Norco ’80, finale: Careers ruined, police tactics changed by bank robbery and gun battle

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history

On July 13, 1980, just over two months after the Norco bank robbery, the Riverside Press-Enterprise began a four-part exposé titled “Staying Alive.” Ostensibly an exploration of lessons learned from the Norco bank robbery, the opening lines of the first article clearly announced what it was really about:

Riverside sheriff’s deputies are angry. And they’re scared. A fellow officer, James B. Evans, was shot to death during a robbery and chase that led into the San Gabriel Mountains. The deputies don’t think their department is doing enough to prevent it from happening again.

Grumbling among the RSO deputies had begun immediately after Norco, many feeling they had inadequate training, weapons and communications. Most of the accusations were aimed directly at Sheriff Ben Clark, in his 17th year leading the department.

Clark contested the accusations head-on. “Riverside’s deputies are as well-trained and equipped as any police officers in the state.” On the subject of guns, Clark conceded, “The bad guys simply had the better weapons.” However, he dismissed the idea that high-powered rifles would have done his men any good.


Parker Esquivel, 10, of Riverside gets a lesson in sighting an M60 machine gun at the Neighborhood Leaders to National Heroes event at Riverside Municipal Airport. (Photo by Melissa Eiselein, THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE/SCNG)

Other police agencies involved thought differently. In the two months following the Norco bank robbery, the Riverside PD had ordered a dozen high-powered rifles. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office acquired three dozen automatic weapons and an M60 belt-fed machine gun capable of firing 750 rounds of .308 ammunition per minute to mount on one of its choppers.

Shortly after publication of the article, Sheriff Clark changed course with a surprising announcement. “It is our intention to buy 40 Mini-14 rifles.”

After 100 years of policing the Wild West with a six-shooter and a Winchester shotgun, Inland Empire law enforcement agencies were now on their way to becoming some of the most heavily armed in the nation. The two sheriff’s departments had gone from a pair of high-powered rifles between them to more than 75 and counting. Helicopters, unarmed before Norco, now circled overhead with machine guns at the ready.

After the flurry of weapons acquisitions was announced, deputies Andy Delgado and Dave Madden were watching television when the evening news showed video of German police clad in body armor holding Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns across their chests. “That’s the way it’s going,” Andy said. “That’s how we’ll all be armed soon.”

•••

Andy Delgado never fully forgave Glyn Bolasky and Chuck Hille for leaving him alone under fire in front of the bank that day. “I had a three-minute gun battle with the robbers. I wasn’t happy being left there to die,” he told the Press-Enterprise.


Riverside deputy Glyn Bolasky was shot by the robbers as he responded to the Security Pacific bank in Norco. (Photo by Riverside Press-Enterprise)

Plagued by bad dreams, dark thoughts and anxiety along with a growing bitterness toward the department, Glyn Bolasky quit the RSO within the year for a job at the Riverside PD. But soon into his six-month field-training program his training officer spotted problems. Bolasky was jittery, his behavior erratic. “I like the guy,” the training officer concluded, “but he just can’t get over Norco.”

On Jan. 12, 1981, the Riverside Police Department parted ways with Bolasky, labeling him a “vicarious liability.” When a reporter asked RPD Chief Victor Jones why his department had not done more to help Bolasky, “Jones said he doesn’t have the budget for psychologists or psychiatrists, so he retires officers when they have mental fatigue.” The comment was a stark illustration of law enforcement’s approach at the time to the problem of posttraumatic stress disorder among officers.


Riverside deputy Andy Delgado arrived at the scene of the robbery and immediately ended up in a gun battle with the bad guys. (Photo courtesy of Andy Monti)

Norco marked the start of a two-year slide for Andy Delgado. Well respected but always fiery, Delgado increasingly found himself in flare-ups, confrontations and shouting matches with supervisors and fellow officers. By the first anniversary of Norco, he was carrying two handguns while out in the field – one in a shoulder holster, one in his boot. He did not try to disguise the reason: “If I can’t count on people in this department to back me up, then I’ll do it myself.”  In February of 1982, Det. Andy Delgado was medically discharged by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for posttraumatic stress disorder.

It had taken 20 months, but now two of the three deputies who had shot it out with the escaping bank robbers at the intersection of Fourth and Hamner were out of the only career they had ever wanted. Within a few more years, the third, Chuck Hille would follow with a related medical discharge.

