Chilling Portrait of Robber Emerges
A chilling lust for riches and a resentment of society’s rules propelled the leader of two armor-clad bank robbers who fought police to the death in the city’s most spectacular shootout in a quarter of a century, the man’s half brother said.
It was the younger of the robbers, Larry Eugene Phillips, 26, whose calculating and ruthless personality dominated the lopsided partnership, luring Romanian-born Emil Matasareanu, 30, into the fatal Feb. 28 showdown, Phillips’ half brother said.
In anguished recollections, the brother characterized Phillips as a secretive, controlling figure who manipulated almost every aspect of Matasareanu’s life.
“Larry didn’t bring anybody into his inner circle unless he had a plan for him,” he said.
Phillips’ plan, he said, was to have so much money he could spend $100 bills by the handful. His idols were the icons of white-collar crime--Michael Milken, Barry Minkow and the “Godfather” character of film and fiction.
Many aspects of the brother’s assessment were echoed by Phillips’ father, Larry Eugene Phillips Sr., who spoke glowingly of his son in an interview with The Times on Sunday, calling him a “criminal genius” and “the bravest man in the world,” with a taste for the ostentatious and a hatred for police.
The brother, who asked that his name be withheld, described scary outings in which Phillips would drive him through the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and then park outside the homes of the well-known to watch them come and go, visualizing himself in their places.
“If those people knew how close he was, not just once, but on a daily basis, their skin would crawl,” he said.
The man, who said he has been interviewed by police and the FBI and is not a suspect, declined to talk about several significant points in the case, saying he was admonished that his comments could impede the investigation.
He would not say specifically how Phillips and Matasareanu met. He also refused to speculate on a possible source of their weapons, the identities of others they knew, or the whereabouts of an estimated $1.3 to $1.7 million they are believed to have taken in earlier Bank of America branch robberies in the San Fernando Valley on May 2 and May 31 last year.
But, after a week of intense news media hypothesizing on the pair’s possible right-wing ideological motives, his portrayal helps make sense of the violent evolution of two sometimes abusive misfits whose past scrapes with the law yielded scant foreshadowing of the ruthless hail of machine-gun fire they would unleash in their last moments.
Phillips, he said, was motivated by money and control:
“He wanted to live the American dream. He decided to go about it the wrong way.”
Torn by guilt about his inability to help his brother go straight, by fear for the future of the Burbank business he owns and by concern for his family’s privacy and safety, the brother has resisted persistent offers to go on national TV, but he said he decided to tell his story to The Times to dispel misguided speculation.
He dismissed as a motive the financial problems of Matasareanu, whose immigrant mother--a defector from the Romanian state orchestra--saw her state board-and-care license revoked because of alleged patient neglect and fire violations and who had been dogged by tax liens in recent years.
Matasareanu, he said, lacked the intelligence and daring to lead the pair’s enterprise.
“He was a follower,” he said, echoing the words of the man’s mother, Valerie Nicolescu, who told reporters after the shootout that her son was corrupted by Phillips.
“You can’t imagine how manipulative my brother was,” he said. “He tried to break your mind down and then build it up again so that you would become one of his crew.”
Even Matasareanu’s choice of a wife fell under Phillips’ influence, he said.
“He told Emil not to marry an American woman,” the brother said. “Larry didn’t like the way American women always talked back.”
On a 1990 trip to Romania to bring back his grandmother, Matasareanu also brought back a Romanian wife, Christina.
“Emil wasn’t even planning on getting married, and he did it because Larry said to,” the brother said.
He characterized his brother as a glib, fancy-dressing bodybuilder who could be charming and caring to his longtime girlfriend but who harbored dark dreams.
“I wouldn’t say he was a criminal genius,” the brother said, “but he was very intelligent. He would look at a crime and analyze it to see how it could have been done better.”
His ideal was the 1978 New York Lufthansa Airlines heist in which six ski-masked gunmen crept into a cargo building before dawn and escaped with $5.8 million. Mobster Jimmy “the Gent” Burke, who according to published reports was the long-suspected architect of the crime, died last year without ever having been charged.
