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Robbers' Possible Ties to Subversives Probed

Crime: Proceeds from earlier heists could have been funneled to clandestine groups, authorities say.

March 03, 1997|NICHOLAS RICCARDI HENRY WEINSTEIN and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Authorities Sunday were investigating whether two heavily armed bandits gunned down during a bungled bank heist in North Hollywood funneled money from a pair of earlier robberies--which netted at least $1.3 million--to subversive paramilitary or criminal organizations.

"The way they struck and the way they handled their weapons, one would have to expect that they got some training somewhere," said Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Tim McBride, acknowledging that investigators are "looking for ties" to nefarious groups although no such evidence has yet turned up.

"We are investigating their backgrounds and the steps they took that brought them to the day of infamy," he added. "We're trying to follow the money trail."

While investigators probed for possible connections to clandestine organizations, other details about Friday's gun battle began to emerge:

* Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms worked to trace where and how the gunmen obtained what were believed to be fully automatic weapons.

* Sources disclosed that the FBI, even before Friday's incident, had been looking into the possibility that the two extraordinarily lucrative bank robberies in the San Fernando Valley in May were the work of an organized group with connections to political or terrorist groups either in this country or internationally. Those robberies are now believed to be the work of Emil Dechebal Matasareanu, 30, and Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, both of whom died in last week's gun battle. Because the timing of all three robberies came just after large deliveries of cash, one source said, "It's obvious these guys did their homework."

* Records show that Phillips was arrested in 1991 in the city of Orange on weapons-related violations while under investigation in an elaborate real estate fraud scheme.

A spokesman for police in Denver said Phillips had been arrested there on residential burglary charges in 1992. Matasareanu, meanwhile, had financial problems, according to court records that chronicled disputes over payment of credit card and rental car bills.

* Matasareanu's mother said her son was a sharpshooter and computer whiz who had grown increasingly despondent in past months, causing her to fear he was suicidal and might hurt somebody.

*

"He was wrong, and I apologize to the victims," said Valerie Nicolescu of her son. "But no one was killed but him and the other man. Put that in the paper."

She said she blames the other dead gunman for leading her son astray.

Nicolescu said her son was a man haunted by demons that were not always visible to her or his ex-wife. When Matasareanu was 8, incessant bullying by schoolmates forced him to turn to computers as a refuge, Nicolescu said.

He became an expert and programmed arcade and video games, eventually earning a degree at 19 from DeVry Institute of Technology, Nicolescu said. But things began to unravel by 1993. Matasareanu and his wife and young son, whom he had retrieved from post-Communist Romania, were living with Nicolescu and running a home care service for the mentally disabled. They tried to expand by buying a property in Pasadena, but ran into financial trouble, Nicolescu said.

The next year, the facility was closed because of an allegation--which Nicolescu said was false--made by a neighbor that Matasareanu had abused one of the six residents. She said health authorities forced her son out of the home, and he left with his wife and son. His mother began to hear from him less and less often.

In August 1996, Matasareanu split up with his wife after having a seizure, Nicolescu said. She spoke to him rarely, for the last time during the holidays when he asked her for money and said he never wanted his son to see him again.

"He cannot handle it anymore," she said. "Those were his words. . . . He just said to me that he wanted to die. His actions were more of a suicide mission."

Nicolescu stressed that her son worked hard all his life helping the mentally disabled. "He was not a monster," she sobbed. "He was a human person."

Christopher Leveaux, a friend of Nicolescu's who was with her all Saturday and while police interviewed her, said she told him that Matasareanu had recently wiped his name from computer files, including his bank account. He also said she had pleaded with Matasareanu in their last phone call during the holidays not to kill anyone.

Nicolescu said she did not believe her son was involved with any underground political or terrorist group.

Law enforcement investigators, however, said Sunday that the circumstances of Friday's attempted robbery and the two other heists make them suspect otherwise.

"These guys knew when there would be large sums of money in the bank and they knew exactly how long they had after the silent alarms were tripped," said McBride, of the Los Angeles Police Department. "They had a good, well-conceived plan."

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