Twenty years after the Norco bank robbery, the Riverside Sheriff’s Department finally officially honored the deputies involved. In a 2000 commemoration ceremony, Glyn Bolasky, Chuck Hille, Andy Delgado and Rolf Parkes received the Medal of Courage for “acts of heroism performed at great risk to life and limb.” James Evans was posthumously awarded the RSO’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor.

•••

At 11 a.m. on Dec. 2, 2015, two Islamic extremists armed with AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, thousands of rounds of .223 ammunition and homemade pipe bombs burst into the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino and opened fire on an employee meeting inside. Within minutes, 14 were dead and 22 seriously injured. The suspects fled the scene, immediately sparking the largest manhunt in the Inland Empire since the search for the Norco bank robbers 35 years before.

But this time, Inland Empire law enforcement agencies came equipped with more than just a single beat-up M16. Officers swarmed the region in BearCat armored personnel carriers and armed with semiautomatic weapons while police choppers equipped as “gun platforms” circled overhead. Trapped in a suburban neighborhood four hours later, the two suspects were killed in just over five minutes with a hail of 440 rounds of police gunfire.

In the immediate aftermath, local police officials cited the lesson learned from Norco as the genesis of the Inland Empire law enforcement’s ability to rapidly deploy with such overwhelming force. In a 2017 article for Vice entitled “How a 1980 Bank Robbery Sparked the Militarization of America’s Police,” a quote from Rolf Parkes pinpointed the evolution to a specific moment and the actions of a single deputy: D. J. McCarty. “When the suspects heard that rifle, they realized their firepower was now being matched. There would have been a lot more dead cops on that road if not for that weapon.”

D. J. McCarty was awarded the Medal of Valor by the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department for his actions on Baldy Notch Road.

•••

A man walks into the room with a sly, almost mischievous smile on his face. He is in his mid-60s with a potbelly, the long beard and hair much as it was 35 years earlier, only now snow white. The eyes are the same, too, squinty with a bit of a sparkle. If he auditioned for Santa Claus at the local mall, he’d probably get the job. But he can’t. This is the Inmate Visiting Center of Unit A at the California State Prison in Lancaster, high on the desert plain east of Los Angeles. Russell Harven has been here a long time, and he is never getting out.


Robber Chris Harven was shot and wounded by Riverside deputy Jim Evans just before Evans was killed by gunfire from the bad guys he’d been chasing. Harven is seen here after his capture on Mount Baldy. (Photo courtesy of San Bernardino Sun)

“My brother is giving me hell for this.” Russ is talking about his older brother, Chris, currently held up north in a Vacaville prison. The two had been cellmates for most of the last 15 years, and he expects to be transferred up to Vacaville soon where they will be again. Russ sees it as a blessing and a curse. On one hand, at least it’s someone he knows. On the other hand, it’s Chris. The dynamic has not changed all that much in 35 years.

The visitor center is full of men in denim shirts and pants, almost all black or Hispanic. If they think about an old white inmate like Russell Harven at all, it is probably dismissively. But there is not one of them in the room who has a conviction record approaching anything like his: 45 major felonies including kidnapping, explosives, armed robbery, 24 counts of attempted murder and two first-degree murder convictions in the deaths of Jim Evans and Billy Delgado.

Harven responds to the visitor’s questions as best he can, even if the answers are simple and uncomplicated. “I’ve spent most of my life trying not to think about what happened that day.” In his letters and as he speaks, the superior intelligence range in which he tested just after Norco is obvious. He refers to himself as having been “indolent” and “fatalistic” in the years leading up to Norco. He says it never occurred to him that it would end up in a gunfight. If it had, he never would have done it. When asked if he thinks he fired the shot that killed Jim Evans, he looks away. “God, I hope not.”

Like his brother, Russell is still angry about the trial. Tried along with Chris and George, all three defense teams accused the prosecution and police of misconduct including perjury and destroying evidence. They stand by their assertion during the trial that it was friendly fire from D.J. McCarty that killed Evans, so they should have gotten 25 years to life under the Felony Murder Rule instead of life without parole. “I am somewhat bitter about getting that sentence,” he says. “I used to be a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care type. Now I am a bitter old man waiting for my toe tag.”

After two hours, the visitor runs out of questions, so they spend the last hour talking about ’70s rock music and L.A. radio stations they used to listen to, the smoggy days, sneaking into Disneyland – all the stuff teenagers growing up in Orange County did back then. For a while, they are just two guys sitting around talking about the old neighborhood. They try to figure out if they might have gone to some of the same concerts. “What about the AC/DC Back in Black tour at the Orange Pavilion in San Bernardino?” the visitor asks. Harven’s mood changes. Of course he wasn’t there. It was September 1980. By then, Russell Harven had already thrown his life away.

