Larry Phillips and Decebal Matasareanu met while working out at Gold’s Gym in Venice, Los Angeles, California. They had a mutual interest in both bodybuilding and firearms.
Phillips was a native-born American whose entire life had been characterized by crime. Up until they hit the big time he made ends meet via real estate scams and shoplifting.
Matasareanu, by contrast, hailed from Romania and was trained as an Electrical Engineer. However, his computer repair business just scraped by. Both men aspired to something more.
Their first known joint criminal enterprise was the 1993 robbery of an armored car in Littleton, Colorado. Unlike most conventional thieves, however, Phillips and Matasareanu rolled hot with AK rifles and improvised explosive devices. After a fortuitous traffic stop wherein the criminals were found to be in possession of two Kalashnikovs, two handguns, and a total of 2,800 rounds of ammunition the two felons served 100 days in jail.
These two guys left prison somewhat less than fully rehabilitated. In 1995 they robbed a Brinks armored car in LA, killing a guard named Herman Cook. Two LA-area banks later, these two gentlemen were $1.5 million richer. As is so often the case, however, they had a really tough time figuring out when to stop.
Going to War
Phillips and Matasareanu spent months reconnoitering the Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in LA. They predicted when the bank should get its fresh cash shipment and schemed accordingly. They also studied their police scanner and estimated the Law Enforcement response time at eight minutes. Then on February 28, 1997, they girded up for battle.
They each wore body armor bodged together from commercial Aramid components covering their chests, groins, shins, thighs, and forearms. Matasareanu included a steel strike plate in his ensemble to protect his vital organs. They had each sewed watches into the backs of their gloves and took phenobarbital to calm their nerves. Their estimated police response time turned out to be catastrophically optimistic.
Phillips and Matasareanu were serious gun nerds, and they had done their pre-mission prep thoroughly. Between the two of them, they wielded five long guns and a pair of pistols. Different accounts vary slightly in the details. However, as near as I could ascertain their two Norinco Type 56 S rifles were fitted with side-folding East German MPi KmS stocks. One of these guns included a vertical foregrip.
They had one Norinco Type 56 S-1 underfolder that had been illegally converted to full auto along with several Chinese-made 75 and 100-round drums. It is impossible to deploy an underfolding AK stock with a drum in place, but Larry Phillips still ran this weapon efficiently on full auto even with the stock folded.
Norinco makes superlative firearms. I have a Norinco underfolder AK I bought from a stack at a gun show back in 1985 for $325. The gun is beautifully executed with rich bluing, three magazines, and a bayonet.
The loadout included a Bushmaster XM15 Dissipator. The Dissipator featured standard M16A1 triangular handguards, a stubby16-inch barrel, and a collapsible stock along with a 100-round Beta C-mag. The Dissipator looks a little weird but illegally converted to full auto it was a formidable close combat tool. They also wielded a German HK91A3 with extended 30-round mags. These magazines were formed by welding two 20-round magazine bodies together.
Their 7.62x51mm HK91A3 was both powerful and reliable. It provided superior reach and penetration adequate to negate the effectiveness of a great deal of urban cover such as automobile components and modest trees. With more than a thousand rounds of ammunition on tap, these two maniacs strode calmly into the bank.
As they entered the bank looking like PLO Black September terrorists, a pair of nearby LAPD officers named Martin Perello and Loren Farrell fortuitously spotted them from their patrol car. The resulting radio call doomed the operation from the start.
Both men loosed bursts into the ceiling to discourage resistance. Phillips then shot his way through a supposedly bulletproof door to reach the tellers and the vault. This door was intended to withstand handgun rounds but didn’t fare so well against a full auto AK.
The men had expected around $750,000 but found the take to be markedly more meager. An infuriated Phillips loosed a full 75-round drum of 7.62x39mm into the bank vault, destroying much of the remaining cash. Now with $303,305 and three dye packs in their possession the two men egressed the building. The dye packs later exploded, ruining what money they did get. They had been in the bank for about seven minutes.
