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Anatomy of the North Hollywood Shootout: Tinseltown 2-11

On the morning of February 28, 1997, Officer James Zboravan and his partner arrived on the scene of a 211 (police code for robbery in progress) at the Bank of America on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, California. The radio said there were two suspects, possibly armed with AK-47s. Lights on and sirens blazing, Zboravan and his partner were on the scene within minutes of what would become the North Hollywood Shootout. Other units would trickle in as officers took positions surrounding the bank. The next thing they knew, automatic weapons fire could be heard coming from the building. 

What happened next would change the way police departments in Los Angeles and across the United States thought about firepower — and it all unfolded on live television.

North Hollywood Shootout
Photo taken from a nearby dentist’s office of the locksmith kiosk and the bank.

For months before that February morning, Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu carefully staked out their target. Phillips was a career criminal, unemployed, and spent most of his spare time at the gym. Matasareanu was a Romanian immigrant, overweight, and estranged from his wife and child. Before becoming a full-time bank robber, he began suffering from seizures. The two decided to team up.

North Hollywood Shootout
Detectives and officer taking cover behind bullet-riddled black and white and detective vehicles.

Unknown to the police at the North Hollywood Shootout, they were called the “High Incident Bandits” for the sheer amount of firepower they carried into the robberies. In 1993, they were pulled over for speeding in nearby Glendale. A search of the vehicle revealed two semi-automatic rifles and two pistols, along with more than 1,200 rounds of ammunition, smoke bombs, explosives, and body armor. 

North Hollywood Shootout
Above: Plain-clothes officer (armed with a short-barreled shotgun) and uniformed officers waiting for suspects to emerge from the bank.

Phillips and Matasareanu spent 99 and 71 days in jail, respectively, following their arrest. By the time they were set to rob the North Hollywood Bank of America, the two had been criminal partners for years. They robbed armored cars and even two other Los Angeles-area branches of Bank of America. 

Their armed robberies after leaving jail netted them more than $1.5 million — and they weren’t afraid to kill to get it. The Laurel Canyon bank was supposed to be their last big score. With the first of the month approaching, they expected the bank would be filled with Friday payday, social security, and welfare cash, a potential heist of $800,000. 

North Hollywood Shootout
Patrol officers donning tactical helmets, waiting for suspects to emerge from the bank. Note the 4-inch barreled revolver.

The two staked out the bank, probing it for similar patterns and theft protection they experienced robbing the other banks. They knew the layout of the bank, how fast the police would respond to a robbery report; their getaway was ready, and they were prepared to set the car on fire with two jars of gasoline.

When the day of the North Hollywood Shootout came, they were armed and ready. Phillips and Matasareanu loaded the trunk of a 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity with an arsenal of weapons and ammunition. Along with 3,000 rounds of ammunition, much of it loaded into drum magazines, they were packing two converted fully automatic Norinco Type 56S rifles, a converted fully automatic Norinco Type 56S-1, a semiautomatic Heckler & Koch Model 91 in 7.62x51mm, an automatic Bushmaster XM15 Dissipator in 5.56mm, and Beretta 92FS pistols.  

North Hollywood Shootout
Citizen taking cover in the grocery store parking lot.

What the pair was wearing was most important of all. Along with customized load-bearing vests, web belts, and government-issue pouches for holding extra ammunition, they were also wearing homemade body armor which covered much of their bodies during the North Hollywood Shootout.

Along with Level IIIA Rabintek vests, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s report noted the pair fashioned leg and shin guards out of other vests to wrap around their legs. Matasareanu was also wearing similar bulletproof arm wraps. Phillips wore an Acqua digital watch that was stitched into his Hatch gloves. He set the timer for 6 minutes. 

North Hollywood Shootout
Photo of the dentist doors that Officer Zboravan and Detective Krulac jumped through.

The two men took phenobarbital, prescribed to Matasareanu for his seizures, and made their way into the bank at 9:17 a.m. After pushing an ATM patron back inside, the ski-masked pair performed the robbery just like they had the others. They fired rounds in the air to scare the customers and staff, shouting “This is a f*cking holdup!”  

Outside, officers were completely unprepared for that level of firepower. They were outgunned, carrying only their issued 9mm Beretta 92F sidearms, but they only had a tip that the suspect might have AK-47s. At 9:18, officers reported gunfire coming from inside the bank. Other officers trickled into the area, taking up positions around the bank. 

Just over two months out of the police academy, then-26-year-old James Zboravan and his partner positioned themselves near a small locksmith kiosk on the east corner of the block opposite the bank. Being directly across from the bank entrance, he would have a direct line of sight when the suspects emerged.