The guard calls out visitor hours are over and Harven stands. Before leaving, the visitor cannot help but ask what is both the best and stupidest question one can ask someone who has done something unimaginable: “Why did you do it?”

“Simple,” Harven says without hesitation. “Because I thought we’d get away with it.”

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Norco ’80, part 11: Gunmen race through mountains, use terrain to fire on officers

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history

Parts

Rising abruptly from the coastal flatlands, the San Gabriel Mountains, through which Lytle Creek has carved itself, quickly soar to elevations of over 10,000 feet at the summit of Mount Baldy. As dangerous as it is beautiful, Lytle Creek Canyon can be extremely uninviting terrain. Earthquakes, rockslides, wildfires and flash floods are common. The steep hillsides are covered with California chaparral made up of scrub oak, manzanita, buckbrush, sumac and sage. At higher elevations, the ecosystem changes to scattered pine groves of Douglas fir, ponderosa and sugar pine.

The place has always attracted loners, outsiders and outlaws. Early settlers included gold miners, trappers, moonshiners and horse thieves who hid their stolen animals up the canyon. The explosion of illegal street drugs brought traffickers into the canyon alongside the population of 600 or so permanent residents. San Bernardino Sheriff’s units and the county coroner’s van became frequent visitors.

•••

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies D. J. McCarty and Jim McPheron both had their taste of death in the canyon. So they were not happy when they heard the pursuit of the Norco bank robbers was headed into Lytle Creek.

McCarty had been coming off the two-shift, changing out of his uniform at the Fontana substation when he heard there was some serious stuff going down just over the county line in Riverside. A local boy with a sweeping Glen Campbell hairstyle and irreverent personality, the 26-year-old McCarty had a little over one year on the force.

Deputy James McPheron was just starting his 4 p.m. shift. Tall and soft-spoken, “Mac” was an old-school cop who always referred to himself as a “peace officer.” While tough, McPheron’s nature tended toward the quiet and gentle as compared to the brash and colorful McCarty.

McPheron was on his way to intercept the pursuit when he heard the report that 40-King-2 had been grounded by gunfire. He wheeled the Ford Fairlane patrol unit into a sweeping U-turn across Foothill Boulevard. “I’m headed back to Fontana station,” he radioed. “Somebody get the AR.”

The only semiautomatic rifle in the entire department arsenal was a military Colt M16 rifle seized by deputies from a drug dealer during a high-speed chase. The Army didn’t want it back, so the .223-caliber rifle with full and semi-automatic capabilities hung around the station.

When he heard McPheron’s request for the AR, D.J. McCarty raced to the vehicle yard to retrieve the weapon from the trunk of a sergeant’s unit along with four 20-round magazines. While the department provided no training on the M16, there were plenty of military vets on the force who knew how to fire one. McCarty was not one of them.

McPheron came racing into the vehicle lot and D.J. jumped in the passenger seat. “Let dispatch know we have the AR,” he said, tires screaming as they tore out of the lot. “They need to tell everyone in front of us to get out of our way.”

•••

“We are a quarter-mile from the ranger station on Sierra Road in the National Forest and they are firing like crazy.”

With Deputy Jim Evans’ cool West Texas country drawl and calm delivery, there was no question who was now the lead RSO unit in the pursuit. It was only the content of Evans’ reports that betrayed just how perilous his situation had become since plunging into the mouth of Lytle Creek Canyon. “I think my unit just got hit with three rounds,” he reported. “Fall back, they are really firing now.”


Riverside deputy Jim Evans. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

Evans might have been the lead RSO unit, but he was only the No. 3 car in the overall pursuit. Coming off Interstate 15, two CHP units had grabbed the one and two spots with Steve Batchelor and Peter Vander Kamp riding together in the lead vehicle and patrolman Joe Haughey just behind. Neither had any ability to communicate with Evans.

Attempts by the CHP units to keep their distance in the canyon were countered by Chris Harven’s ambush tactics. On straightaways, Harven accelerated the truck up to speeds of 50 miles per hour only to lay back on blind curves so Russ, Manny and George could open up at close range when pursuing units appeared around the bend.

It was a deadly game of cat and mouse that continued up the canyon and through the tiny communities of Scotland and Lytle Creek Village. Beyond that lay only campgrounds and raw wilderness virtually unchanged since the days of the Wild West. At 3,000 feet, what had been a clear, warm spring day in Norco now had a bite of cold and a cloud cover moving in. High above them, patches of snow still held out on the hillsides of Baldy.

