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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

All the while, Phillips' brother said, he was hardening with resentment that seethed in him when they drove through wealthy neighborhoods.

He said Phillips would take him on the drives to "motivate" him.

"He would say, 'Why don't you visualize yourself in that house? The reason is society tells you you have to have a 9-to-5 job until you retire at 65.' That wasn't for him. He didn't like society."

The brother also became his victim, finding that his brother was using his name and Social Security number as his aliases.

Though never charged locally for fraud, Phillips maintained a residence in Denver as well, and was convicted there in 1992 of a swindle in which he rented out vacant houses he did not own. But he never appeared for sentencing and remained a fugitive.

The brother said Phillips was so secretive and so effectively compartmentalized his life that associates in his real estate scams probably were not even aware of his budding relationship with Matasareanu, a social misfit and fellow gun lover he met about 1989.


Matasareanu, a 1977 immigrant who became a naturalized citizen in 1988, was just beginning to see his American dream crumble. Valerie Nicolescu described her son as a socially maladjusted computer expert who was scarred by childhood bullying and grew increasingly despondent over financial and marital troubles.

Records indicate that Matasareanu had occasional income as a computer software consultant but that his primary source of income was Dechebal Inc., the board-and-care home his mother operated in a Pasadena building they jointly owned.

The family's money troubles date to at least 1990, when the first of several state and federal tax liens totaling about $4,000 was filed.

In 1995 Matasareanu and his mother borrowed heavily on their home, and soon after that Valerie Nicolescu's license was suspended by the state Department of Social services over accusations that two developmentally disabled clients were improperly left at a hospital.

The home was closed for good when it failed to meet fire safety specifications.

When police last week searched a Pasadena commercial building owned by Matasareanu's mother, they were shocked to discover a 44-year-old mentally disabled woman locked in an underground bunker without food or water.

Recently, after the first of a series of bank robberies that authorities believe Phillips and Matasareanu committed, his fortunes showed some improvement: Matasareanu and his wife rented a sprawling multilevel home in Rowland Heights.

Matasareanu, driving a leased 1995 Lincoln Town Car without insurance, got a speeding ticket on his way home from Las Vegas. Ben Smith, the agent who wrote him a new policy just a month before the North Hollywood robbery, was struck by his animosity toward what he called "the system."

"He started rambling. He said he had lost his business. He said, 'All you guys are alike, the system is all screwed up,' " Smith said.

Other than that scene, the only known forewarning of the deadly turn in the two men's friendship was their 1993 arrest for possession of illegal automatic rifles after a Glendale police officer stopped them for speeding.

They said they were headed to a popular San Gabriel Mountains shooting area called "Kentucky" for target practice.

Despite Phillips' record and the officers' feeling that they were planning a robbery, both men got off lightly, serving less than four months.

Some of their arsenal was returned to the pair when Phillips' probation ended in January 1996, with the notation that he had completed all conditions.

On Sunday, Los Angeles police added one new increment to the slowly emerging story, disclosing new details of the weaponry the two men carried in the North Hollywood holdup.

The robbers had five fully automatic weapons: three Norico 7.62-by-39-millimeter Chinese Model 56S-1 assault rifles; a Heckler and Koch .308-caliber Model 91; and a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, Model XM15-ES2. LAPD spokesman Jason Lee said all three weapons resemble the AK-47 and that it is illegal to possess any of these rifles in California.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Alan Abrahamson, Abigail Goldman, Peter Y. Hong, Greg Krikorian, Matt Lait, Beth Shuster and Martha L. Willman, and correspondents Richard Winton and John Cox.


The North Hollywood gunmen took more than money. B1

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