While Phillips and Matasareanu were working over the bank more and more LAPD units were staging outside thanks to the serendipitous report of the two passing cops. By the time they emerged the bank was surrounded and all corners were covered. The two men left the building by two separate entrances. Phillips spotted a police cruiser some 200 feet away and unlimbered his full-auto AK coldly and without hesitation.
For the next several minutes Phillips engaged the surrounding officers with controlled bursts of automatic fire, wounding seven LAPD patrolmen as well as three civilian bystanders. By now Phillips and Matasareanu were side by side, blasting at the cops and absorbing return fire from the police officers’ 9mm pistols and .38 revolvers. Lyrically outgunned, the cops sprinted into a nearby civilian gun shop and appropriated five AR15 rifles. Given California’s legendary gun laws were this to happen today the cops would obviously be hamstrung with bullet buttons and thumbhole stocks.
The two robbers also fired upon both LAPD and news helicopters. Officers tried and failed to secure headshots, but they did eventually connect with Phillips’ hand. The cops’ pistol rounds also struck the magazine and receiver of the HK91, rendering it inoperable.
Eighteen minutes after the first shot fired LAPD SWAT arrived in body armor, shorts, and athletic shoes. They had been in the middle of a run when the call came out, but they acted decisively, commandeering an armored truck and removing the injured to safety.
The End Game
Matasareanu started their getaway car while Phillips jogged alongside, all the while firing at cops as targets presented themselves. Once his HK 91 was disabled Phillips retrieved one of the other long guns and ran it until it jammed. Unable to clear the weapon given his injured hand, he drew his Beretta 92FS but had it shot out of his grip. Retrieving the weapon with his left hand he placed it underneath his chin and pulled the trigger. A police handgun round simultaneously struck him behind his armor and severed his spine.
Matasareanu fared briefly better. His windshield and tires shot out, Matasareanu carjacked a 1963 Jeep Gladiator and transferred his weapons into the new ride. However, unknown to him the truck had a separate kill switch, and he was unable to get it moving.
For another 2.5 minutes, Matasareanu engaged in a near-constant firefight with LAPD SWAT officers. He caught a double tap to the chest that stunned him momentarily but stopped on his armor. The SWAT cops with AR15’s then dropped down low and shot Matasareanu in the unprotected lower legs underneath his vehicle, finally taking him out of the fight.
Matasareanu was hit twenty times below the waist and occupied himself after he was subdued by telling the cops to kill him. It took some seventy minutes for EMT personnel to arrive as the fog of war sparked rumors of a third shooter. Matasareanu bled out from his leg wounds.
The superlative Michael Mann movie Heat debuted two years before the North Hollywood shootout. It has long been assumed that this gritty crime film about a well-armed paramilitary robbery crew inspired Matasareanu and Phillips. The final epic shootout scene in HEAT is rightfully hailed as one of the most compelling ever put on film, replete with masterful gun handling, proper magazine changes, and a reverberating soundtrack that puts you inside the fight.
The subsequent 2003 movie SWAT did a decent job of recreating the broad brush details of the North Hollywood robbery. While SWAT is a decent watch with some nice iron and solid tactics, it is no HEAT.
Pacino with his FNC-80, DeNiro and Kilmer with their fire-breathing Colt Model 733’s, and Sizemore running his Galil ARM set a standard for cinematic firepower yet to be bettered.
It was a legitimate miracle that none of the good guys died in the North Hollywood gunfight. When the smoke cleared the robbers had fired some 1,100 rounds, while the cops expended about 650. The aftermath of this shootout pushed American Law Enforcement to rethink long guns in squad cars and further militarize police tactical teams.
Seven months after the shootout the DOD gifted 600 selective-fire M16A1 rifles to the LAPD to equip each patrol sergeant. The political and cultural fallout from this gratuitous little war continues to this day.