As he sped up the canyon, Jim Evans could hear an SBSO helicopter somewhere in the skies above him but could not receive their transmissions. The only system designed for interagency communication was The California Law Enforcement Mutual Aid Radio System, or CLEMARS.  Implementation was complicated and the RSO capability was limited to several handheld CLEMARS radios. But at that moment, one of them happened to be in the hands of an RSO sergeant in the pursuit named Don Bender. “Edward-320. We got communications with the chopper,” Bender radioed.

“OK. Is the chopper on Sierra? Can you see him?” Evans responded

“Affirmative, he’s almost to the end of the paved road.”

It was far from a perfect solution, with Bender relaying information between Evans and spotter John Plasencia on 40-King-1. The result was a 10- to 15-second communication lag. But at least Evans now had a pair of eyes to tell him the one thing he wanted to know most: Was he about to get ambushed?

“320, can you tell us how far behind we are?” Evans asked. “We got blind curves. We want to know how far back we are.”

“Just a minute, we’ll check with the chopper,” Bender said. “OK, now he’s moving out again,” Bender relayed almost 20 seconds later. “Continuing northbound on the paved road.”

Seventeen miles up the canyon, the pursuit abruptly slowed as Lytle Creek Road became a narrow, rain-rutted dirt road, suitable only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Dirt kicked up by lead vehicles obscured visibility. The farther up they went, the worse it got.

Approaching a tight horseshoe bend carved into the hillside, Chris Harven spotted an opportunity to take out a lead vehicle and block the pursuit line.

Evans spotted it, too. “Looks like they’re gonna lay back on the curve, next one coming up on us,” he radioed to Bender. “Have that chopper keep watching. Tell him if they stop, that’s what we want to know.”

Coming out of the bend in the horseshoe, Harven abruptly brought the truck to a halt. Manny and Russ stood up and fired across the ravine at Evans and the two lead CHP units on the other side. A line of bullets kicked up dirt on the hillside just above the hood of Batchelor and Vander Kamp’s patrol car before Chris took off again.

After another 5 miles, Lytle Creek Road passed the mouth of Coldwater Canyon, turned west to cross the wide creek bed and up a grade to a campground known as Stockton Flats. The elevation rose to 6,000 feet.

At another blind curve, Russ and Manny tossed two highly explosive acetylene gas cylinders out of the back of the truck along with a five-gallon can of diesel fuel. As the lead CHP units weaved their units past the obstacles, George Smith attempted to detonate the tanks with rounds from his .308. The tanks failed to explode.

•••

Jim McPheron and D. J. McCarty knew they must be getting close to the front of the pursuit line. Passing a CHP unit, McPheron came up on the rear bumper of SBSO deputy Mike Lenihan, with a civilian reserve deputy named Margaret Martin on board. Lenihan pulled over to let McPheron and McCarty fly past.

That left only Evans and the CHP unit with Batchelor and Vander Kamp between McPheron and the yellow truck. Tipped off that the S.O. unit with the automatic was coming up behind them, Batchelor angled his CHP car toward the side of the road. For a moment, Evans seemed to follow, but then swung back out in front of McPheron.

“OK, I got the lead unit now,” Evans radioed.

Moments later, the road changed dramatically. In all the dust, there was no way Jim Evans, D. J. McCarty, or James McPheron could have seen the sign the Forest Service had posted there: Dangerous road. No unauthorized vehicles beyond this point.

•••

Etched along the western face of the tallest mountain in the San Gabriel range, Baldy Notch Road rises from a 6,012-foot elevation at Stockton Flats to a summit of almost 8,000 feet. Any trip up Baldy Notch Road was a harrowing journey of steep inclines, declines and switchbacks on a single-track dirt road clinging to the mountainside with drops of up to 500 feet on one side and unstable upslopes on the other. Dangerous in the best of conditions, a run up Baldy Notch under heavy gunfire was unthinkable, the stuff of nightmares.

A few hundred yards into the climb, the road horseshoed back on itself. The three gunmen opened up on the units still moving through Stockton Flats. In the narrow canyon, the gunshots echoed sharply back and forth off rock-face cliffs on three sides. Chris Harven hit the accelerator and the truck disappeared around a tight curve.

“I got a bad curve coming up here, what are they doing?” Evans asked.

“He’s still movin’,” Bender relayed, but the delay in getting the information to Evans had been almost 15 seconds.

