Just weeks out of the academy, LAPD Officer James Zboravan was still on probation and looking forward to a shift of patrolling with his field training officer, Officer Stuart Guy, when the call came over the radio "Officers need help. 2-11 in progress."
It was a few ticks past 9:15 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1997, and Officers Loren Farrell and Martin Perello had just called dispatch seeking backup at the suspected robbery of the Bank of America branch at 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in the Los Angeles neighborhood of North Hollywood.
That radio call still echoes in the lives of every officer touched by the infamous North Hollywood Shootout, including then probationary officer Zboravan. He and his FTO Stuart Guy were some of the first officers on scene. Zboravan remembers being told by Guy to take out their unit's shotgun as they rolled to respond.
Inside the Bank
Bank robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu were unaware they had been spotted by officers as they shoved a frightened ATM customer into the BofA. But from the beginning the robbery did not go as planned.
Phillips and Matasareanu were experienced and violent bank robbers. They had a routine they followed at each robbery. They would slip into a bank heavily armed and terrorize the customers and staff of the bank by firing a burst of full-auto rifle fire into the ceiling. Then they knew their intimidated victims would cooperate.
They had been successful in at least four other robberies of banks and armored cars, and they expected similar results that morning in North Hollywood. They also expected to walk out of the BofA with $800,000 and were furious when the haul was a paltry $350,000.
Frustrated and fuming, Phillips exited the door of the bank and found himself confronted by multiple officers of the LAPD, including Zboravan, drawing down on him from behind cover. Zboravan said in a recent interview that he expected the robbery suspects would surrender or retreat back into the bank and initiate a hostage incident. Phillips had another idea. He opened fire on the officers with his fully automatic Norinco 7.62mm AK-47-style rifle.
The officers returned fire under a hail of withering fire. The cars they were using for cover were being riddled. Zboravan pumped out 12-gauge buck shot at Phillips; he knew he was hitting him. He knew the pistol fire of his fellow officers was also hitting the robber.
Quickly the officers knew they were in serious trouble. The robber was wearing armor. Their fire was having no effect, and Phillips was inflicting wounds on them.
Zboravan realized that two of the plainclothes detectives—Tracey Angeles and William Krulac—with him did not have armor. He shielded them as best he could, taking two hits, one in the back and another in the hip. Krulac was hit, went down, got back up. Krulac then told his fellow officers, "We've got to get out of here."
They moved to gain cover behind a van. It was quickly riddled with bullets. The same thing happened to a car, and then the four officers separated in their search for protection.
Zboravan and Krulac headed across the parking lot to a medical building. The two wounded officers were tracked by the robbers' fire as they sprinted to safety. Zboravan says they didn't even open the door. They either crashed headlong through the glass or it was shattered by gunfire as they approached or both.
Entering the medical building, Krulac and Zboravan ran up the stairs to the second floor. They found a closed door to a dentist's office. Zboravan banged on the door and Dr. Jorge Montes—who had been watching the events below from the panoramic view of his office window—opened up, ushered the two wounded officers inside, and began treating them.
Krulac had been hit in the ankle. Montes did his best to patch him up, then the detective took the shotgun from Zboravan and took a position at the top of the stairwell to make sure none of the bad guys came in on them. "We really didn't know how many suspects there were or if they would come our direction," Zboravan says.
The officers in the medical building couldn't see it, but the fight had actually moved north and east away from them. Down below, dozens of officers from five different agencies were arriving to engage the suspects or maintain a perimeter. All Zboravan knew of the firefight that continued for another 40 minutes was the echo of gunshots off the surrounding buildings and reports over his radio.
Montes had Zboravan take off his ballistic vest and his duty belt. His uniform was soaked with blood, and the dentist soon discovered why. "There was a seven-inch-long gash deep across my lower back," Zboravan says.
The probationary officer was bleeding badly. "I couldn't see it," he says. "They were telling me I was going to be fine."
Montes knew Zboravan wouldn't be fine if he didn't do something to stop or at least slow down the bleeding. He looked around his office for a possible first-aid solution and decided to go with a gel product used in dental surgery. "He was improvising with the tools that he had to do what he could to save my life," says Zboravan, who adds he is very grateful to Montes.
As badly wounded as he was, Zboravan was desperate to get back downstairs and help Officer Guy and Detective Angeles. Montes and Krulac wouldn't allow it.
Zboravan wanted to get back into the fight. But he also had another motivation for wanting to go downstairs and find his FTO. "I thought I was going to be fired for separating from my partner," he says. "You have to remember I was on probation, and you learn in the academy you don't separate from your partner."
At this point Zboravan's FTO, Officer Stuart Guy, had been seriously wounded. While taking cover behind Dr. Montes' van with Detective Angeles, he had been hit in the leg and his femur had shattered. Guy used the inner belt of his duty gear to as a tourniquet, and Angeles got him into the back of a patrol car, exposing herself to incoming fire, and accompanying him to medical aid.
The bank robbers lost their battle with the LAPD. Phillips died at 9:52 a.m. on a nearby street after his rifle jammed possibly due to a shot by an officer, and he discarded it and drew a semi-auto pistol. He dropped the pistol when he was shot in the hand, then retrieved it. Multiple shots of police fire struck him in the back as he put the muzzle of his pistol under his chin and shot himself. It's not known if the officers' fire or the self-inflicted head shot killed him.
Matasareanu came out of another door of the bank firing at officers shortly after Phillips initiated the gunfight. He made his way to the pair's planned getaway vehicle and tried to persuade Phillips to get in. Phillips refused and walked beside the slowly moving car firing at officers. The pair became separated right before Phillips was killed.
