Apocalyptic robbers botched a SoCal bank heist — Peter Houlahan tells how it turned deadly
On the afternoon of May 9, 1980, four armed men burst into the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, Calif., and ordered everyone to hit the ground. The robbers, led by a born-again Christian survivalist named George Wayne Smith, were hoping to grab some cash and make it outside, where their getaway driver was waiting to transport them to safety before law enforcement showed up.
It didn’t work out that way. Police responded to the scene before the robbers could get away, engaging them in an epic firefight, and pursued them as they made their escape. The shootout and ensuing getaway ended with two of the robbers dead, and one law enforcement officer, a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy named James Evans, shot and killed. Smith and the two remaining robbers, brothers Christopher and Russell Harven, were apprehended and eventually convicted of dozens of felonies.
The shootout is the subject of “Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History,” the debut book from Peter Houlahan, who was raised in Whittier and lived in Southern California for decades. Houlahan spoke to most of the principals involved in the robbery for the book, which tells the story of the botched crime and its aftermath.
Houlahan, who now lives in Fairfield County, Conn., spoke to The Times via telephone about his book and working as a first responder at the Sandy Hook school shooting. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
People in California are still talking about the Norco shootout 39 years after it happened. Why do you think it still resonates with people here after all this time?
In some ways, it’s not been remembered as much as it should be, and that’s because there was nobody standing there with a cellphone taking videos of it or 24-hour news stations covering it. It’s certainly well known in law enforcement, and people in Riverside County and San Bernardino County certainly remember it, even if people don’t know the deep dive that I did in the book. It’s one of the stories that if you hear it and follow it, you don’t forget it.
At the time of the robbery, L.A. was known as the bank robbery capital of the world. How did this particular robbery go so wrong?
“The bank robbery capital of the world” is the name given to L.A. in the mid-’60s by the FBI, when one out of every four robberies happened within the jurisdiction of the L.A. field office of the FBI in Westwood. Most of the reason for that was freeways and also the large number of retail banking locations throughout. If you rob a bank and you hop on a freeway, rush hour aside, in five minutes you’re five miles away, and probably in another police jurisdiction. And if you have a cold car set up, you dump one and get in the other, and you’re gone. You can’t really do that in Manhattan.
It was an elaborate plan to begin with, which fits straight into the grandiosity of George Wayne Smith. It had so many moving parts and so many opportunities to go wrong. Had it all worked out, they probably would have gotten away with it. But there were also some fundamental problems. He robbed his own bank, which happened to be seven or eight miles away from the nearest freeway, so he broke cardinal rule No. 1.
So the first thing that goes wrong is that the diversion bomb that they set off under a gas main a mile away gets spotted. The guy runs out, flags down a truck, and the driver puts it out with a fire extinguisher before it becomes a major incident. By then, the robbers already were in the van with a kidnap victim in the back, so it’s hard to turn back then, but that’s when they should have. They went into the bank at about 3:30, and they were spotted by a bank teller from across the street almost immediately. And even though they only spent two and a half minutes in that bank, a lot of drama unfolded in that bank. It was, for all intents and purposes, an “everybody down on the floor” type of robbery.
The other thing that goes wrong is just pure bad luck. I suppose getting spotted by a teller was pretty bad luck too, but to have Deputy Glyn Bolasky literally sitting in a turn lane at that intersection when that 211 code went off was unfortunate, for Glyn Bolasky as well, but especially for them. And that’s really how it absolutely fell apart.
You mention George Smith, who’s such a fascinating figure.
Obviously, being a born-again Christian does not lead many people into robbing banks, but there’s certainly a rich history of people with strong apocalyptic beliefs doing some rather extreme and disastrous things. George Smith was propelled forward into a bank robbery by a number of things: downturns in his personal life, and certainly a psychological makeup that had elements of disregard for the impact of his actions on others. It would have been very easy to write this as simply an apocalyptic cult guy, because that’s what was prosecuted. The prosecutor, Jay Hanks, really centered on that; he said that was [Smith’s] motivation. Smith thought the end of the world was coming, and that was a major element.
