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Bank suspects once caught with arsenal in car

March 2, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The two bandits killed in a gun battle with police had been building an arsenal for at least three years and are suspected of pulling off at least two terrifying bank robberies that netted $1.5 million.

Detectives on Sunday had yet to identify the men, who held off dozens of outgunned officers with a fusillade of bullets for more than 20 minutes Friday before being brought down with head shots that bypassed their body armor.

But police in suburban Glendale said they were the same men arrested there in 1993 in a car full of high-powered weapons, smoke bombs and disguises.

In that case, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Dechebal Matasareanu served less than four months in jail after striking a plea bargain that cut a conspiracy and weapons case to a handful of misdemeanors.

And the FBI, without identifying the two dead men, said they were suspected of being what some media call the ``shoot ’em up bandits,″ a duo that held up at least two suburban banks last year while dressed for combat and terrorizing customers by firing shots into ceilings or a vault.

The Bank of America branch in North Hollywood where the gun battle took place attracted a crowd of gawkers on Sunday.

``I wanted to check it out to see if there were any shells over here,″ said Steve Long, who stopped by with a buddy during a motorcycle outing.

In Altadena, 15 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the occupant of a house once rented by Phillips, 26, told of several years of visits by people looking for Phillips, including police and repossession men.

Late Saturday, the house was searched by a cadre of flak-jacketed police who said they came ``concerning notification of a death,″ said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Matasareanu, 30, grew up partly in Altadena, studied computers and started having trouble with the law after authorities shut down a care center for the mentally disabled that he ran with his mother, said his mother, Valerie Nicolescu.

Ms. Nicolescu said she learned of her son’s death late Saturday, and told the Los Angeles Times that Phillips was ``a bad guy who got my son.″

Walter Kennedy, a retired postal worker who lives three doors away, said he once had an argument with Matasareanu about Kennedy’s unleashed dog, and once saw him working on a gun in front of the house. But he knew the family only slightly and thought of Matasareanu as ``a pretty good guy.″

The FBI said the two dead were suspected in two May 1996 robberies.

On May 31, two big, heavily armed men in ski masks, dark jackets and gloves opened fire inside a Bank of America branch in Van Nuys, injuring a pregnant employee.

On May 2, two similarly dressed men with similar weapons entered another San Fernando Valley Bank of America branch and fired automatic weapons at the door of the vault.

The Daily News quoted unidentified authorities as saying the robberies netted $1.5 million.

In the 1993 Glendale case, police who stopped Phillips and Matasareanu in a rented car confiscated two 9 mm pistols, two .45-caliber guns, two AK-47s, six smoke grenades, two homemade bombs, three machine guns, two bulletproof vests, one gas mask, six holsters, wigs, ski masks, two police radio scanners, a stopwatch and about 2,800 rounds of ammunition.

Phillips pleaded no-contest to felony false impersonation and misdemeanor weapons possession, served 99 days in jail and got three years probation. Matasareanu pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor weapons charges, served 71 days in jail and got three years probation.

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