|0th anniversary of infamous LA shootout that changed policing|
By PETER PRENGAMAN, Associated Press Writer
Last Updated: February 28, 2007, 06:00:38 AM PST
LOS ANGELES (AP) - For Officer John Caprarelli, a jammed AK-47 was the difference between death and being able to reflect years later on an extraordinary gunbattle with bank robbers that ratcheted up the arms race between violent criminals and police.
Caprarelli had fired six rounds at robber Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. during the infamous North Hollywood shootout, but the bullets didn't pierce Phillips' body armor.
As Caprarelli scrambled for cover, Phillips turned to shoot, but there was just a clanking noise. Frustrated, Phillips threw the AK-47 to the ground. Seconds later Phillips was shot in the hand, and then took his own life with a pistol as a police bullet hit him in the spine.
"If that gun hadn't jammed, I wouldn't be here, and four other officers with me wouldn't likely be here either," said Caprarelli, now 49. "We lucked out."
All told, hundreds of rounds were fired during the 45-minute gunbattle, and 11 officers and six civilians were injured. Only the two bank robbers were killed.
On Wednesday, police were to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Feb. 28, 1997, shootout that changed the way police forces arm themselves and continues to touch the lives of those involved.
The heroic way police handled the incident gave a badly needed morale boost to the Los Angeles Police Department which was struggling to rebound after the 1991 Rodney King beating and subsequent race riot.
Dozens of Web sites are dedicated to the shooting and have links to video clips.
The incident began after Phillips, 26, and a partner, 30-year-old Emil Matasareanu, robbed a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood, part of the vast suburban sprawl of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
A bystander alerted authorities to the heist, but the robbers didn't run from police.
Covered from head to toe in Kevlar, they carried high-velocity assault weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
In surreal scenes captured on camera, Phillips calmly walked with impunity on a street, spraying bullets at dozens of police who were powerless to take him down. Matasareanu drove slowly next to Phillips, apparently urging him to get in, but Phillips kept walking and shooting.
Police raced to the scene from across the city, but found themselves so outgunned that some went to a nearby gun store to get high-velocity weapons.
"They had some awesome firepower and we basically had nothing," said Officer Edward Brentlinger, who repeatedly shot at Phillips and took cover behind a concrete wall. "At the time the biggest gun we had was a 9 mm pistol and a shotgun."
Phillips' shots blasted through the concrete wall Brentlinger was behind, the shrapnel knocking off his glasses and going into his face.
The incident "changed the outlook of the community and police. It awakened the community to what their police can be up against," said police spokesman Lt. Paul Vernon.
It also caused changes in equipment authorities used.
Patrol cars here are now equipped with AR-15 assault rifles and have Kevlar plates in the doors for added protection.
Police forces across the country also added firepower and training to prepare for more varied threats, said John Firman, research director of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"There is a lot more focus on the planning and strategies of the bad guys" in police training, said Firman.
Matasareanu, who was shot multiple times in the legs, bled to death not long after Phillips was killed. His family later sued two police officers and the city, claiming the officers were indifferent to Matasareanu's wounds at the scene and let him die. The case was declared a mistrial in 2000 and later dismissed, said attorney Bradley C. Gage, who represented one of the officers sued.
Despite the lawsuit, the incident is still heralded as a day heroism for police officers who fought - and won - against tremendous odds. Several were awarded departmental medals of valor and met with then-President Bill Clinton.
"I don't think there is an officer in our station that didn't gain 10 pounds from all the cookies and cakes sent to us," said Brentlinger, now 54. "Even now, not more than a few months go by without hearing something about that day."
eta: I remember seeing this on the news the morning it took place. From what I know, the officers were totally outgunned but they never backed down. I applaud them.
Si vis pacem, para bellum
"When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
"A shadow and a threat have been growing in my mind. Something draws near, I can feel it." - Legolas