On the morning of February 28, 1997, Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu led one of the biggest gun battles in Los Angeles history after robbing a Bank of America, firing more than 2,000 rounds at police before they died.
On Feb. 28, 1997, two armed men entered a Bank of America in Los Angeles and tried to make off with hundreds of thousands of dollars. When they left the building, they were immediately surrounded by police.
Instead of surrendering, however, the robbers started firing their weapons — and the bloody North Hollywood shootout began.
Larry Phillips Jr., 26, and Emil Matasareanu, 30, were known to L.A. police as the “High Incident Bandits” for their frequent thefts and robberies, but authorities had never been able to catch them. Even on the morning of the shootout, it seemed as if they may escape once again.
The bank robbers had donned body armor and carried automatic rifles with thousands of rounds of ammo. At the time, police in L.A. were armed with only 9mm handguns. The officers at the scene weren’t sure that they stood a chance again Phillips and Matasareanu — but by the end of the bloody battle, the L.A.P.D. had prevailed.
Phillips and Matasareanu both died in the North Hollywood shootout, bringing an end to their lives of crime. In addition to leaving behind a tragic legacy of bloodshed, the men’s actions also contributed to the militarization of L.A.’s police force — all in 44 short minutes.
How Larry Phillips And Emil Matasareanu Became Known As The “High Incident Bandits”
Future bank robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu first met at an L.A. Gold’s Gym, according to MEL Magazine. They quickly bonded over weightlifting and their shared love of heist films.
The men eventually had the idea to carry out their own heists, and in June 1995, they committed their first robbery. Phillips and Matasareanu shot and killed the guard of an armored Brinks truck outside of a bank as dozens of witnesses looked on. They managed to escape and began planning their next crime.
When Heat, an action thriller starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, was released in December 1995, Phillips and Matasareanu were freshly inspired. In early 1996, they tried to rob yet another Brinks truck. They chased the armored truck down while shooting at it, but their bullets simply ricocheted off. When the men realized they weren’t making any progress, they ditched their van and set it on fire, just as they’d seen in Heat.
Over the next two years, Phillips and Matasareanu robbed at least two other banks, timing their hold-ups for mornings when they knew cash had just been delivered. They used this same method while planning their heist of the North Hollywood Bank of America — but things quickly went horribly wrong.
The Bungled Robbery Of The North Hollywood Bank Of America
At 9:17 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1997, Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu arrived at the Bank of America in North Hollywood. They synchronized their watches, took muscle relaxers to calm their nerves, and entered the building.
According to MEL Magazine, one witness recalled: “I heard gunshots and screaming voices — men’s voices — yelling, ‘This is a hold-up!’ I looked up, and I saw this big guy all in black, like armor. You couldn’t see his face.”
The men had donned ski masks and body armor, and they carried automatic rifles that were modified to shoot straight through the doors to the bank’s bulletproof vault.
John Caparelli, an L.A.P.D. officer who responded to the scene when emergency calls started coming through, noted, “The minute we heard the suspect description over dispatch, we knew exactly who these guys were.”
Phillips and Matasareanu ordered everyone inside the bank to get on the floor and then blasted open the doors of the vault. When they walked inside, however, they realized that the cash for the day had not yet been delivered.
The men had expected at least $750,000 to be inside the vault, but instead, there was only around $300,000. They started filling their bags with money, but Matasareanu became enraged at the change in plans and opened fire, destroying the remaining cash inside.
Due to the complications, the hold-up had taken Phillips and Matasareanu longer than they expected. When they emerged from the Bank of America, they were already surrounded by police officers. Rather than put their hands up, however, the men doubled down on their plan and decided to fight back — no matter the cost.
Inside The 44-Minute North Hollywood Shootout
Though Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu were outnumbered by the L.A.P.D., they had much more powerful weapons than the officers, and they wore so much body armor that it was nearly impossible to take them down. Per the Los Angeles Daily News, they also carried more than 3,300 rounds of ammunition. Given their advantage, the robbers opened fire, attempting to shoot their way to freedom.
One of the officers on the scene, Bill Lantz, later recalled: “It was like the movie Heat, bullets spraying everywhere. Our car started taking rounds. Plink, plink. The windows shattered. The light bar was shattered.”
Realizing their predicament, some of the police officers rushed into a nearby gun store. The owner gave them six semi-automatic rifles, two semi-automatic handguns, and 4,000 rounds of ammo so they could fight back.
The plan seemed to work. Around 9:52 a.m., Phillips and Matasareanu split up. Phillips crouched behind a truck to continue shooting at the police, but his rifle jammed. He pulled out his backup handgun, but an officer shot him in the hand. Facing defeat, Larry Phillips Jr. decided to kill himself with his Beretta.
Meanwhile, Matasareanu had tried to hijack a bystander’s Jeep to escape. Thinking quickly, the Jeep’s owner took the keys with him as he abandoned the vehicle, leaving Matasareanu stranded. The robber instead took cover behind the Jeep and kept firing at the officers that surrounded him.
The police crouched down and started shooting at Matasareanu’s unarmored legs beneath the vehicle. They hit him a total of 29 times, and he eventually tried to surrender. By that point, however, Emil Matasareanu had lost too much blood. He died in handcuffs on the asphalt.
The North Hollywood shootout was over 44 minutes after it had begun.
The Enduring Legacy Of The North Hollywood Shootout
Despite the fact that more than 2,000 total rounds were fired during the North Hollywood shootout, Phillips and Matasareanu were the only fatalities. Eleven officers and seven civilian bystanders were injured in the exchange of gunfire, as reported by ABC 7, but all of them recovered.
Of the scores of L.A.P.D. officers who responded, 19 of them received Medals of Valor and were invited to meet President Bill Clinton.
But perhaps the most significant development to come from the aftermath of the North Hollywood shootout was the militarization of L.A.’s police force. Officials realized that criminals had access to larger, more powerful weapons, and their 9mm handguns could no longer keep up.
According to Crime Museum, the Pentagon armed the L.A.P.D. with military-grade rifles. This militarization soon continued in other major cities, and today almost every major police force in the country has access to some of the most advanced weapons available.
In the end, Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu never truly got their moment of Heat-inspired glory — but they did go down as the instigators of one of the biggest gun battles in the history of Los Angeles.
After learning about the North Hollywood Shootout, read the real story that inspired Dog Day Afternoon. Then, learn why ex-L.A.P.D. officer Christopher Dorner went on a vengeful shooting spree in Los Angeles.