The shootout ... changed the way police forces arm themselves: "[The criminals] had some awesome firepower and we basically had nothing."
By Peter Prengaman
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Sgt. James Zboravan was fresh out of the Police Academy ten years ago when he was caught up in an extraordinary gunbattle with bank robbers that nearly killed him and underscored an intensifying arms race between criminals and lawmen.
LAPD Sgt. James Zboravan, right, greets Dr. Jorge Montes, a dentist who saved the life of the severely wounded rookie officer in his medical office, during ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of a violent bank robbery and subsequent shootout by two heavily-armed robbers and dozens of police officers, in Los Angeles, Feb. 28, 2007. The shootout changed the way police forces arm themselves and continues to touch the lives of those involved. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
He and other officers who put their lives on the line that day were honored Wednesday in a ceremony that drew 200 people to a parking lot across the street from the bank.
"This is a day of remembrance for what was the Los Angeles Police Department's finest hour," Police Chief William Bratton said.
The Feb. 28, 1997 shootout, caught on camera and beamed around the world, changed the way police forces arm themselves and continues to touch the lives of those involved.
Zboravan vividly recalls the morning gunfight outside the North Hollywood bank.
As robber Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. exited the bank and sprayed bullets in all directions, Zboravan was shot twice in the hip while shielding a detective who wasn't wearing a bulletproof vest.
Bleeding profusely, Zboravan later headed to a nearby dental office, where a doctor used gel and gauze to slow the bleeding until paramedics arrived.
"I knew if I just laid there bleeding on the ground I wasn't going to survive," Zboravan said.
Officer John Caprarelli recalled firing six rounds at Phillips, but the bullets didn't pierce the robber's body armor.
As Caprarelli scrambled for cover, Phillips turned to shoot, but there was just a clanking noise. Frustrated, Phillips threw the jammed 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."
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.
The heroic way police handled the incident gave a badly needed morale boost to a department still reeling from the 1991 Rodney King beating and the subsequent Los Angeles riots.
The incident began after Phillips, 26, and partner Emil Matasareanu, 30, robbed a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood, part of the 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.
Phillips calmly walked with impunity on the 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 prompted law enforcement agencies to invest in better equipment and training. Patrol cars here are now equipped with AR-15 assault rifles and have Kevlar plates in the doors for added protection.
"There is a lot more focus on the planning and strategies of the bad guys" in police training, said John Firman, research director of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police.
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, one of the officers' attorney said.
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.
"Even now, not more than a few months go by without hearing something about that day," said Brentlinger, now 54.