1 Year Anniversary of Bank Shootout
Feb. 28, 1998
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A year later, there's still an emotion for every bullet, a nightmare for every violent minute.
``It always comes back to me _ lying there and thinking it was going to be my final moment,'' says Officer Martin Whitfield. He wakes up in the prone position, waiting for his body to take another AK-47 round.
This year, he'll retire, after seven years on the force, unable to continue after suffering four gunshot wounds.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the North Hollywood shootout, which pitted outgunned officers against a pair of heavily armed bank robbers and was broadcast live around the country. Several events were planned for today, including a ceremony at the bank where it all began.
The suspects, Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu, had botched a robbery at a Bank of America branch. Protected by body armor and firing automatic weapons, they roamed nearby streets before being shot and killed by police. Eleven policeman and six civilians were wounded.
In all, 1,500 rounds of ammunition were fired. Officers had to reload by snatching rifles from a nearby sporting goods store.
The fusillade brought a sense of pride to a police department battered by the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson cases. But the pride came with a high cost.
Even now, as North Hollywood station Capt. Richard Wahler goes to one ceremony after another honoring his officers, even as he speaks about how ``our confidence level has been enhanced by this,'' there's a darker side.
``There are people who still aren't the same,'' he said. ``The damage is inward and you can't see it.''
For the 280 sworn officers at the North Hollywood station, the shootout was just the start of a tumultuous year. Later, two officers committed suicide and another was arrested on a sexual assault charge, although those cases were apparently unrelated to the shootout.
Then there was an internal investigation into officers' conduct during the shootout and what police saw as the ultimate indignity: a lawsuit accusing officers of not doing enough to save the life of one of the bank robbers.
``The division has taken some emotional hits,'' Wahler said. ``My desire is that nothing else happen here. Let it happen next door while my people get some rest.''
Even the accolades have brought some problems. Some officers, held up as heroes, feel like impostors. Others feel like they've been denied recognition and hope to get it by this fall, when top brass decides who gets prized Medal of Valor awards.
On Feb. 17, the Los Angeles Police Department held its own presentation marking the event; the premature scheduling was intended, in part, to accommodate TV's ratings-sensitive sweeps period.
At the news conference, the 31-year-old Whitfield spoke of his nightmares and how he intended to retire. Officer Stuart Guy, who was shot twice, said he'll also retire this year because of his wounds. He plans to study for the ministry.
``I have a lot of faith in God,'' Guy said. ``I knew God was going to save me and everybody else out there. ... And he did. Nobody died except the bad guys.''
A police board found this month that the 29 officers who engaged in the gun battle acted ``in policy'' in using their guns. The police chief will consider that recommendation and make his own decision.
But a lawyer representing Matasareanu's sons in their wrongful death case called the investigation a whitewash.
``The LAPD always validates what its officers do,'' attorney Stephen Yagman said.
Meanwhile, Whitfield has sued the robbers' estates and the manufacturers of the automatic weapons used by the suspects, holding them liable for his wounds.
There's other unfinished business. The department obtained hundreds of military semi-automatic weapons to boost officers' firepower, but the release of the rifles is being held up while police work out a training program.
Officers also want other forms of protection, including bullet-proof door panels in their squad cars and transparent shields to use while helping a downed officer. Many other departments already have that protection.
Then there's the biggest unsolved mystery in the case. The suspects were believed to have snatched a total of $1.4 million in six bank and armored car robberies before the shootout.
But after totaling the value of the men's homes, guns and other goods and interviewing their relatives, the department still can't account for $900,000.