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Ski-masked gunmen shoot at police, helicopters; gunbattle on live TV

February 28, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Dressed like commandos, a group of masked men botched a bank robbery today, then bombarded police, bystanders and cars with gunfire in a shootout that was broadcast live on television. One witness said the gunmen seemed ``ready for war.″

Two robbers were killed, one was arrested, two citizens were wounded and six police officers were struck by gunfire, Cmdr. Tim McBride said in a hastily called news conference. As he spoke, police were entering the bank to rescue ``numerous citizens″ who locked themselves in the vault during the robbery.

The shootout turned the area around the Bank of America branch in the Valley Plaza in the North Hollywood section into a combat zone as news helicopters hovered above.

``They had black masks over their faces and full black gear, with belts and ammo around their waists,″ said Bob McKibben, an appliance store manager who watched the battle. ``These guys were ready for war.″

``It was like the OK Corral,″ said witness Nancy Swanson.

There were believed to be five robbers. A TV audience watched as one was shot in the head by police. Cameras followed a second, limping gunman as he slowly drove away in a car the first gunman had used as a shield. The driver fired randomly and stopped and appeared to be trying to commandeer a pickup truck.

Police fired back and eventually surrounded him and took him into custody. It was unclear if he was the second suspect who died.

TV viewers watched bullets slam into cars and buildings, police duck and run and smoke from gunfire come through the windshield of a suspect’s getaway car.

The manhunt for the remaining robbers spread out through North Hollywood, a middle-class area about 10 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, not far from the Disney, Universal and Warner Bros. studios.

McBride said a third suspect was arrested at ``a remote location.″

The robbers carried a literal arsenal of what appeared to be military-style semiautomatic guns. The first officers on the scene faced them with pistols, a situation McBride said is becoming more common.

``We have many suspects who have multiple guns and they continue to outgun us and fire at us at will,″ he said.

Armando Jimenez, a Budweiser salesman, was about to go into the bank to cash a check when the shooting started.

``The guy who was robbing it panicked,″ Jimenez said. ``He shot back into the bank and then back out towards us. I just ran.″

``There was a car outside with guns in the back of the trunk, and they kept shooting out, getting a new one and going back in, going out again, getting a new gun and shooting again,″ he said. ``He had so many guns, I couldn’t count.″

McKibben, the appliance store manager, said one robber ``kept going to the trunk of the car and getting more ammo. He was like in a trance.″

One wounded officer was taken to Northridge Hospital, where he was in serious condition with multiple gunshot wounds, said hospital spokesman Wendell Mobley. McBride said all of the wounded police officers were expected to survive.

The first bank robber killed by police had brazenly marched back and forth in a parking lot next to the bank, randomly firing an AK-47 style assault rifle.

The gunmen took shots at news helicopters at several points.

Brenda Hidalgo, a cashier at Plaza Carwash on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, said the street was completely closed off.

``About an hour ago, they started shooting,″ she said at 10:20 a.m. ``We heard a lot of shots. We closed everything.″

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