Commando-clad robbers botch robbery, open fire on police, bystanders
Feb. 28, 1997
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Dressed like commandos, a group of masked robbers bungled a bank heist Friday and came out firing, unleashing their arsenal on police, bystanders, cars and even the TV choppers broadcasting it all live.
When the shooting stopped, two robbers were dead and at least five bystanders and six police officers were wounded by gunfire. Two other officers were injured in a car wreck.
Bank customers and employees locked themselves in a vault for protection, people in a market across the street were trapped, and police and others in nearby businesses took cover wherever they could.
``These guys were ready for war,'' said Bob McKibben, an appliance store manager who watched the battle. ``They had black masks over their faces and full black gear, with belts and ammo around their waists.''
A manhunt was immediately started for one or more suspects who were believed to have gotten away. Nearby schools and freeways were closed, and residents were told to stay in their homes.
At one point in the afternoon, the LAPD's armored battering ram smashed down the wall of a North Hollywood home, looking for suspects. They didn't find any.
Police Cmdr. Tim McBride said the men were known to the FBI for robbing at least two other banks, and motivated by money, not politics.
``This is not a militia group, these are brutal killers who were robbing and taking these people's money,'' McBride said. ``These are very organized, brutal bank robbery suspects. They are killers.''
The shootout erupted at the Bank of America in North Hollywood when officers responded to an alarm shortly after the bank opened. As many as five robbers were believed to be involved, police said.
After the robbery went awry, the bandits fled the bank and one of them brazenly strolled back and forth in an adjacent parking lot, reeling off round after round from an AK-47-style assault rifle until he was shot to death by police.
A second robber limped to a heavily fortified getaway car and slowly drove about two blocks before commandeering a pickup truck while still in his car. The truck driver fled, and after transferring some weapons into the truck, the gunman climbed into the pickup, then got out and opened fire at police before being shot to death by the officers.
TV cameras captured images of gunsmoke, bullets slamming into cars and buildings, and police ducking and running. Shots were fired at the helicopters overhead recording the scene.
The shooting recalled the bloody 1995 movie ``Heat,'' starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, in which a band of meticulously organized but high-strung bandits hold up a downtown Los Angeles bank. The movie robbers burst into the bank in black clothes and full-body armor, then most are killed in a wild running gun battle through downtown traffic.
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.''
Jimenez took refuge in a nearby drugstore.
``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,'' Jimenez said. ``He had so many guns I couldn't count.''
McKibben, the appliance store manager, said, ``The cops were pinned down.'' He said one robber ``kept going to the trunk of the car and getting more ammo. He was like in a trance, he was walking like there was nothing going on. He had everyone pinned down. It was like he didn't have a care in the world.''
The robbers carried an 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,'' McBride said.
The bank branch, in the Valley Plaza, is about 10 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, not far from the Disney, Universal and Warner Bros. studios.
``You could feel the bullets in the air,'' said Demond Trotter, 21, who was driving by when he realized he was caught in the crossfire. ``You could hear ssss ssss ssss. And you could hear the pop, pop, pop.''