The born-again Christian movement in the 1970s in Orange County was youth-oriented in many cases. Places like Calvary [Chapel], Melodyland [Christian Center], there were these mega-churches, which started out small and quickly grew to be very large operations. They were based on end-times theology. They were very heavy on the Book of Revelation, obviously, for end-times, especially the Rapture. Their view was that the apocalypse was going to come at any minute [because of] wars in the Middle East, the East-West confrontation between Russia and the United States, the decay of social and civil society and morals as they saw it.
And so if you’re inclined that way, it wasn’t hard to match up. The ’70s were tumultuous, there was still the Weather Underground in the early part of it, and the Symbionese Liberation Army trying to overthrow society. Drugs had turned very hard and ugly. Crime was at rates that, you couldn’t even imagine them now. So when [Smith] looks out at the world, he’s able to match this up. So these guys thought it was likely that there would be a period of survival that they would need to go through.
You actually talked with some of the officers that responded to the robbery, right?
I have spoken to every single major player in this event who is still alive, and most of them are. I have spent a lot of time with these guys. Some of them did not want to talk about it immediately. Others, I think if I would have done this book 15 years ago, I probably would have only been able to get to about half of them. I mean, it’s been a sore subject for them, for a number of reasons, but in their mid-60s, they get a little bit more reflective, and they feel like they want their story told. They were amazingly emotionally articulate, very frank about their experience, how terrified they were, coming under fire from all those weapons.
There are people that I spoke to who are not in the acknowledgments, and that’s mostly on the bank robbers’ side. I spent a lot of time with Russell Harven, and I spent a lot of time with Chris Harven up in Vacaville, and I wrote back and forth with those guys. And then back and forth with George Smith, who respectfully declined to participate in any significant level, although we have written back and forth, which I respected. But I kept at it, I just said, “I want to keep giving you the opportunity, here’s something you might want to address.”
Was it strange going back and forth between talking to the perpetrators and the victims and the first responders?
I don’t know if it was strange, but you really do have to adjust your perspective if you spend an entire day with [slain sheriff’s deputy] Jim Evans’ widow and then you’re driving up to Vacaville to spend it with her husband’s killer. You just maintain the professionalism; you just have to be straightforward and honest with these people and ask them the hard questions. But, yeah, you do shift gears, and then you’ve got the victims, too, and witnesses and people who come from all different sides. So you shift gears, but the approach is the same. I tried to preserve these people’s humanity. I did not go into any of this with any agenda or goal.
You’ve actually had some experience with bank robberies yourself, right? I mean, obviously not as the robber.
It’s kind of weird how my life kind of intersected with that. I was a Security Pacific Bank teller about two or three years after I graduated with a degree in economics, and we got robbed when I was in there. I didn’t even know we had been robbed until I saw the manager go and lock the door, and three windows down the person has got the blood drained out of their face. And I had a gun pulled on me by a policeman in a bank parking lot who thought he was responding to, again, a bank robbery I didn’t even know what was going on, just a case of mistaken identity. That was not a big deal.
I went through bank security training, within three or four years of Norco. So I did know what these employees had been told to do in the case of a robbery, which is give them what they want and get them the hell out. And growing up, I lived 10 miles away from George Smith, and all those guys. Those neighborhoods, that place, that era, is extremely familiar to me. That was my world when I was growing up.
And then there’s my work as an EMT. One, it lent me a lot of credibility with the law enforcement guys, because we’re always interfacing with them. I’ve been on crime scenes with those guys. I know how they talk. I know their lingo. I know dispatch codes. I talk over dispatch radios all the time, I drive lights and sirens. And then I’ve also been part of a major crime event as well, so I kind of know what that chaos is like. It’s very different, when you’ve got everybody converging from everywhere on a single location.
Like you said, you’re an EMT, and you’ve written before about PTSD among first responders. Do you think that the psychological treatment that was given to the Norco officers was adequate at all? Is it something that still affects them even today?
I’m not an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, but I do know a lot about it from working in this profession. And the major crime event I was at was Sandy Hook Elementary School. But you know, the main barrier back then, as I mentioned, and still now, is that the people who need counseling are reluctant to get it. I think that in San Bernardino, Floyd Tidwell, the assistant deputy over there who had started a program just a couple of years before, had it right in making counseling absolutely mandatory. Just send all the people, and then there’s no stigma. You’ve got to go. So nobody can say, “What the hell is wrong with that guy?”