North Hollywood Shootout
Suspect Phillips taking aim at officers while using his vehicle as cover.

Zboravan, a lifelong firearms enthusiast, decided in a fraction of a second to use his department-issued pump shotgun with nine-pellet 00 buckshot. It wasn’t going to challenge an AK-47, but it was better than his pistol. The other officers were using Beretta 92F pistols. 

Matasareanu fired his Norinco Type 56 into the air around the lobby, then put his foot on the neck of a security guard. He ordered the guard to move the patrons into the vault when he gave the order. Phillips then displayed the real reason they wore so much body armor. 

North Hollywood Shootout
Tree struck by suspects’ AK-47 round.

The tellers and the vault were behind a secure, bulletproof door known as a “bandit barrier,” installed when Los Angeles was known as “the bank robbery capital of the world” in the 1980s. To gain access, Phillips used a high-powered rifle to shoot the door handle and locks. According to Zboravan, this caused a lot of ricochet and the robber needed body armor for protection from his own bullets, not just the police. 

Once inside the secure area, Phillips struck the bank’s manager in the head twice with the butt of his rifle to persuade him to open the bank’s vault. He also handed the manager a nylon bag with an order to load the money into it. Phillips found much less than the $800,000 they expected. 

North Hollywood Shootout
SWAT officers deployed on nearby rooftop.

It turns out the string of robberies the “High Incident Bandits” had pulled off in recent days led the LAPD to warn banks in the area against holding so much cash at one time. The money was to be dropped off in two shipments instead of one large drop. Phillips and Matasareanu were the agents of their own destruction, and their haul was only $303,305. 

After noticing the small denominations the manager loaded into the bag, Phillips demanded the manager open the ATM. When he told the robbers that no one in the bank could open the machines, Phillips attempted to shoot it open, but was unsuccessful. The manager was wounded by bullets that ricocheted from the ATM door because he wasn’t protected the way Phillips was. Angry that they’d missed their big score, Phillips emptied the rest of his magazine into the vault.

North Hollywood Shootout
Citizens (all wounded) huddle in fear trying not to be shot again.

Matasareanu then ordered everyone into the main vault area. They were out of time; the 6 minutes they were supposed to spend inside the bank was up. Outside, the officers could hear every round fired inside the bank, and they estimated at least 50 rounds were fired inside. The extra time spent trying to get the ATM open allowed for more officers to arrive at the North Hollywood Shootout.

“They got greedy,” says Zboravan. “If they had stuck to their plan and not tried to get the ATM, not as many of us would have been on the scene, and maybe not the airship. Instead of 6 minutes, they were there for 10.” 

North Hollywood Shootout
Bullet-riddled police vehicle.

By 9:24, Phillips headed for the front door, but the LAPD had the bank surrounded by 44 officers and an air unit. The SWAT team hadn’t yet arrived so the best weapon they had was Officer Zboravan’s department-issued Ithaca 12-gauge police shotgun and buckshot. 

When Phillips emerged from the north door of the bank at 9:25, he peeked his head around the door’s alcove and saw a number of officers waiting for him. He fired his Norinco Type 56 at the police. Officer Zboravan returned fire with the shotgun. 

North Hollywood Shootout
SWAT officers making entry into the bank to search for other suspects and victims.

“I shot at him with 00 buck, and it absorbed into his body armor,” Zboravan recalls. “If I had a slug, it may not have penetrated the armor, but it would have broken his shoulder or maybe his back and he would have been down in the street, in pain or unconscious.”

The buckshot did get his attention, however, and Phillips began to spray rounds at officers positioned across the street. The rounds went right through the police cruisers. Zboravan was hit in his left buttock and lower back, injuries that required surgery and plague him to this day. 

North Hollywood Shootout
Officers rescue downed citizens behind the cover of a borrowed armored truck.

Two detectives, William Krulac and Tracey Angeles, had deployed near Zboravan before the shooting started. Krulac was a Vietnam veteran and knew they were in danger, either behind the locksmith or the vehicle.

“He said, ‘Hey man, there’s no way we can stay down here. We gotta get out of this parking lot. Can you still run?’” Zboravan recalls. “I just said, ‘Where do you need me to go?’ So he grabs me by the shoulder, and we start running full sprint toward the strip mall.”

North Hollywood Shootout
Responding officers and fire department take over Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

The policemen made a mad dash for a nearby dentist’s office, with Phillips firing at them the entire way. Zboravan jumped through the glass window in front of the office, diving for cover, shotgun first. Phillips’ 7.62 rounds might have hit the glass first, making it easier to break, but Zboravan didn’t care either way. 

