The televised gunfight that followed a botched Bank of America heist by two heavily armed robbers was a shining moment for Los Angeles police--outgunned but unafraid, they faced assault weapons with handguns, shielding the innocent from harm until their assailants lay dead.
But police say a federal lawsuit expected to go to trial this fall threatens to cast a pall over the heroic defense of this neighborhood during the shootout that erupted a year ago today. The suit, filed on behalf of the children of slain bank robber Emil Matasareanu, accuses the Los Angeles Police Department of civil rights violations for allowing Matasareanu to slowly bleed to death in the street.
“I think these guys were as wrong and as wicked and as evil as anybody we’ve ever encountered. For them to even stand a chance of recouping some money from the taxpayers makes me angry,” said LAPD Capt. Richard Wahler of the North Hollywood Division.
As officers mark the anniversary of the shootout, Wahler said, the specter of a settlement or judgment against the Police Department is disturbing.
“There’s the assumption, or hope, that the city will win this lawsuit,” Wahler said. “But I don’t know. . . . The judicial system has done stranger things in the past.”
By the time the shooting stopped--after some 40 minutes--the two robbers had fired more than 1,100 rounds, with police returning more than 500 rounds. Eleven officers and seven civilians were injured; 62 cars were hit by bullets. Outside the bank, $303,305 in cash lay discarded in a nylon bag.
Matasareanu was shot but alive, talking to officers who stood over him. The coroner concluded he slowly bled to death, prompting Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman to file the lawsuit a day after the autopsy report was released.
A longtime critic of the LAPD, Yagman said Matasareanu would have lived if he had been given first aid. He claims there is a Police Department report that is “a damning indictment” of the officers’ actions. Yagman declined to reveal details of the alleged report, which, he said, was ordered sealed by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Rosalyn M. Chapman.
He said only that the document concluded “the LAPD misbehaved miserably because they had no tactical plan and because they let a man bleed to death.”
Yagman also complained that the Los Angeles city attorney’s office has been slow to turn over information about the shooting.
“He’s lying,” said Assistant City Atty. Don Vincent, supervisor of the police litigation unit. “There is no such report . . . at least that I am aware of.”
Vincent said Yagman’s case is groundless.
“When all the facts are known by a jury, I think they will come to the same conclusion that I have--that these officers acted not only properly, but heroically, and everybody owes them a debt of gratitude.”
Police officials defended their actions, saying first that they kept emergency medical crews away from Matasareanu because authorities believed more armed accomplices were still at large and that paramedics could have been shot. Later, however, police said bomb squad members had asked that no one touch the two gunmen because of fears they were carrying explosives.
A preliminary LAPD report issued last month said the officers involved in the shooting deaths of Matasareanu and his accomplice, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., acted within department policy.
Dozens of officers, including some who braved gunfire to rescue wounded colleagues, are being considered for various Police Department honors, including the Medal of Valor.
Neighbors have already declared the officers heroes, regardless of the lawsuit.
“Everybody I talk to is mad about it,” said Gloria Martino, who lives three blocks from the Bank of America and serves as a community representative at the LAPD’s North Hollywood station.
She said the suit is a topic of conversation over coffee and at local Neighborhood Watch meetings: “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Vincent, who is defending the Police Department, said he has all but ruled out a settlement in the case. “God, I’d be lynched,” the lawyer said. “I’ve gone over these facts and I can’t find anybody who did anything wrong.”
The federal court file is filled with angry exchanges between Yagman and Vincent, mainly over canceled meetings, unreturned phone calls and disputes over evidence in the case. But amid the legal squabbles are fresh details about the Feb. 28 bank robbery that, taken from police reports and interviews, read like a Hollywood screenplay:
“This is a holdup. Everybody down on the floor. Close your eyes and don’t look,” Matasareanu announced as the two men burst into the bank on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. “Keep your heads down. If you move, I’ll kill you.”
The robber then approached 79-year-old Mildred Nolte, smacking her in the head and knocking her to the floor.
“I guess I didn’t get down fast enough,” Nolte said in an interview this week. “I haven’t been myself since. I’m nervous, frightened every time I go to the bank.”
Matasareanu continued pacing the bank, according to the police account in the court file, spraying rounds in the air with his assault rifle.
He placed his foot on the head of the bank guard, Enrique Fernando, and pointed an assault rifle at his neck. “If you move . . . I’ll kill you,” he said. “When I tell you, I want you to move all these people into the vault.”
Meanwhile, Phillips confronted Juan Villagrana, the assistant manager of the bank, striking him in the head with the butt of his rifle and demanding entrance to the vault.
As Villagrana opened money boxes inside the vault, Phillips noticed one contained only small bills and went into a rage.
“You have millions,” he said. “Where’s the ATM money?” He punctuated the statement by spraying bullets into one of the money containers.
Villagrana was then forced to take both robbers to the ATM vault. When he was ordered to open the ATMs, he pointed to a sign that said bank employees were unable to open the machines. Angered again, Phillips opened fire on the ATMs, wounding Villagrana as bullet fragments ricocheted and struck him in the abdomen.
After forcing several other bank employees into the vault, the two robbers left the bank, and were confronted by Los Angeles police. Officers Loren Farrell and Martin Perello saw two men wearing masks and body armor enter the bank. They were the first to call for help.
The resulting gun battle, involving dozens of sworn officers, was televised live by TV helicopter news crews. The shooting moved from the bank parking lot to house-lined streets nearby, sending pedestrians and residents ducking for cover.
Phillips was the first to die. He was shot by police as he walked east from the bank onto Archwood Street, armed with an automatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol. A coroner’s report said he was hit by several bullets, including one of his own.
Matasareanu was mortally wounded minutes later, when he tried to commandeer a brown Jeep pickup a few blocks east on Archwood.
“I watched on TV saying, ‘Couldn’t be, couldn’t be.’ Then, ‘Gotta be, gotta be,’ ” said Glenda Marr, who recognized her husband’s 30-year-old Jeep during the live TV coverage of the shootout.
“I was having a fit,” Marr said in an interview this week. “I kept paging him but he didn’t answer.”
William Marr was struck in the forehead by shrapnel, his wife said. A neighbor called 911 and a fire department ambulance took Marr to the hospital. No help came for Matasareanu, who lay nearby and was pronounced dead about an hour later.
Marr ended up missing two months of work because of the injury, said his wife, which has added to her sense of outrage at the filing of the lawsuit.
“I feel sick about it,” she said. “If people make money off of this, I’m going to be just livid.”