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THE NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT

A Neighborhood Under Siege: 'Don't Come Out! Don't Come Out!'

Violence: Police order residents to stay inside, but some emerge to rescue the wounded or those caught in the chaos.

March 01, 1997|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN and SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When the staccato cracks of gunfire ripped through Archwood Street, Ruel Poticar was doing his laundry, getting ready to report for his first day of work as a limousine driver. Down the block, Nvart Zakarian was tending her ailing 12-year-old granddaughter. Another neighbor, Orsana Rajanchyan, was doing housework.

In a matter of moments, they were trapped inside their stucco and brick homes, the strained voice of a police officer shouting from a bullhorn, "Don't come out! Don't come out!"

It was just before 10 a.m. and a violent band of robbers had just invaded a bank on nearby Kittridge Street, a few blocks away from this quiet working class neighborhood in North Hollywood. An escaping suspect, the tires of his car shot out by police, was spraying bullets as he tried to commandeer a pickup truck.

Tagui Guzubashyan froze, her eyes stuck to the horror unfolding in front of her house. She was standing on her porch, a place that until that moment had been a haven.

She watched as the suspect climbed out of his white car dressed in black and wearing a ski mask.

"I could see only his eyes and mouth," she recalled later. "I saw him carrying a big shotgun. He got out of his car and opened his trunk. He took some guns from his trunk."

Police cars screamed around the corner from Hinds Avenue.

"They surrounded the white car," she said. "He just started shooting."

Down the street, a curious Poticar squeezed open his home's screen door and saw the red flash of a gun. A driver screamed out from a passing car, telling him to go save his elderly neighbor, Bertha Wolf, who is hard of hearing and had made her way into the street to try to find out what was going on.

Poticar ran after her. "I was trying to push her inside," he said.

He "practically carried me into the house," Wolf said later. "He kept saying, 'Get in there, Mrs. Wolf. Get in there.' "

Outside, a police officer crouched down on one knee. Snap! The suspect, wounded, put up his hands.

Dora Lubenski heard a banging at her door and left the snack she had been making in the kitchen to see what it was. A man, blood spurting from his head, had collapsed outside. It was the driver of the pickup.

"The back of his head was soaked with blood," she said. "I called 911 and said, 'This guy is dying in front of my porch.' "

It was not the first time a bank robber had been caught on Archwood. Three years ago, Zakarian remembered, someone else had held up a nearby bank and run to their block. But nothing had ever happened like this.

"I know war in my country," said Rajanchyan, a native of Armenia, who wedged her young children into the space between the edge of the couch and the television when the shooting started Friday. "But I never saw anything like this. I heard shooting like it was in my home."

They lay there, Rajanchyan and her daughters, Lena and Alice, waiting for the shouting and the shooting to die down. "Mommy," said 3-year-old Lena, "I'm afraid. What's going on?"

Even after the mayhem settled, the immediate world outside could hardly be described as peaceful. Curbs and lawns were littered with police chalk, broken glass and spent bullet casings. Houses and driveways were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Police had closed off the street and several surrounding ones. Anyone who wanted to leave had to call 911 to ask for a police escort.

Ten local public schools and several private schools in the area were locked down by officers, who were combing the area for another possible suspect.

Some people huddled inside, worried about family members and children who were stuck at school. But others made their way into the sunlight, looking for some kind of explanation in the hard facts littering the ground.

Ramella Aleksanyan, 12, had felt sick Friday and stayed home from school. After the shootings, she went outside with her grandmother. "I was scared," she said. "But I had to come out and see it."

Eric Malgor, 13, who had the day off from school, also found himself outside, just checking to see if everything was all right. But he came back in to help his mother, content to think about household chores.

His brother, Jonathan, had been at school when the shooting started. The 7-year-old said later that he was frightened when the gunfire erupted.

"I thought that they were going to kill my mother," he said.

About 4 p.m., the neighbors were again herded into their houses. Police helicopters flew overhead, and an officer's voice boomed down: "Police dogs, canine units and SWAT teams are searching the area for an armed suspect. Please stay inside your homes."

The neighbors obliged. And perhaps home was the best place to be.

"My house is very safe," Rajanchyan said. "But you never know what's going on outside."

Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this story.

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Showdown on Archwood Street

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