They made their way upstairs into an office, out of the line of fire for the moment. 

Meanwhile, Matasareanu exited from the bank’s south door, firing in every direction. He re-entered and re-exited the bank three times to shoot at the police. Phillips also took cover inside the building. Phillips and Matasareanu won the first skirmish with the police, but it wasn’t due to any amount of skill, in Zboravan’s opinion. If it was, the shootout could’ve been a lot worse. 

“I’ve been a shooter since before I came on the job. Here, you’re talking four lanes, 75 to 90 feet away, with a long-gun. If he had a semi-automatic and had a sight picture, he could have killed every single one of us,” Zboravan says. “But because it was an automatic and he, in my opinion, wasn’t proficient, he wasn’t able to control it.”

North Hollywood Shootout
SWAT officers searching the neighborhood for possible additional suspects.

Zboravan’s assessment wasn’t just based on watching Phillips shoot low. Police found bullet holes in the second-floor stucco of a nearby apartment complex.

Phillips re-emerged seconds later for another round with the LAPD. He riddled the police with a hail of gunfire, tearing apart squad cars and wounding four more officers before disappearing back inside. At 9:28, Matasareanu left the bank with the nylon bag of money and Phillips in tow. They laid down heavy, continuous covering fire as they began to make their way toward the sidewalk.

By this time, bystanders and police officers alike were forced to take cover behind the police cruisers as the “High Incident Bandits” began to move across the parking lot. They took cover behind a white sedan as more officers arrived onto the scene. According to the official LAPD after action report, it wasn’t until 9:33 that the air unit informed the officers on the ground that the suspects were wearing body armor. 

North Hollywood Shootout
A handcuffed and angry Emil Matasareanu held down by officer.

But the officers on the ground already knew that. They’d hit the two suspects dozens of times and neither of them even paused.

“There was no time to be scared. It’s not a macho thing. There’s so much going on. You fall back on your training,” Zboravan says. “The lesson is, very plainly: Just because you’re shot doesn’t mean you’re going to die. You must fight on.”

For 17 minutes, the LAPD took heavy gunfire from Phillips and Matasareanu. At 9:38, Lt. Nick Zingo sent officers to the B&B Sales gun shop on Oxnard Street to “obtain effective weapons.” More effective weapons were borrowed from the store but were never used. By the time they arrived on the scene, the Metropolitan Division SWAT team had arrived. 

North Hollywood Shootout
The truck that Matasareanu carjacked from a citizen.

Back in the parking lot, Matasareanu was at the wheel of the white sedan and Phillips was in the truck grabbing more ammunition. Police officers shot his HK-91 rifle in the receiver, rendering it inoperable. He discarded it and pulled another rifle from the trunk as SWAT officers with rifles made their way toward the bank. Others moved north to cut off the suspects’ escape. 

Matasareanu began to move their vehicle as Phillips fired in all directions from the passenger side. Meanwhile, police flagged down an armored vehicle used to transport money to provide cover as they rescued wounded officers and civilians. The security driver, responsible for $1 million in cash, couldn’t leave the vehicle, so the guard drove the LAPD through the battlefield to save survivors. 

At 9:53, Phillips’ last rifle jammed. The LAPD’s after-action report later noted that a 7.62×39 case stove-piped in the ejection port. He discarded it and drew a 9mm pistol to keep firing at the police. He dropped the weapon and bent down to pick it up. Instead of continuing to fight the LAPD, he put the barrel to his chin and shot himself in the head. He fell to the ground, dead.

North Hollywood Shootout
The Bushmaster XM-15 utilized by Matasareanu.

With his partner dead, the remaining suspect drove the white sedan eastbound, swerving to try and stop other motorists. He briefly stopped to attempt to commandeer an oncoming vehicle, but the car made a U-turn and Matasareanu, now with a noticeable limp, got back in the car and continued driving. Patrol officers were unable to follow him, as all of the police vehicles were heavily “blown out.”

The SWAT team and helicopter followed Matasareanu as he periodically stopped to try and hijack oncoming vehicles. He finally managed to fire into a brown truck, scaring off the wounded driver. He fired at police as he attempted to load the truck with weapons from the car. When he entered the truck, he discovered the driver had taken the key. 

Three SWAT officers pinned the wounded Matasareanu in between the white car and the truck, forcing the robber to take cover and return fire. Two SWAT officers got into their vehicle and drove directly at him, firing from their open passenger door. 

