreds of thousands of dollars like the ones in May. Sources estimate that those two jobs alone yielded between $1.3 million and $1.7 million.
“I’m surprised they were back out there doing this again,” McBride said.
Despite earlier reports that there may have been a third person involved in Friday’s attempted robbery, McBride said investigators now believe that Matasareanu and Phillips were the only assailants then, as well as in the two other robberies.
One law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said that since Phillips and Matasareanu were heavily armed with what seemed to be automatic rifles, which are illegal in the United States, and apparently used armor piercing bullets, also illegal, “we figured they were survivalist, militia or white supremacists.”
Also, because an armored truck had just delivered money to the bank before Friday’s robbery, as had been the case in the two prior holdups, law enforcement officials are convinced the gunmen had been casing the bank.
“The trucks only come certain days,” said one official, who asked not to be identified. “It’s obvious these guys did their homework.”
So far, investigators have released few details about the pair. They do know, however, that Matasareanu and Phillips had been acquaintances since at least Oct. 23, 1993, when police caught them with a carload of weapons and military gear, including AK-47s, 9-millimeter handguns, six smoke grenades, two homemade explosives and a gas mask. Also found in the 1993 red Thunderbird were police scanners, bulletproof vests, a stopwatch, gloves, sunglasses, wigs, ski masks and other clothing.
Deputy Dist. Atty. James Grodin, who supervised the prosecution of the case, said he initially charged the men with conspiracy to commit robbery, but had to settle for several less serious weapons charges because he lacked the evidence to prove a conspiracy. Matasareanu and Phillips were both sentenced to less than four months in jail for that offense.
Grodin said he remembered the case because the two men seemed “very suspicious.”
“These two guys were loaded for bear, but had no serious prior contacts with police,” Grodin said. “Normally in something like this, they have a record or belonged to some goofy organization. . . . My recollection is that they said nothing, which makes you more suspicious.”
That suspicion extended Sunday as local and federal investigators intensified their effort to learn more about the two men.
A critical piece of the puzzle, authorities said, is tracking down where and how Matasareanu and Phillips obtained their weapons.
Such information, authorities said, could indicate whether they acted alone or had accomplices.
“Those are all things that are being looked into,” said a source, who added that investigators from the LAPD are working with the FBI as well as special agents from the ATF, which oversees gun regulations in the United States.
ATF spokesman John D’Angelo confirmed that his agency has been tracing all weapons believed to be used by the suspects since shortly after Friday’s dramatic shootout ended, including at least two and possibly three rifles. Because such weapons are tightly regulated, ATF agents are in the process of tracing the make, model, shot capacity and most important, serial numbers of the firearms--including at least two that appeared from televised reports to be fully automatic machine guns.
That trail leads from the domestic manufacturer or import company to the wholesaler, then to the gun shops or other retailers and ultimately to the actual buyers, D’Angelo said. Although the gun shops are required to have records of who purchased the guns, D’Angelo did not say whether the actual buyers of the guns have been identified because the matter is still under investigation.
“We are beginning to put a history of the guns together,’ D’Angelo said. “In emergency situations, such as this, we can do it in 24 hours.”
Investigators also spent the day trying to learn more about the personal and criminal background of the two gunmen. Although details on Matasareanu have emerged, Phillips remains largely an enigma. Authorities even had trouble locating relatives of Phillips to notify them that he had been killed.
They, however, did discover that in addition to his arrest in Glendale, Phillips was arrested on weapons charges in December 1991 when Orange police searched him at a Rancho Mirage office where he was allegedly running a scam to sell forged deeds of trust.
Orange Police Sgt. Kevin Roberts said detectives found a semiautomatic 9-millimeter in Phillips’ waistband and an extra clip and knife in a hidden compartment inside his BMW. Roberts said Phillips was apparently not charged in connection with the alleged fraud, and he could not determine the outcome of the weapons case late Sunday.
Additionally, Phillips was later arrested on suspicion of residential burglary in Denver in October 1992, according to a spokesman for the Denver Police Department. The detective said he was unable to provide precise details on what was stolen or what the outcome of Phillips’ case was until he could look at records today.
Matasareanu had at least two legal scrapes stemming from unpaid debts. In July, a judge in Pasadena Small Claims Court entered a $271 judgment against him for failing to pay Enterprise Rent-A-Car for a vehicle he had rented in Pasadena, according to court records. And in November, Matasareanu was sued in Pasadena for failing to pay a $5,819 debt on a Discover card, according to court records.
Neighbors of the house where Matasareanu grew up remember him as a withdrawn young man who occasionally showed a violent side. Walter Kennedy, 81, recalls Matasareanu threatening him with an electric chain saw when Kennedy’s dog crossed Matasareanu’s lawn. Another neighbor said: “They always had trouble over there.”
While investigators pressed on with their leads Sunday, residents in North Hollywood still seemed shellshocked over the bloody gun battle that ensued in their community. Some people scavenged for souvenirs of the shootout; others brought out their video cameras to tape the damage. One man climbed a tree, hoping to retrieve a bullet shell.
Traffic outside the bank was being directed by officers, while people in passing cars poked their heads out the windows to congratulate police who fought the two gunmen.
“I’ve become the looky-loo I’ve been trying to avoid. . . . I’ve met more neighbors because of this than I’ve ever met in seven years of living there,” said Wes Davis, 29, of North Hollywood.
Later in the day, about three dozen residents gathered at Victory Boulevard Elementary School and posed questions to officials from city and county agencies.
“You backed us 100%. You didn’t let us down,” said Tracy Fisher, a 28-year-old North Hollywood native who was wounded in the toe in the crossfire.
At least three people in the audience were part of the group of bank customers shut in the vault at the start of the ordeal.
“I grew up in the ‘50s . . . when everybody knew everybody else,” said Bill Capizzi, 59, of North Hollywood. “That doesn’t happen here now. I don’t know why. But in that vault, there was a camaraderie that was unbelievable. If we had more of that every day, we wouldn’t have [expletive] like this in the first place.”
Times staff writers Jim Newton and Josh Meyer and correspondent Dade Hayes contributed to this story.