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With Wife of Slain Robber Missing, Probe of Bank Shootout Falters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Police Department’s massive investigation into the North Hollywood bank robbery is winding to a close as investigators acknowledge that the deaths of the two robbers could leave forever unanswered the biggest remaining question: Where did the more than $1 million in cash go?

With just one elusive lead remaining, department officials say the money may never be recovered.

The missing link is the wife of one of the dead men, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. The woman, Jeanette Theresa Federico, apparently was in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, the day of the robbery. But she has since disappeared, police say.

Without her, the investigation has reached a dead end.

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“We’ll continue to look for her, but it’s pretty much over,” said Assistant Chief Bayan Lewis. “With their [the robbers’] demise that day went some answers. . . . We can’t spend resources forever on this.”

Most detectives assigned to the North Hollywood bank robbery are now working on new cases. The internal police review of the incident, which involved an unprecedented 32 officers who fired shots and another two dozen police witnesses, is now being written.

“Our workload doesn’t stop,” said Capt. Will Gartland, who oversees the robbery/homicide division that conducted the bulk of the investigation. “A lot of investigations end up with unanswered questions. This might be one of them.”

Phillips and Emil Matasareanu robbed the Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard shortly after 9 a.m. They were apparently surprised to find police surrounding the bank as they were leaving. The robbers, wearing full body armor, fired automatic weapons during their attempted escape, spraying armor-piercing bullets in all directions. Eleven officers and six civilians were injured during the incident.

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The two gunmen died a short time later. LAPD SWAT officers shot Matasareanu, and patrol officers and detectives fired at Phillips, who almost simultaneously shot himself in the head with a handgun. The coroner’s autopsy reports are not yet final.

Although police have not found any of the $1.3 million to $1.7 million the two men allegedly seized during earlier bank robberies, investigators have learned much about the pair--and their relationships. Police say Phillips and Matasareanu were self-taught criminals, learning from how-to manuals the art of assembling automatic weapons, as well as how to hide their identities and live as fugitives.

Police dismissed early theories that the pair may have been linked to a paramilitary group. After searches of three residences linked to Matasareanu, and interviews with his wife, Christina, police believe their motive was simple: money.

Investigators say Matasareanu’s favorite film was 1995’s “Heat,” about a gang of armed robbers who stage a running gun battle with police in a desperate attempt to flee a botched bank hold-up. It is a scene eerily reminiscent of the North Hollywood robbery.

Matasareanu and Phillips were first arrested in Glendale in 1993 on weapons charges. Police found what was described as a “bank robbery kit” that included firearms, ammunition, bulletproof vests and fake mustaches.

At the time of the North Hollywood bank robbery, police believe that Matasareanu was living in a rented multilevel Rowland Heights home with his wife. He also spent time with Phillips, perhaps in a Granada Hills “safe house” or another location still unknown.

“That’s the big thing: Where were they the last few months?” said Det. Tom Wich, a member of the LAPD’s San Fernando Valley bank robbery squad. “We might never know.”

What detectives do know is that Phillips used false names and kept his address and telephone number a secret. He used only cash for rent and to buy cars.

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Police believe his wife, Jeanette Theresa Federico, might have some answers. Although detectives have yet to find a marriage certificate, police believe they wed in a civil ceremony.

In an effort to find her, detectives released Federico’s photo to newspapers and TV stations last month. So far, they have received 15 calls but no solid clues. Now, detectives are considering an appeal on a nationally broadcast TV show. The woman, either 27 or 28, apparently lived in Mission Hills, Altadena, La Puente, Temple City and Walnut.

“She’s our missing link,” Wich said.

Police also have been unable to locate a Jaguar, believed to have been purchased by Phillips, a police source said. The car was seen by Granada Hills residents who said they remembered seeing Phillips drive it.

Investigators are also unsure how the pair amassed their weapons.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is continuing to trace the six weapons carried by the robbers during the shootout. They are also tracing the origin of six other guns seized when the pair was arrested in Glendale, as well as four weapons recovered after the robbery during searches of Matasareanu’s residences.

So far, the ATF has determined that the weapons were purchased locally, in Arizona and one other state.

“Now it comes down to good old-fashioned police work,” said John Torres, an ATF special agent in charge. “Some of these guns were purchased more than 10 years ago. We have to close the loops in determining who owned them.”

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Aside from the ATF investigation, the FBI is continuing to link the pair to five other bank heists.

LAPD officials say they are confident that the two men were responsible for two Bank of America robberies last May, which netted between $1.3 million and $1.7 million. In addition, they believe the pair were responsible for the murder of an armored car guard in the San Fernando Valley in June 1995, an attempted takeover of an armored car in March 1996 and an ambush attack on an armored car guard in Denver in July 1993.

“The investigation is not going to remain open on these others,” said Lewis, the LAPD assistant chief. “We ostensibly have determined through their . . . patterns that these were our people. There’s no reason to believe there are others.”

The department is still preparing a report on how well officers responded to the robbery, including tactics and individual work. Police expect to receive high marks.


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