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Vivid memories of a bloody bank heist

A North Hollywood community recalls the rampage 10 years ago.

March 01, 2007|Sharon Bernstein and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Dora Lubensky can't forget the man soaked with blood who collapsed on her doorstep, pleading, "Let me in! Let me in!"

She called 911. The operator's orders frightened her more: "Don't let him in. Get away from the window, lay down and stay out of sight."

A decade has passed since that morning of Feb. 28, 1997, but the memories are fresh for the North Hollywood residents and business owners and the police who lived through the bank robbery that left 11 officers and seven civilians wounded.

Lubensky was at the center of a 44-minute gun battle, with two heavily armed bank robbers clad in body armor firing more than 1,100 rounds against a badly outgunned police force.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
North Hollywood shootout: A map accompanying an article on the 1997 North Hollywood shootout in Thursday's Section A incorrectly placed the location of the holdup site on the west side of Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The Bank of America that was the target of the foiled bank robbery is on the east side of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, between Archwood and Kittridge streets.

The two robbers died at the scene; one shot himself in the head and the other bled to death after being hit by more than two dozen bullets.

Even as gentrification has touched this working-class area, the site of the shootout remains a powerful reminder of that day and its lingering effects.

Jose Haro, 73, still works as a locksmith in a kiosk across the street from the Bank of America branch. On the day of the shootout he threw one woman to the ground and held her there as a hail of bullets passed overhead. Even now he weeps when he recalls a police officer calling him a hero. God, he believes, put him there to help.

Some on duty that day still bear the scars.

Officer James Zboravan, 36, has a 7-inch gash on his back and another on his hip and buttocks from bullets that struck him that morning.

As he lay on the street bleeding, Zboravan thought of the veteran officer who spoke to his training class about living through being shot.

Since recovering, he has spoken several times a year to other officers about how to find the will to live through an attack. He still suffers pain from his wounds and must exercise every day, but Zboravan said he never considered quitting the force.

"This is the only thing I ever wanted to do," he said.

Zboravan was at the site of the shootout Wednesday for a vigil attended by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William J. Bratton and other city officials. The block remains largely as it looked 10 years ago, although a planned overhaul of the retail corridor has been announced. Since the shootout North Hollywood has emerged as a popular arts district with galleries, theaters and loft housing that has attracted artists and young residents.

Still, for many, North Hollywood remains synonymous with the bank heist and shootout they watched live on television.

The officers won wide praise for risking their lives to rescue bystanders and pull fellow officers from the line of fire, a sentiment expressed again Wednesday by both city leaders and residents. But there were also questions over how long robber Emil Matasareanu went without medical assistance after being wounded by police. A civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Matasareanu's children ended in a mistrial in federal court in 2000.

At the same time, the robbers' arsenal -- which included AK-47s, body armor and 100-round clips of ammunition designed to pierce police protective vests and buildings -- called attention to loopholes in existing gun laws and inadequate police firepower. Since then, Los Angeles Police Department patrol officers, most armed that day with only handguns, have been given access to semi-automatic rifles if they have been trained to use them.

Evidence of the siege remains today.

At his home next to the bank, Hagop Ovagimian points out the trajectory of one bullet that pierced his garage and passed through two interior walls. Ovagimian, 50, said that every few weeks law enforcement vehicles slowly pass his home on a tour of the past.

"I think they come back for the memory," he said.

Residents say the events created a strong bond among those trapped together.

"It was a big learning lesson for us," said Ben Tabibian, 48, a North Hollywood resident who owns the Subway restaurant where one wounded officer crawled to safety. Tabibian said he and his neighbors have given to charities each year since the shootout. "We help human beings because God helped us to be safe."

Matasareanu, 30, and his accomplice, Larry E. Phillips Jr., 26, stormed the bank shortly after 9 a.m. and emerged firing wildly at police. The two were later tied to several other bank heists that authorities believed netted the pair between $1.3 million and $1.7 million.

As helicopters whirred overhead and police vehicles filled the area, authorities sealed the blocks around the Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

In his small kiosk in the parking lot across the street, locksmith Haro at first crouched on the floor and kept working. Police urged him to leave, advising a straight path away from the booth, hoping it would shield Haro from the robbers' fire.

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