Sometimes it can come at you from all different kinds of angles. Some calls that I get don’t bother me at all, but you never know how it’s going to come at you, how long it’s going to take. And these officers, they’re blue-collar, rough-and-tumble guys. They’re not known for emoting to virtual strangers. But yeah, it’s an issue. Now, with first responders, there are aggressive programs, and I can’t imagine there are too many police forces, other than maybe small towns, that don’t have something set up.
Did the officers that you were talking to know that you had been a first responder at Sandy Hook?
I only brought it up if they did. I didn’t go around talking about it much. But I must say, early on in this process, I dropped a random email to Joseph Wambaugh, and he answered me within five minutes. I never spoke to the guy, but every once in a while I’d send him an email. I asked him, “What’s the best way to interview a cop?” And he said, “Well, get more than one of them together and start buying them beers.” Which I didn’t do too much of, but he also said don’t ever record them, because they will clam up on you. So I never did that. I did a lot of running back to my car and jotting down everything they had just told me. So it would generally come out that I’d worked as a first responder, but only rarely was it relevant to what was being discussed at that moment.
The shootout was worsened by the robbers’ easy access to these large guns. Do you think the nation has to make any kind of changes to ensure that something on that scale doesn’t happen again?
It’s kind of shocking that it doesn’t happen more often. Obviously a big threat is terrorism, and they had that right in San Bernardino with those people who went into the government building there in 2015. And another major event that was pretty astonishing was the North Hollywood bank robbery in 1997, where you had those two very psychopathic guys standing out there in body armor and fully automatic weapons at that point. But I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more.
For the San Bernardino and Riverside sheriff’s offices, [Norco] was the wake-up call, the big thing that made them take the step to get more high-powered weaponry out into the field, putting these weapons in the hands of the patrolmen out there. It was not a step they were dying to take. It’s costly, you’ve got to train people on these things, you’ve got to maintain these weapons. You don’t want to be escalating the whole environment, where then the robbers feel like they have to arm up, and you don’t necessarily want people spraying that kind of gunfire anywhere, going through three walls of a house, hitting some kid or something. So they weren’t champing at the bit to arm up, but it was a step they felt they had to take after that. In Norco, what drove those guys off was D.J. McCarty grabbing that M-16 in the back of a sergeant’s vehicle, it was a confiscated weapon, and getting himself to the front and spraying gunfire on that road.
Is it true that while you were researching the book, you learned what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of heavy gunfire?
Yeah, I went with [retired San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy] D.J. McCarty down to the San Bernardino rifle range at the training academy, and we fired all those guns, the Heckler .308, and every gun used by both sides. I’d certainly not fired high-powered rifles before, so you learn a lot just having them in your hand. I made the mistake of taking off my ear protection one time, because I thought, “Well, the bank robbers weren’t wearing any themselves.”
So this guy who runs the range, he takes an AR-15 out of my hand, and he says, “You ever been shot at?” And I say, “Uh, no, not yet.” He says, “Do you want to be?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” So we went up the hill, we were never in any danger, but we went about 100 feet up the hillside, right up in the San Gabriel Mountains, and there’s this stack of railroad ties, and you go up and you stand behind that. And the guy fires, and he’s an extremely good shot.
And man, that was something. The bullets crack like bull whips. They sing, they buzz by like bees if they’re on the side of you. It is certainly a perspective, and very consistent with what these guys who came under fire said. Dozens of these officers came under fire. The ones who were a quarter-mile away on the freeway, they said the bullets just sounded like bees going by their car. Even though you’re safe and there’s no danger, you do get these little spikes of fear when that thing goes by. It’s just your reptilian part of your brain telling you to get away from this thing.
It must have felt like you’re in a war zone, almost. And I’m sure it felt that way to the officers.
Yeah, but I’ll tell you something about those officers, though. So many of them were so reluctant to even admit that they had gone through anything. Because they were working with a bunch of Vietnam vets, and some of them were vets themselves. And even their sheriff at the time was a guy who was on Iwo Jima. D.J. McCarty told me, you know, you don’t want to be seen as weak. He even said it to me two days ago. He said, “I’m not going to whine because I got a few bullets shot at me. These guys did 13-month tours in Vietnam, these guys stormed beaches in the Pacific.”
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
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