Author revisits most spectacular bank robbery in US history
GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) — The beige and brown houses blended into the sand and dirt of the Inland Empire as Ridgefield resident Peter Houlahan drove his car from Norco, Calif., toward the foothills into which the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department shooting range is nestled.
He passed the town center sign, which reads “Horsetown USA” and shares real estate with the Jack in the Box logo. Residents rode in the opposite direction on horseback. He sped past homes where horses pastured out back.
But Houlahan was not there to ride horses. He was on a different mission, one to fire every gun that a small band of men had used when their planned bank robbery in Norco turned into a deadly shootout almost 40 years ago. The arsenal included semi-automatic pistols, hunting rifles, single-action revolvers and semi-automatic assault rifles.
It wasn’t for fun. Houlahan, an EMT, was disabused of gun culture after racing to the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Instead, he was conducting research for “Norco ’80,” his debut book of narrative nonfiction, released this month, about the infamous crime, led by a born-again Christian, and its ripple effects years later, including an awareness of post-traumatic stress diorder among police officers and the eventual escalation of arms in of law enforcement.
From 2015 to 2017, Houlahan conducted research from his parents’ home in Indio, Calif. A fiction writer by training, he believes “write what you know or go out and learn it.” Which is how he found himself standing behind railroad ties being shot at by a range master weilding a Colt AR-15 and a Heckler .308.
He was never in danger. All rounds hit well above his head. But Houlahan could hear the .223 caliber crack like a bullwhip and feel the boom of the .308 in his chest.
This obsessive attention to visceral detail, along with knowledge drawn from his upbringing in southern California and experiences as an EMT, marks his account of the “Norco 3” and the scars, visibile and not, they left on officers and law enforcement to this day.
Robbery gone wrong
On May 10, 1980, Houlahan, an unlikely combination of a surfer teen and news junkie, opened the Saturday paper and saw California Highway Patrolman Doug Earnest staunching the blood of fellow officer Bill Crowe with the tenderness of an older brother.
The next day, pictures of ringleader and Christian zealot George Wayne Smith, nuclear war-fanatic Chris Harven and his brother Russ were splashed across the paper. He never forgot their faces.
“They looked like the kind of people who knew exactly what they had done,” Houlahan said. Russ, a young diabetic with a few petty crimes on his record, “looked like an insane hillbilly.”
Thirty-five years later and living on the opposite coast, Houlahan pitched a story to the LA Times on the effects of the crime on later generations. The article did not pan out, but once he stumbled on the story’s human intrigue, he realized he could write a book instead.
A preliminary internet search came up with little: a 30-year anniversary piece written by the Sheriffs Association of Riverside, Calif., a bare-bones Wikipedia entry and a smattering of articles.
“Norco ’80” chronicles the story of Smith who — believing he needed to stockpile money and supplies to protect his family during the coming apocalypse — plotted to rob a bank. He looped in two former colleagues and their brothers. Armed to the teeth, they robbed an area bank, a crime that went horribly wrong and snowballed into an epic shootout and car chase.
But the dozens of officers representing multiple law enforcement branches who responded were wildly outmatched; one sheriff died, a few others were injured. Houlahan documents the drawn-out court proceedings that followed, and the after effects the officers returning to work struggled to cope with.
His research into the case would go far beyond anything done before.
Through a friend he connected with the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association in California, though it took the officers some time to warm up to reliving Norco. One cried while speaking to him.
Houlahan’s EMT experience resonated with the officers, however. “I didn’t walk up saying, ‘I’m an EMT,’ and I’m certainly not getting shot at . . . but I know a little bit of what it means to be in their world,” he said during a recent interview.
He also gave the robbers many chances to weigh in, and eventually, two did. Houlahan spent three hours with each brother, Chris and Russ Harven. Chris blew off Houlahan for three years before agreeing to an interview after Russ admitted to speaking with him. Their candor surprised him.
“It was a gold mine to sit there and reconstruct with these guys,” he said.
Smith never did. He finally sent an apologetic letter to the author shortly after the pre-release of the book, which made the final draft. He even sketched a dove, a minimalist icon of the faith he maintains, one that both motivated his crime and led him to confront his sins.
Houlahan credits his timing for why his dozens of subjects were so forthcoming. “I think if I were to try to do this 15 years ago, a lot of people who talked to me wouldn’t have,” he said. “A lot of these people are getting into their 60s, and they’re getting all reflective — especially if you’re sitting in a jail cell — and they want their story told. They want the story told, at least.”
Attention to detail
Unlike another bank robbery in North Hollywood at the turn of the millenium that was heavily televised, Norco was more than a “bang-bang shoot-em-up,” Houlahan said. This robbery involved desperate men with nothing more to lose, swept along by a Christian fundamentalist and a hippy astrologist.
“I try to give people their humanity,” he said. “It would’ve been easy to flat-out vilify these guys, but you can see by reading it they didn’t have a (criminal) background.”
Houlahan would not consider himself the prisoners’ pen pal, but he is cordial, and tries not to drag them through the worst day of their lives. “Then again, they did what they did,” he said.
“Norco ’80” blends meticulous details with a strong sense of story arc, character and place that Houlahan developed while earning his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.
But the author knows as a genre, narrative nonfiction can be abused and writers “can start to take a lot of liberties.” He agonized over ensuring that every detail, even in a few semi-fictional scenes, was sourced.
He said he only inferred events once, during a three-paragraph scene in which 17-year-old Billy Delgado, who was supposed to drive the getaway car, dies. Using the autopsy report and doctors’ explanations, Houlahan imagines the panic a kid with no record would feel as blue and red lights block his escape route and a gunshot wound paralyzes his body and floods his lungs with blood.
“I’m just trying to tell a true story truthfully in a way where people feel something,” Houlahan said.
Before “Norco,” he wrote many short stories. After sending out only two for publication, he discovered that he did not like short fiction that much. Instead, he liked the interviewing and research that came with telling long nonfiction.
He wrote some articles for trade publications on marketing research (Houlahan used to run a company with his parents outfitting firms with equipment to conduct focus groups remotely) and post-traumatic stress disorder.
His knowledge of the disorder informs his writing about the men who responded, who suffered from PTSD before most police forces knew their condition had a name and could be treated.
Addressing the origins of the push to arm police with higher-caliber weapons, the increasingly strained relationships between police officers and their communities, and the effects of trauma on multiple generations, the book has a universal message that is needed now, according to Houlahan.
“This was a bunch of law enforcement officers who almost uniformly acted heroically under incredible adversity,” he said. “It’s a reminder that police officers who face overwhelming danger can act heroically. No matter where you stand . . . this should be a good reminder that should be acknowledged and admired by everyone.”
Information from: The News-Times, http://www.newstimes.com