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The North Hollywood Shootout

Officers Face Barrage of Bullets to Take Comrades Out of Line of Fire

March 01, 1997|BETH SHUSTER and JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A fallen policeman sat in a parking lot in a pool of his own blood. Bullets from a brazen gunman whirred and crackled across asphalt, glass and earth. Police officers, with their small sidearms, seemed hopelessly outmatched and unable to rescue their colleague.

But in a moment of raw bravery and studied precision, the Los Angeles Police Department rode to the rescue of one of its own, in just one of the many dramatic televised images of a botched bank robbery Friday morning.

The carload of police sped into an unprotected parking lot across the street from the bank, threw open their doors and pulled the injured plainclothes officer to safety. Then, under constant fire, the police car lurched into reverse and sped out of the parking lot--to safety and a waiting ambulance.

Time and again in a morning of extreme violence, policemen and policewomen stepped from behind cover with their light sidearms to face the suspected bank robbers, who launched a blazing gun battle that ranged across several blocks of a North Hollywood neighborhood.

"The thin blue line is made out of the men and women who are out there who put themselves in harm's way every day," Police Chief Willie L. Williams said later in the day, as police continued to search for suspects. "It's these brave men and women who allow us to go about our daily lives."

Ten officers were wounded or injured, including six by gunfire, but as the long day drew to a close, it seemed miraculous that the only fatalities were two riflemen in ski masks. Most of the gallery of heroes remained anonymous. Only shaky television images--taped from above by news helicopters--were testament to their actions.

Among those who faced down the gunmen or protected their colleagues in blue were a young female detective from the North Hollywood Division who helped push her wounded partner into a patrol car; another detective nearing retirement, wounded in the ankle, who compared the shootout to his duty in Vietnam; and a rookie cop whose own bullet wound didn't stop him from trying to save his partner.

Less than half an hour after the shooting, Det. Tracey Angeles was still gripping her police radio so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her royal blue jacket and black skirt were spattered with her partner's blood, her nylons were shredded and one black tennis shoe was missing.

An ashen Angeles, 29, told how she had been working that morning in the field, in plainclothes, when the call went out: "Officers under fire."

That message sent a rocket of adrenaline through the seven-year veteran and her colleagues. And although many were without their body armor or heavy weapons, they sped to the Bank of America on Laurel Canyon Boulevard where the robbery was coming violently unhinged.

Angeles and a colleague stopped in a parking lot across the street from the bank and quickly found themselves under fire. They dove first behind a car, then a key-making kiosk, but found that the AK-47 fire had little respect for such flimsy cover.

Uniformed officers with bulletproof vests then arrived to rescue the rescuers. One officer threw himself over Angeles to shield her from the fusillade. Later she wondered who her protector had been, hoping she could thank him.

Said Angeles: "We were taking too much fire. We couldn't stay where we were. We ran a short distance. That's when the officer got shot."

The downed policeman then became the preoccupation of his colleagues. He lay completely exposed in the parking lot. "It came to the point where, do you leave him to die or do you go in and get him?" said Det. Gordon Hagge.

Angeles said her wounded partner "unbelievably had the presence of mind to broadcast his location. A black and white unit came. They were still firing the whole time," she said. "We were able to get him in the car and get him out of there. We all helped."

Hagge, an auto theft detective in North Hollywood, said the police found their weapons of little use against the body armor of the robbers. "They're waving AK-47s and I have a 9-millimeter," Hagge said. "I'm in the wrong place with the wrong gun.

"We had nothing that would go through their vests. Nothing," he said. "It was nuts."

For the Los Angeles Police Department, the unforgiving eye of the video camera has not always been kind. There are the unforgettable images of a prone Rodney G. King being beaten and of officers surrendering the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues to a violent mob.

But on this day, the images were of swift and decisive police. Just minutes after the pictures of the parking lot rescue were broadcast, a home television audience saw two unidentified officers step out from behind a car and a tree and, without any cover, shoot and kill one of the gunmen who was walking slowly away from the bank.

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