JUNE 11, 2019
My L.A. in Four Locations is a running feature in which Angelenos share the story of their city through four specific places. This week, Peter Houlahan tours the Bank Robbery Capital of the World.
Seems like I am always crossing paths with bank robbers. As a teller at the Security Pacific Bank in Whittier in the mid-1980s, the place was robbed twice. A few years later, I had a shotgun aimed at me in another bank parking lot by a cop who mistakenly thought I was the guy who had just robbed the joint. And then again in 2016, interviewing two robbers in Lancaster and Vacaville penitentiaries for my book Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History.
That may seem like a lot of knockovers for any city, but L.A. is the undisputed “Bank Robbery Capital of the World.” One out of every four in the country is committed within the jurisdiction of the local field office of the FBI, located on Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood.
L.A. is such a target-rich environment for many reasons, but the biggest reason is simple: freeways. Rob a bank near an onramp, jump on, jump off and you are bye-bye-birdie cruising the side streets of an entirely different city before the cops even get on scene.
What had been merely an annoying problem for the FBI decades became an epidemic in the 1980s with the arrival of crack cocaine and then took a terrifying turn in the 90s when L.A.’s street gangs got involved. Between 1985 and 1995, the approximately 3500 retail bank branches in the region were hit 17,106 times. In the worst year, 1992, there were 2,641 heists, one for every 40 minutes of each banking day. On a particularly bad day for the FBI, bandits committed 28 bank jobs right under their noses.
Our city’s relationship with bank robberies ranges from goofy to horrifying. Here are the sites of four of the more notorious.
The Norco Bank Robbery & Shootout: Security Pacific National Bank, Fourth Street & Hamner Avenue, Norco — What happens when an End-Times Christian and his survivalist roommate start thinking they need a lot of money to ride out the impending apocalypse? On May 9, 1980, four heavily armed men stormed into the Norco branch of the Security Pacific Bank (seen here fenced and scheduled for demolition) threatening to blow everyone’s head off if they did not get down on the floor. Two minutes later, the intersection of Fourth and Hamner exploded in a firefight that turned into a 40 mile running gunbattle. The outlaws lost the pursuing police 6,500 feet up a fire road on Mount Baldy and vanished into the rugged canyons. When it was over, three were dead, 15 wounded, including seven police officers, and 33 law enforcement vehicles severely damaged or destroyed, including a police helicopter shot down over San Bernardino. As a teenager, the Norco bank robbery had me glued to the pages of the Los Angeles Timesfor weeks as everyone tried to answer the question: Who are these guys? Turns out, just a bunch of city landscapers from Cypress.
The Hole in the Ground Gang: First Interstate Bank, 7700 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles — I probably drove right over these guys at least a dozen times as they burrowed underground beneath Sunset. The FBI estimates they must have spent months under the streets of digging the 100-foot tunnel from the storm sewer to the vault of the bank. Employees had been hearing strange noises after-hours for most of May: grinding, chipping, scraping. The vault alarm kept mysteriously going off, and the tunnelers even activated the Muzak system while tapping into the bank’s underground electrical lines to run power tools they hauled through the storm drains on ATVs. When they finally busted through the 18-inch concrete floor of the vault on Saturday, June 7, 1986, they spent the weekend carrying out cash and breaking into safe deposit boxes. The final take was $172,000 in cash and about $2.5 million in safe deposit loot including gold, jewelry, Persian artifacts, an original Matisse, and an 1855 first-edition copy of “Leaves of Grass.” They were never caught, and there has not been another bank tunnel job in America since.
The West Hills Bandits:Wells Fargo Bank, 18705 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana — Apparently, it takes a lot of money to survive an apocalypse. The two “West Hills Bandits” were even more religiously whacky than the Norco guys, but also far better bank robbers. In their battle against the “Luciferians,” the pair scored more than a million dollars in nine takeover robberies, often staying in the bank less than a minute while politely shouting, “Thanks, everybody!” on their way out. But that’s not what made their September 5, 1991 takeover robbery of the Tarzana Wells Fargo a landmark heist. It was the supreme blunder of a bank employee who told the press the enormous amount of the take — $437,000. An Original Gangster from the Rolling Sixties Crips named Casper took notice of how much money could be made in the “takeover” business. A month later, the “Baby Bandits” were bursting into banks along the Wilshire corridor.
The North Hollywood Shootout: Bank of America, 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood — Almost nothing about the February 28, 1997 takeover robbery of the B-of-A in North Hollywood makes sense. Larry Phillips and Emil Matasareanu were a pair of phenobarbital-eating killers obsessed with the bank heist movie Heat. They had competently robbed a bank for three-quarters of a million dollars and gotten away with it. But for whatever reason, they went the full stupid on their next job. Already bodybuilders with hulking frames, the two looked like nightmarish Transformer action figures as they as they lumbered on foot down Laurel Canyon Blvd. in full body armor, ski masks, sunglasses, and assault rifles. Once inside, they shot up the place, even though everyone was complying with their orders, and spent eight full minutes in the bank — an eternity in robber time. Whatever might have been comical about them became nihilistic once the two stepped outside of the bank and began shooting, seemingly more interested in killing cops than actually getting away. The scene unfolded on live television filmed by overhead news helicopters. More than 1,700 shots were fired; nine LAPD officers and three civilians wounded; 12 police cruisers were destroyed and 85 civilian vehicles were tagged by gunfire before the two were taken down.
Peter Houlahan is the author of Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in History (Counterpoint Press, 2019).