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THE NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT | Hours of Terror

Police Kill 2 Suspects After Foiled Bank Heist

March 01, 1997|BETH SHUSTER and DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LOS ANGELES — In warlike pursuit captured on live TV, dozens of police officers tracked down and killed two heavily armed bank robbers in North Hollywood on Friday in the face of blistering automatic-weapons fire. Ten officers were wounded, including six in a spectacular eruption of firepower that draped a shroud of fear over a vast residential area of the eastern San Fernando Valley.

Three civilians were also hit by gunfire in a confrontation that recalled the apocalyptic 1974 gun battle between police and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Maoist kidnappers of heiress Patty Hearst, in South-Central Los Angeles.

The day brought renewed calls for gun controls and for better weapons to aid outgunned police.

In one of many scenes of inexplicably brazen conduct that appalled the nation, one of the robbers--braced for battle in full body armor--strode across the Bank of America parking lot near Laurel Canyon and Victory boulevards, spraying bullets at outgunned officers moments before he was shot to death on a nearby residential street. Police gunned him down when he stepped out from a hiding spot, apparently to face his death.

The identities of the two dead robbers had not been released by Friday night. At least two other suspects in the robbery were being sought. None of the officers or civilians wounded by gunfire was seriously injured.

The shooting spread rapidly down house-lined streets, placing dozens of square blocks under siege, sending pedestrians ducking for cover, scattering motorists and forcing homeowners behind locked doors for hours.

In pursuit of other possible suspects, police closed streets and freeways and even sealed off 10 nearby public schools. Residents living within the battle zone were advised to stay home or to call 911 for police escorts out of the area.

"I was scared to go out but I did, 'cuz my grandma was out there too," said a 12-year-old witness, Ramella Aleksanyan. "We saw a guy who they shot but he wasn't really dead. He was kinda moving."

In one of countless dramas videotaped by news helicopters--which also came under fire--one of the wounded officers was rescued from the bank parking lot by three colleagues who shielded him with a patrol car, scooped him inside and lurched away backward with one door open.

So lopsided was the disparity in weaponry that nine frantic officers, probably in violation of Los Angeles Police Department policy, barged into a North Hollywood gun shop and borrowed seven rifles and ammunition.

"They asked us if they could have some firepower, namely that would penetrate vests," said the gun store owner, who asked that his name not be used.

When the gunfire stopped after about an hour, it seemed a miracle that so few were wounded.

Besides the shooting victims, an officer and a motorist were injured in a collision as police raced through the area. Three other officers sustained minor injuries during the manhunt. One officer who was shot was in surgery and a motorist was in critical condition Friday.

"These are very organized, brutal bank robbery suspects. They're killers," LAPD Cmdr. Tim McBride said into the television cameras, emphasizing the need for people to stay indoors.

Masked Gunmen Storm Bank

At least two heavily armed gunmen--suspects in earlier San Fernando Valley bank robberies--stormed the bank about 9:15 a.m., brandishing fully automatic weapons with 100-round clips.

Barking commands, the masked gunmen herded dozens of terrified customers into a vault.

Police said the robbers turned and fired their weapons back into the bank, wounding one person, as they were leaving with a cart loaded with bags of money. All the cash was recovered at the scene.

A call from a witness who saw the armored men walk into the bank brought the first police units, armed only with handguns. They were engulfed in a gunfight, with combatants and bystanders virtually rubbing shoulders.

Crystal Ransome was leaving the bank as the gunmen entered, pulling masks over their faces. She sought cover in her car when she heard gun reports. "I was laying down in my car, and the next thing I know, a cop is telling me, 'Get out, get out!' " she said. "A cop ran me across the street. He was holding his gun drawn the whole time."

Retreating from the surrounded bank, one robber took cover behind the getaway car--a white sedan--as it crept across the parking lot, blasting away in several directions and reaching inside for ammunition to reload. At one point, he apparently fired a round through the car window, either hitting or just missing his cohort at the wheel. Then he walked to a residential street, firing bursts of bullets along the way.

As police cautiously closed in, the gunman crouched in shadows between a large truck and a fence, but then stood. Walking along the sidewalk, he exchanged fire with his pursuers, falling after being hit, then jerking gruesomely from a shot to the head.

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