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Botched L.A bank heist turns into bloody shootout

February 28, 1997
Web posted at: 8:40 p.m. EST

In this story:

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- A blaze of automatic gunfire ripped through a crowded neighborhood after several heavily-armed gunmen dressed like commandos botched a bank robbery.

Two of the five suspects were killed and another was wounded and taken prisoner. Five policemen and three bystanders were wounded in the shooting. Three more officers and two civilians were injured in an automobile accident related to the shootout.

Initially out-gunned, police responded to a scene in North Hollywood that resembled a combat zone, with bullets flying from all directions into cars and buildings -- and bystanders. Armored personnel carriers and dozens of police cars, fire engines and ambulances were called to subdue the attackers and attend to the wounded.

suspect

Wearing body armor and carrying a trunk full of weapons, the robbers were ready for a fight. And that's exactly what they delivered.

They fired armor-piercing bullets at anything that moved, with one suspect using a getaway car as a shield. Two suspects fought fiercely to the death, killed by helmeted police who fired bullets to the head at close range. Another was wounded and arrested.

Five police officers and three bystanders were hit by "extremely heavy" gunfire inside the bank and on the street, police said.

Manhunt on for suspects

One of the wounded officers was in serious condition, L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams said. Three other policemen were injured and two civilians were injured in a collision with a patrol car, one critically.

suspect

There were believed to be five robbers, and squads of helmeted police cordoned off entire blocks searching for at least two suspects.

At one home, police wrecked a shed with a battering ram attached to an armored personnel carrier hoping to find a suspect, but to no avail.

Nine elementary schools in the area were shut down. And residents of the middle-class neighborhood northwest of downtown Los Angeles were advised to stay in their homes or call 911 if they had to leave.

The shootout occurred not far from the Disney, Universal and Warner Bros. studios, and the busy Hollywood Freeway was closed in both directions, tying up mid-day traffic.

'It was like the OK Corral'

The brazen attack was covered by police helicopters hovering above the scene, some drawing fire from the suspects.

"They had black masks over their faces and full black gear, with belts and ammo around their waists," said Bob McKibben, an appliance store manager who watched the battle. "These guys were ready for war."

"It was like the OK Corral," said witness Nancy Swanson.

Some people hid themselves in the bank vault during the shootout.

Cameras were rolling as police shot one suspect in the head. The aerial news crews followed a second, limping gunman as he slowly drove away in a car the first gunman had used as a shield. The driver fired randomly, stopped and appeared to be trying to commandeer a pickup truck.

Crouching behind parked cars and dashing across intersections, police fired back and eventually surrounded him and took him into custody. It was unclear if he was the second suspect who died.

Gunmen suspected in two other robberies

Authorities said the band had robbed at least two other banks in the past and was motivated by money, not politics.

"This is not a militia group," McBride said. "These are brutal killers who were robbing and taking these people's money. These are very organized, brutal bank robbery suspects. They are killers."

The incident happened at a Bank of America branch in the San Fernando Valley section of North Hollywood. The FBI said the gunmen also may be implicated in two other robberies at Bank of America branches last May, one in Canoga Park and a second in Van Nuys.

There were a total of 1,126 bank robberies in the Los Angeles area last year, including 222 so-called "take-over" type robberies, the FBI said.

The robbers carried a veritable arsenal of military-style automatic guns. Williams said the gunmen used weapons that could pierce bulletproof vests at 200 yards.

The first officers on the scene faced them with pistols, a situation Cmdr. Tim McBride said is becoming all too common.

"We have many suspects who have multiple guns, and they continue to out-gun us and fire at us at will," he said.

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