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Botched L.A bank heist turns into bloody shootout

February 28, 1997
Web posted at: 11:10 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.


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Two suspects were killed, and 15 people were injured, including 10 policemen. None of the injuries incurred during the hour-long shootout was "life threatening," Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams said.

Initially out-gunned, police responded to a scene in North Hollywood that resembled a combat zone. Bullets were flying from all directions into cars and buildings -- and bystanders, too.

suspect

More than 200 police were on hand for the siege, which lasted more than an hour. Armored personnel carriers and dozens of police cars, fire engines and ambulances were called to subdue the attackers and attend to the wounded.

Wearing body armor and carrying a trunk full of weapons, the robbers were ready for a fight. And that's exactly what they delivered, firing "multiple hundreds" of rounds, according to police.

They fired armor-piercing bullets at anything that moved, and one suspect used 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.

Police search neighborhood for suspects

Police Cmdr. Tim McBride said he'd seen nothing like it since the Symbionese Liberation Army opened fire on LAPD officers in 1974, three months after members kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

suspect

One of the wounded officers was in serious condition, Williams said. Five have been treated and released from a hospital. One officer and one civilian were injured in a related car wreck.

Of the two suspects killed by police, one died of multiple gunshot wounds after he was captured. Police made several arrests in connection with the shooting, but the two dead gunmen are the only suspects known to be involved in the robbery attempt, Williams said.

The L.A. police chief, however, could not confirm that all of the suspects had been captured or accounted for.

After the shooting subsided, squads of helmeted police cordoned off entire blocks searching for suspects. Later Williams said: "We're know of no other suspects. We're not actively looking for anybody."

He added that police were combing through the crime scene to ensure it is safe for detectives.

'It was like the OK Corral'

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.

The brazen attack was covered by police helicopters hovering above the scene, some drawing fire from the suspects. During the battle, one robber calmly tossed an empty assault weapon into the trunk and picked up another, as if he were changing flashlight batteries.

"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.

Police borrow guns, ammo from a gun shop

Officers who initially responded to Friday's robbery, carrying standard-issue 9 millimeter Baretta handguns, were in trouble.

"Tactically, the first officers that arrived were at a severe disadvantage," weapons expert and former LAPD officer Dave Butler said. "Police carry 15 rounds. They would need to re-load."

Stunned officers were out-gunned to such a degree that at one point they burst into a gun store, and walked out with more powerful guns and ammunition.

Police "came in a panic because their weapons weren't good enough to fight these people," said the store's president, who would identify himself only as Bob.

"These people had body armor and they needed something that would break body armor," he said. "We supplied them with slugs that would at least break bones on someone wearing body armor."

Added the LAPD's McBride: "We have many suspects who have multiple guns, and they continue to out-gun us and fire at us at will."

Gunmen suspected in two other robberies

Fourteen 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. Police say he later died.

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.

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