And he quoted from Barry Minkow, the whiz-kid founder of ZZZZ Best Co., later convicted of fraud, on the thrill of grabbing a handful of $100 bills and heading out for the day in his Ferrari to spend them.
“He idolized the wrong people,” the brother said.
His first idol was his father, a Denver resident who authorities said has a long record of arrests. He was an escapee from Colorado State Reformatory when Larry Jr. was born, and gave the boy his first false name, Warfel.
“He was born under an alias,” the brother said.
Although the brother said Phillips had a difficult childhood, the son still looked up to his father, and, on coming of age, changed his name back to Phillips.
Larry Eugene Phillips Sr., 48, who still lives in Denver, said in an interview with The Times on Sunday that “Larry is the way he is because of my lifestyle. . . . Larry was like a clone of me.
“Larry was a pretty gifted kid; that’s all I can say. He used his brains. Everything he did was completely thought out. Nothing was overlooked. He was a criminal genius.”
The father said he knows nothing of the money his son allegedly took.
Phillips Sr. said his son’s feelings about law enforcement were shaped on his sixth birthday when FBI agents came to the house, guns drawn, to arrest the father.
“He hated cops because of what they did to me . . . " he said. “He knew that every time I came in contact with police something bad happened.”
A few days after the shootout, some detectives asked how he had failed to notice his son’s flamboyant prosperity.
“They pointed out he wore a $500 suit, $200 shoes and a Rolex on his arm worth thousands of dollars,” Phillips Sr. said. “But my son never said, ‘Hey Pop, look at this,’ holding up his arm.”
Still, the father had noticed the flashy cars, once a big Lincoln, then a 12-cylinder Jaguar.
“He’d say, ‘Hey Pop, ever ride in a Jaguar?’ ”
Another time, the son showed up looking for his longtime girlfriend after learning that she had been through two evictions.
“Before he left [in 1996], he said, ‘I can’t find [her]. So here, I’ll give you the money I was going to give her.’ He gave me five hundred-dollar bills,” the elder Phillips said.
Frequently fighting back tears, Phillips Sr., who said he is now unemployed and raising two young daughters alone in his cluttered apartment, painted a dreary picture of Phillips’ childhood.
The boy’s mother, Dorothy Clay, served 10 years for drug possession, and while in prison stabbed a guard with a shank, he said.
His own fatherly advice, he said, was: ‘Don’t trust anybody.’ ”
On his son’s last visit, the father asked for his phone number. “He said ‘Pop, I’m just like you.’ He didn’t give me a number. But he said, ‘I promise I’ll be in touch.’ ”
Reflecting on the horror of viewing the news footage of his son’s violent end, Phillips Sr. said, “I watch it and watch it, thinking it’s going to make me strong. But it ruins me.”
The fragments of video footage of the shootout are especially important to the father, he said, because “I have no pictures of my son except what I cut out of newspapers.”
Both Phillips’ father and brother said they are certain he didn’t use drugs. They said he was a serious bodybuilder who would never ingest a harmful substance.
In a 1993 probation report, Phillips said his parents divorced when he was 10. He came with his mother to Los Angeles. In recent years he lived with her on and off in her Glendale apartment, neighbors there said, but she moved into a rest home and died in 1994, having cut all contact with her nine brothers and sisters.
Records show that young Phillips went on to leave a dizzying web of aliases and nonexistent addresses in an apparent effort to deflect anyone looking for him.
His known life of crime began with a 1989 petty theft of $400 in merchandise from the Alhambra Sears.
His failure to disclose that conviction on a 1990 application disqualified him from obtaining a California real estate license, records show.
Nonetheless, he pursued real estate illegally, using sophisticated scams and sometimes bald threats, authorities and those who did business with him allege. In 1991, Phillips was arrested by Orange police after a mortgage broker reported discovering that deeds of trust he bought from Phillips were forged.
Mortgage broker Larry Newfield said that when he told Phillips he was going to police, Phillips said, “I’ll kill you.”
Despite the threat, Phillips avoided prosecution for the illegally concealed handgun taken from his waistband as he was arrested with a forged $25,000 note.