By 9:58, Matasareanu was severely wounded, disoriented, and firing in the wrong direction. He finally dropped his weapon and gave himself up. Wounded, he was taken into custody by the LAPD SWAT team, who called for an ambulance. By 10:01, it was all over. Matasareanu had been shot 29 times and lay bleeding on the pavement.

North Hollywood Shootout
Detectives arriving on scene and running toward the suspects’ location.

But the police had no idea how many robbers actually were in the bank. They kept receiving reports of other suspects hiding in the neighborhood. Then, reports of bombs started to trickle in. A bomb squad was dispatched, but the only explosive they found was the gasoline jars inside Matasareanu’s vehicle. 

The ambulance couldn’t reach the scene for another 70 minutes. At the time, the police were following procedure; they couldn’t allow an ambulance in the area while they believed other suspects were at large. Matasareanu died from blood loss. 

After the North Hollywood Shootout

Ten officers and four citizens were wounded in the fighting, but no one other than the suspects died. Between the police and the bank robbers, more than 2,000 rounds were fired in North Hollywood Shootout. The gunmen fired at least 1,000 rounds at the police, who fired an estimated 1,000 or more right back at them.

North Hollywood Shootout
Officer taking cover inside of a dump truck.

In a Use of Force Review Board report, the LAPD commended the officers involved for their strict adherence to police procedure. Though wounded, they were able to prevent Phillips and Matasareanu from escaping while keeping nearby residents and each other alive. 

Despite the overall positive outcome, the incident rocked police departments all over the United States. The City of Los Angeles, along with police departments across the country, began to rethink the way they did business — specifically, the weapons they provided patrol officers. 

After what became known as the “North Hollywood Shootout,” the city determined LAPD didn’t have the tools they needed to handle criminals who used high-powered automatic weapons and body armor.

Law enforcement agencies began to arm patrolmen and SWAT teams alike with semi-automatic AR-type rifles, some allowing officers to purchase their own weapons. Los Angeles implemented a ban on sales of magazines that held more than 10 rounds, limited handgun purchases to one per month, and required retailers to keep a log of ammunition sales.

In fall of 1997, the Pentagon provided 600 M-16 rifles to the Los Angeles Police Department. Today, the Los Angeles Police Department issues no fewer than seven different rifles, patrol shotguns have the slugs Zboravan needed to drop Phillips early on in the shootout, and officers are issued handguns with more-modern ammunition. This adds up to not waiting for SWAT officers to arrive in a similar situation. 

LAPD police cruisers are also customized with Kevlar plating, and AR-15s are standard issue in each vehicle. 

North Hollywood Shootout
Police vehicle door with several bullet holes.

Around the United States, cities began to train officers to use patrol rifles and the tactics necessary to field them effectively. In November 1997, the city of Omaha, Nebraska, graduated its first rifle patrol. The training regimen it used was adopted by the National Tactical Officers Association, which began to train classes of its own. 

A year after the North Hollywood Shootout, 19 police officers were awarded the Los Angeles Police Medal of Valor, the highest award the department can present. 

Today, Sgt. Zboravan is still a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. A few times a year, he presents the incident to fellow officers to discuss mindset and officer survival. 2022 will mark the 25th anniversary of the North Hollywood Shootout, and fewer and fewer new officers recall what happened that day. Some weren’t yet born. But Zboravan thinks it’s essential never to forget its lessons.

“What is most important to me is I was able to fall back on my training. A detective who had been shot in the field came into our academy and talked about the will to survive,” Zboravan says. “The will to survive kept me alive that day. I’m able to pass that experience on and maybe inspire others and keep them alive as well.” 

[Photos Courtesy of the LAPD.]


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4 responses to “Anatomy of the North Hollywood Shootout: Tinseltown 2-11”

  1. Chuck says:

    It is my understanding that the ATF revoked B&B’s permission slip from their masters for not following protocol and handing out guns to police officers without completing the paper work. I don’t know if that is an urban legend or is true. I do know that within a couple of months after that, B&B where I had shopped for several years closed its doors.

  2. Max says:

    I also heard that the relatives of Matasareanu filed a wrongful death suit against the LAPD for not getting him the immediate medical attention needed to save his life. Again it could be urban legend but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if both were true.

    • Chuck says:

      I also heard that rumor. In fact, I think I read about it in the local paper That doesn’t do much to establish its veracity, but it is slightly better than heard around the gun counter at Uncle Mikey’s Bait and Bullets.

      Just tends to prove no good deed goes unpunished.

      I think B&B should have received a commendation from the LA City Council and gotten the Citizenship of the Year Award. But what do I know?

  3. thebronze301 says:

    It’s not 2-11, it’s just 211, as in Penal Code Section 211.

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