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Bank Robber Bled to Death, Autopsy Shows

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emil Matasareanu, the bank robber shot by police in a wild gun battle in North Hollywood and given no medical care, was hit 29 times, but bled to death from two bullet wounds in his thigh, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office revealed Thursday.

It was the lack of treatment that killed him, according to an expert in emergency medicine.

His partner, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., shot himself in the head, but it could not be determined whether that shot killed him or whether another potentially fatal shot fired by police caused his death, according to the autopsy reports released Thursday.

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The release of those reports revived questions over whether Matasareanu could have survived the gunshots to his left leg, which ended the gunfight in which the heavily armed and armored robbers fired hundreds of shots as police closed in around them.

Police have said they did not provide immediate medical care to Matasareanu--who lay in the street untreated for more than an hour before being declared dead--for two reasons: There could have been another armed robber in the area, and the bomb squad needed to examine the robber for possible grenades or booby traps.

But Dr. Marshall Morgan, chief of emergency medicine at the UCLA Medical Center, who reviewed Matasareanu’s autopsy report shortly after it was released Thursday, said the robber could have survived the gunshot wounds--even with simple first aid, much less professional medical attention.

“There’s no question in my mind that had he received timely care--from a medical standpoint--he would have survived,” Morgan said. “I see no reason why a guy would die of these wounds. As a matter of fact . . . I think even timely first aid, as opposed to trauma care, could have saved his life.”

An internal Los Angeles Police Department review of the shooting revealed that 32 officers fired at the robbers, including SWAT officers with shotguns as well as patrol and motorcycle officers and detectives.

Matasareanu was hit 29 times, including 27 shots that broke his skin, one bullet graze and a chest bruise from one of a number of bullets that impacted his armor, the coroner’s report said.

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Matasareanu was hit in the arm and shoulder, the eye cavity, several times in the left upper thigh, the buttocks and ribs and chest. But it was two thigh wounds that caused the heaviest bleeding, leaving his aorta with minimal blood and most other central veins and arteries bloodless and collapsed, the report shows.

“It did not contact the femoral artery, which is the main blood supply to the leg,” said Scott Carrier, spokesman for the coroner. “But because of extensive damage, he bled out . . . he bled to death.”

Morgan agreed, saying there appeared to have been no life-threatening wounds except for the two in his thigh.

Phillips was hit 11 times, including his own shot with a handgun. “We can’t say if it was a homicide or a suicide,” Carrier said, adding that investigators were unable to determine the precise sequence of the shots.

The botched Feb. 28 bank robbery, captured live by television news helicopters, left 11 officers and six civilians wounded or injured. Most officers who were injured have returned to duty and all have been released from the hospital.

The dramatic events began unfolding about 9:15 a.m. when the robbers, wearing body armor, were confronted by police outside the Laurel Canyon Boulevard bank branch. The robbers engaged police, many of whom had no bullet-proof vests, in a running gunfight for about a half-hour before officers gained the upper hand.

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Phillips, on foot, was the first to die, putting a pistol under his chin and nearly simultaneously being shot by pursuing patrol officers and detectives.

Matasareanu, driving down Archwood Street and attempting to commandeer a passing pickup truck, was shot by SWAT officers about 9:55 a.m. The coroner’s autopsy report gives his time of death as 11:10 a.m.--the time when Fire Department paramedics pronounced him dead, as opposed to a time determined by scientific tests.

Typically, a liver temperature is taken to determine a more exact time of death, but because of the body armor worn by the 30-year-old Matasareanu, that test was not conducted, the coroner’s office said.

“We are not there to unclothe people in public view,” said Carrier, adding that the coroner’s investigator at the scene made that decision in part because the robber’s death was witnessed by a number of people.

Dr. Richard Siegler, a pathologist at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, said it did not strike him as unusual that the liver temperature wasn’t taken.

“In this case, it was clear and notorious what happened,” Siegler said. “Usually in homicide cases, they come across the body and there is no one to help piece it together. This was a battle scene. He was a delayed casualty lying on a battlefield.”

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Eyewitnesses have said that Matasareanu was lying in the street after being shot by police, moving his head from side-to-side. They said he was talking to officers and was conscious.

An ambulance came to the area to care for the driver of the pickup truck, but left quickly and without aiding Matasareanu.

But Cmdr. Tim McBride, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said the situation was fluid--with officers receiving word about that time that there could be a third or even fourth armed robber still in the area. In addition, the bomb squad found two gasoline bombs in Matasareanu’s car and worried that he might have more bombs on his body, as booby traps or weapons.

“There were a lot of things we were unsure about,” McBride said. “There were legitimate concerns.”

Additionally, both robbers had phenobarbital in their blood, a mild sedative sometimes used to treat seizure disorders. Matasareanu also had evidence of Dilantin in his system, possibly taken because of previous brain surgery.

Times staff writer Miles Corwin contributed to this story.

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