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LOOK AHEAD * The bloody 1997 North Hollywood shootout will be replayed as . . .

Trial Starts on Claim That Officers Let Robber Die

February 14, 2000|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The chilling images, broadcast live on television, riveted the nation.

Two bandits, wearing body armor and firing automatic weapons, were intercepted by police as they attempted to escape after robbing a Bank of America branch at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Archwood Street in North Hollywood shortly after it opened.

The robbers turned a quiet San Fernando Valley neighborhood into a tableau of terror Feb. 28, 1997, as they shot it out with outgunned officers for about 40 minutes.

By the time the shooting ended, 11 officers and seven civilians were wounded or injured.

One bandit, Larry Eugene Phillips, lay dead from a bullet he had fired into his head. The other, Emil Matasareanu, lay handcuffed and bleeding for an hour before he died in the street.

He had surrendered after being shot 29 times in a running gun battle with officers. The bank robbers fired more than 1,100 rounds from their AK-47s and other weapons. Police returned more than 500 rounds.

Outside the bank, $303,305 in cash lay discarded in a nylon bag.

The officers have been hailed as heroes for facing assault weapons with handguns and shielding innocent civilians from harm.

But a day after the county coroner concluded that Matasareanu had slowly bled to death, Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman filed suit on behalf of Matasareanu's two children, alleging that the gunman's civil rights were violated when Fire Department personnel failed to promptly give him medical attention. The suit was filed against the city, several police officers and Fire Department personnel.

That trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder, who is expected to rule on a pretrial defense motion to dismiss the case. If that motion is denied, jury selection is scheduled to begin.

The lawsuit has outraged police officials and some residents who live near the bank.

"The officers' behavior was exemplary," said Assistant City Atty. Don Vincent, who is defending the city against the suit. "An officer who Matasareanu had tried to kill called an ambulance for Matasareanu within a minute."

Attorney Bradley C. Gage, who is defending retired Officer John Futrell, said Matasareanu "was a bad man who walked into the Bank of America with a machine gun, intent on taking out and killing anyone in his way."

He said Matasareanu's mother has said in a sworn statement that her son had been suicidal since he underwent brain surgery in 1996.

Yagman has alleged that LAPD officers "coldbloodedly murdered" Matasareanu by denying him medical attention.

Police and Fire Department officials have said that rescuers in the first ambulance to reach the scene, about 10 minutes after Matasareanu surrendered, opted to take a wounded citizen to the hospital because his injuries were severe but treatable. Matasareanu, the rescuers decided, appeared to have little chance of survival.

Authorities said they could not send in a second ambulance because the area was not safe and other suspects were believed to be at large.

A Times investigation of the shootout, published in April 1998, concluded that rescuers were in little danger where Matasareanu lay because the area had been secured by at least a dozen armed officers.

Yagman said that investigation will play a prominent role in his case. The Times' reconstruction of the incident was pieced together from hours of taped police and Fire Department radio transmissions, video footage and photographs, the previously unavailable report of an LAPD investigation and interviews with eyewitnesses.

Matasareanu's death was preventable and it denied investigators their chance to recover $1.7 million taken in three other robberies in which Matasareanu and Phillips may have been involved, the investigation found.

The Times also concluded that some officers made a series of mistakes and some firefighters violated their department's guidelines for dealing with situations such as the one during which Matasareanu died.

A police officer erroneously told city Fire Department rescuers that he thought Matasareanu was dead, and emergency medical technicians accepted that assessment without examining the suspect, the investigation found.

When rescuers later found that Matasareanu was still alive, Fire Department dispatchers were never informed, the investigation found.

Because Fire Department dispatchers assumed he was dead, Matasareanu lay bleeding in the street and moaning in pain for nearly 30 minutes after firefighters at the scene realized that he was still alive, according to the investigation.

Those circumstances, at most, would amount to negligence, Vincent said.

"But negligence doesn't give cause to a civil rights violation," he said. "Yagman now claims deliberate indifference, which would be a civil rights violation."

Vincent said he does not quarrel with a timeline in the Times investigation showing that Matasareanu lay in the street for an hour before an ambulance reached him.

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