Det. Jim Carson of the Orange Police Department said Phillips showed no tension when disarmed and gave a plausible explanation, that he was picking up a large sum of money and needed protection.
“A lot of times you’ll run across people and there will be something about their expression or body language that will really trip you that says, ‘Watch out for this guy,’ ” Carson said. “Larry was just young.”
Although never charged with real estate fraud, a civil action later ended in a judgment ordering Phillips to pay nearly $140,000 in principal, interest and court costs to two title companies.
All the while, Phillips’ brother said, he was hardening with resentment that seethed in him when they drove through wealthy neighborhoods.
He said Phillips would take him on the drives to “motivate” him.
“He would say, ‘Why don’t you visualize yourself in that house? The reason is society tells you you have to have a 9-to-5 job until you retire at 65.’ That wasn’t for him. He didn’t like society.”
The brother also became his victim, finding that his brother was using his name and Social Security number as his aliases.
Though never charged locally for fraud, Phillips maintained a residence in Denver as well, and was convicted there in 1992 of a swindle in which he rented out vacant houses he did not own. But he never appeared for sentencing and remained a fugitive.
The brother said Phillips was so secretive and so effectively compartmentalized his life that associates in his real estate scams probably were not even aware of his budding relationship with Matasareanu, a social misfit and fellow gun lover he met about 1989.
Matasareanu, a 1977 immigrant who became a naturalized citizen in 1988, was just beginning to see his American dream crumble. Valerie Nicolescu described her son as a socially maladjusted computer expert who was scarred by childhood bullying and grew increasingly despondent over financial and marital troubles.
Records indicate that Matasareanu had occasional income as a computer software consultant but that his primary source of income was Dechebal Inc., the board-and-care home his mother operated in a Pasadena building they jointly owned.
The family’s money troubles date to at least 1990, when the first of several state and federal tax liens totaling about $4,000 was filed.
In 1995 Matasareanu and his mother borrowed heavily on their home, and soon after that Valerie Nicolescu’s license was suspended by the state Department of Social services over accusations that two developmentally disabled clients were improperly left at a hospital.
The home was closed for good when it failed to meet fire safety specifications.
When police last week searched a Pasadena commercial building owned by Matasareanu’s mother, they were shocked to discover a 44-year-old mentally disabled woman locked in an underground bunker without food or water.
Recently, after the first of a series of bank robberies that authorities believe Phillips and Matasareanu committed, his fortunes showed some improvement: Matasareanu and his wife rented a sprawling multilevel home in Rowland Heights.
Matasareanu, driving a leased 1995 Lincoln Town Car without insurance, got a speeding ticket on his way home from Las Vegas. Ben Smith, the agent who wrote him a new policy just a month before the North Hollywood robbery, was struck by his animosity toward what he called “the system.”
“He started rambling. He said he had lost his business. He said, ‘All you guys are alike, the system is all screwed up,’ ” Smith said.
Other than that scene, the only known forewarning of the deadly turn in the two men’s friendship was their 1993 arrest for possession of illegal automatic rifles after a Glendale police officer stopped them for speeding.
They said they were headed to a popular San Gabriel Mountains shooting area called “Kentucky” for target practice.
Despite Phillips’ record and the officers’ feeling that they were planning a robbery, both men got off lightly, serving less than four months.
Some of their arsenal was returned to the pair when Phillips’ probation ended in January 1996, with the notation that he had completed all conditions.
On Sunday, Los Angeles police added one new increment to the slowly emerging story, disclosing new details of the weaponry the two men carried in the North Hollywood holdup.
The robbers had five fully automatic weapons: three Norico 7.62-by-39-millimeter Chinese Model 56S-1 assault rifles; a Heckler and Koch .308-caliber Model 91; and a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, Model XM15-ES2. LAPD spokesman Jason Lee said all three weapons resemble the AK-47 and that it is illegal to possess any of these rifles in California.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Alan Abrahamson, Abigail Goldman, Peter Y. Hong, Greg Krikorian, Matt Lait, Beth Shuster and Martha L. Willman, and correspondents Richard Winton and John Cox.
* STOLEN SECURITY
The North Hollywood gunmen took more than money. B1