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Chilling Portrait of Robber Emerges

Holdup: Phillips is called a ruthless dominator who controlled criminal partner.

March 10, 1997|This story was reported by Times staff writers Doug Smith, Henry Weinstein and Nicholas Riccardi in Los Angeles and Louis Sahagun in Denver. It was written by Smith

A chilling lust for riches and a resentment of society's rules propelled the leader of two armor-clad bank robbers who fought police to the death in the city's most spectacular shootout in a quarter of a century, the man's half brother said.

It was the younger of the robbers, Larry Eugene Phillips, 26, whose calculating and ruthless personality dominated the lopsided partnership, luring Romanian-born Emil Matasareanu, 30, into the fatal Feb. 28 showdown, Phillips' half brother said.

In anguished recollections, the brother characterized Phillips as a secretive, controlling figure who manipulated almost every aspect of Matasareanu's life.

"Larry didn't bring anybody into his inner circle unless he had a plan for him," he said.

Phillips' plan, he said, was to have so much money he could spend $100 bills by the handful. His idols were the icons of white-collar crime--Michael Milken, Barry Minkow and the "Godfather" character of film and fiction.

Many aspects of the brother's assessment were echoed by Phillips' father, Larry Eugene Phillips Sr., who spoke glowingly of his son in an interview with The Times on Sunday, calling him a "criminal genius" and "the bravest man in the world," with a taste for the ostentatious and a hatred for police.

The brother, who asked that his name be withheld, described scary outings in which Phillips would drive him through the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and then park outside the homes of the well-known to watch them come and go, visualizing himself in their places.

"If those people knew how close he was, not just once, but on a daily basis, their skin would crawl," he said.

The man, who said he has been interviewed by police and the FBI and is not a suspect, declined to talk about several significant points in the case, saying he was admonished that his comments could impede the investigation.

He would not say specifically how Phillips and Matasareanu met. He also refused to speculate on a possible source of their weapons, the identities of others they knew, or the whereabouts of an estimated $1.3 to $1.7 million they are believed to have taken in earlier Bank of America branch robberies in the San Fernando Valley on May 2 and May 31 last year.

But, after a week of intense news media hypothesizing on the pair's possible right-wing ideological motives, his portrayal helps make sense of the violent evolution of two sometimes abusive misfits whose past scrapes with the law yielded scant foreshadowing of the ruthless hail of machine-gun fire they would unleash in their last moments.

Phillips, he said, was motivated by money and control:

"He wanted to live the American dream. He decided to go about it the wrong way."

Torn by guilt about his inability to help his brother go straight, by fear for the future of the Burbank business he owns and by concern for his family's privacy and safety, the brother has resisted persistent offers to go on national TV, but he said he decided to tell his story to The Times to dispel misguided speculation.

He dismissed as a motive the financial problems of Matasareanu, whose immigrant mother--a defector from the Romanian state orchestra--saw her state board-and-care license revoked because of alleged patient neglect and fire violations and who had been dogged by tax liens in recent years.

Matasareanu, he said, lacked the intelligence and daring to lead the pair's enterprise.

"He was a follower," he said, echoing the words of the man's mother, Valerie Nicolescu, who told reporters after the shootout that her son was corrupted by Phillips.

"You can't imagine how manipulative my brother was," he said. "He tried to break your mind down and then build it up again so that you would become one of his crew."

Even Matasareanu's choice of a wife fell under Phillips' influence, he said.

"He told Emil not to marry an American woman," the brother said. "Larry didn't like the way American women always talked back."

On a 1990 trip to Romania to bring back his grandmother, Matasareanu also brought back a Romanian wife, Christina.

"Emil wasn't even planning on getting married, and he did it because Larry said to," the brother said.

He characterized his brother as a glib, fancy-dressing bodybuilder who could be charming and caring to his longtime girlfriend but who harbored dark dreams.

"I wouldn't say he was a criminal genius," the brother said, "but he was very intelligent. He would look at a crime and analyze it to see how it could have been done better."

His ideal was the 1978 New York Lufthansa Airlines heist in which six ski-masked gunmen crept into a cargo building before dawn and escaped with $5.8 million. Mobster Jimmy "the Gent" Burke, who according to published reports was the long-suspected architect of the crime, died last year without ever having been charged.

And he quoted from Barry Minkow, the whiz-kid founder of ZZZZ Best Co., later convicted of fraud, on the thrill of grabbing a handful of $100 bills and heading out for the day in his Ferrari to spend them.

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