Matasareanu's vehicle was riding on the rims after officers shot out the tires. He then tried to carjack a Jeep. After forcing the driver out of the vehicle and loading his gear into it, he discovered it had a manual transmission and he didn't know how to drive it. Matasareanu took cover behind a truck. Officers shot him as many as 20 times in the legs, taking the only effective target available, and he surrendered and was cuffed and questioned. He cursed the officers as they questioned him about other suspects. He bled out and died about three blocks away from the bank before an ambulance could safely reach the scene.
Hours after the shooting stopped, the LAPD and other agencies searched the area for additional suspects. None were found. It turned out that many of the reports 911 dispatchers received of "man with a gun" were actually responding officers who hadn't had time to dress in their uniforms.
Back on Probation
Some 20 minutes after they evacuated the grievously wounded Officer Guy, the patrol officers in a black-and-white came to the dental office to take Krulac and Zboravan to the command post. From there they were transported to the hospital. Zboravan says he probably left the scene about the same time as Matasareanu was taken into custody.
Local media reported that Zboravan was treated and released. Technically that was true. But it doesn't reflect the trauma inflicted on his body. Doctors closed his wounds with 120 internal and external stitches "I was fortunate," he says. "Most of the immediate damage was muscle tissue and nerves." Still, complications from the wounds Zboravan suffered continue to this day. "It was so close to my spine that I have issues with degenerating discs," he explains.
Zboravan was off the job for a little over two months. But as a probationary officer he soon found out that his recovery was having an unfortunate effect on his career. "Every day that I missed work my probation was being extended. "I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't get shot on purpose. So why is my probation being extended?" He came back to work as quickly as he could. "I wasn't 100%, but they allowed me to work the desk for another month and they counted that as field time. Which they didn't have to do."
When he went back out on the street Zboravan was paired with an FTO who understood what he had experienced. "Our watch commander was smart. He put me with John Hurd, who was a training officer who had been in a shooting and also been shot."
Still, despite the department's attempts to ensure Zboravan had a smooth entry back into street work, he remembers one moment during his probation when he had a flashback to the North Hollywood Shootout. "I'm working with John Hurd and a bank robbery call comes over the radio. It's not Bank of America but another bank. We arrive on scene. So I take the shotgun and get out of the car and chamber a round. Then I break into a cold sweat and I kind of freeze and stand there. My training officer says, "Z, are you alright?" And I shook it off and was back in the game."
"Heat" in the VCR
That bank robbery call was a false alarm but it brought back memories of the shootout, as did the investigation and the numerous media reports. Investigators discovered that Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu bonded at a gym in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles through mutual passions for body building and firearms. Their career as a robbery crew is believed to have begun in Littleton, CO, in 1993 when they took down an armored car. In 1995, they robbed another armored car in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. Then in 1996, they moved onto banks, hitting two BofA branches in the Valley.
The investigation also turned up the fact that Phillips and Matasareanu had apparently been watching the movie "Heat" shortly before the North Hollywood Shootout. A tape of the 1995 Michael Mann movie, which features a blistering shootout in downtown Los Angeles between bank robbers and law enforcement officers, was found in a VCR at the residence of the two men. "People ask me why there has never been a movie made about this incident (other than the TV movie "44 Minutes," which Zboravan says is inaccurate). I tell them there has been. It's called 'Heat.'"
A lawsuit was filed against the LAPD and involved officers by the family of deceased robbery suspect Emil Matasareanu, claiming that officers let the wounded robber die by delaying medical care. The case went to trial in 2000 and resulted in a hung jury. Finally, the plaintiffs dismissed the action. Zboravan says he testified in that trial. "It took roughly 30 minutes for me and detective Krulac to get medical attention. So there was no indifference to the suspect," he says.
Most of the officers who were on scene at the North Hollywood Shootout are now retired. But Zboravan, who is now a sergeant with the LAPD, still has a few years to go. He says he never once thought about leaving the force after being wounded early in his career and none of his family or friends pressured him to do so. "Everybody in my family and circle of friends knew being a police officer was the only thing I wanted to do," he explains.
Now at the sunset of his career, Zboravan is proud of his service and he has a message he wants to share with every officer he can reach. He says one of the things he learned in the academy helped him survive the shootout and he wants every officer to know it.
"A detective came into our class at the academy to talk about a shooting he was involved in when he was a patrol officer," Zboravan says. "He and his partner stopped a vehicle and gunfire ensued. The detective was hit in the neck, in the arm, and in the vest; and he fell to the ground. Then as he lay there he thought to himself, 'Why am I on the ground?' He realized he did that because that's what people do in TV and movies, and he said, 'Bullshit. I'm gonna get up. I need to fight. I need to stay alive.' His partner was gravely wounded but survived. The suspect was reengaged and killed. So he came to the academy to talk to us about the will to survive."
Zboravan credits the lesson taught by that detective—Richard Householder—with helping him get up after being shot at the bank shootout. And once he returned to duty he contacted the detective. "I typed up a quick e-mail and sent it to him. What I didn't realize was that he worked in North Hollywood Division, too. He came up to me and thanked me for the note. He told me he had been doing that talk for 20 years, and his goal was to save some officer's life."
Now Zboravan wants to pay forward Householder's life-saving advice. "Just because you're shot doesn't mean you're going to die," he says. "You have to revert back to your training, dig deep, get that intestinal fortitude and continue to fight or find a way to get to safety. After I was wounded, I didn't get a chance to shoot back. But I had to get up and get moving. I knew I couldn't just quit. If you have to fight back, fight back. If you have to find cover, find cover. But don't give up."