Evans continued up the grade a hundred yards behind the truck and watched as it disappeared around a bend to the right leading into a straight, sharp ascent. “Are they movin?” he asked Bender. There was no reply. Fifteen seconds later, Evans came around the bend and had his answer.

“OK, we’re hit!” Evans screamed into the mic so sharply it distorted the transmission, making it almost unintelligible. But everyone who heard it knew that something very bad had just happened.

“Jim, talk.”

“Evans, you there?”

“Edward-20, unit with Evans?”

“Evans, are they in the truck?”

“Evans, who is in the truck?”

There was no answer. There was no one left in the truck.

•••

Coming Saturday: Part 12 – Tragedy strikes when the robbers abandon their truck but keep firing.

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Norco ’80, part 9: Violent pursuit through suburbia racks up casualties

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history

Parts

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

It was a busy time of day for the working-class neighborhood of Mira Loma, especially on a Friday. Kids were walking or in school buses working their way home through the 4-square-mile grid of suburbia. Adults had ended their workweek, many already watering lawns or outside chatting with neighbors. As the wail of sirens, thumping of chopper blades and sound of gunfire came closer, the residents of Mira Loma knew something very bad was headed their way.

Beyond the intersection of Etiwanda and Limonite, California Highway Patrolman Doug Earnest saw the yellow truck take a hard right off Etiwanda onto 54th Street, the road marking the southern border of Mira Loma. When he got to 54th Street, Earnest slowed to a crawl and edged the nose of his Dodge patrol unit into the intersection. Immediately two rounds tore into the metal hood of his vehicle. Through a break in the shrubbery, he saw the truck at a dead stop in the roadway, three men aiming rifles at him. Doug Earnest had just been ambushed.

Above Earnest’s patrol unit, the newest entry into the pursuit arrived on scene. Riverside Police helicopter Baker-1 with spotter Paul Benoit onboard swooped in 500 feet above the yellow truck, which took a left onto Troth Street, plunging into the heart of Mira Loma.

Chris zigzagged his way through the neighborhood, turning every block to confound any attempt by police to intercept them.

Rolf Parkes was limping his shot-up patrol unit along Marlatt when the truck suddenly appeared, coming off Jurupa. Making a left turn directly in front of him, all three gunmen opened up, hitting his vehicle again. Fred Chisholm appeared from Jurupa Road and skidded to a stop. “You got a flat tire, Rolf,” he radioed. “Pull over, get your shotgun, and come on.” Rolf grabbed the gun and jumped into Chisholm’s passenger seat, leaving the Dodge Monaco dead on the side of the road.

Doug Earnest did not see the truck make a sudden right turn onto 50th Street and drove straight through the intersection. A young boy ran out onto Marlatt, pointing wildly down 50th. Earnest slammed on the brakes, threw his patrol car into reverse, tires screeching, and headed east on 50th over a low rise in the road. When he crested the hill midblock, the yellow truck was stopped just short of the corner of Dodd and 50th. Earnest did not know it, but Chris Harven and George Smith were looking at their own house, assessing their chances of bailing out of the truck and into their barbed wire compound and the safety of the pit.

Chris knew it was impossible, with Baker-1 overhead and cops traversing the neighborhood. He hit the gas and turned left up Dodd, which dead-ended into Bellegrave Avenue, a long, straight, two-lane stretch of road marking the northern boundary of Mira Loma.

Doug Earnest radioed the direction of the truck over the CHP frequency to patrolman Bill Crowe, the other CHP officer in the vicinity. Doug Earnest had been Crowe’s training partner a half-dozen years before and looked after Crowe as he would a little brother.

Following Earnest’s reports, Crowe headed eastbound on Bellegrave toward Dodd traveling at a high rate of speed. Riverside deputy Rudy Romo was several car lengths behind Crowe, with the youngest RSO deputy on the force, A.J. Reynard, just behind him. Above in Baker-1, Paul Benoit could see what was unfolding beneath him. The yellow truck coming up Dodd and the three police units eastbound on Bellegrave were going to reach the intersection at the same time. “Better advise those units on Bellegrave they are approaching that vehicle at this time,” he radioed urgently.

Crowe was 50 feet short of the intersection when he caught sight of the yellow truck speeding up Dodd with Russell Harven standing in the bed firing. The first volley strafed the entire right side of Crowe’s patrol car, rounds going through the front fender and both side doors, shattering the rear passenger side window, and blowing out two tires. Crowe stood on the brake, but his unit continued to skid toward the yellow truck now making the right off Dodd onto Bellegrave directly in front of him. By the time his vehicle came to a stop, he was so close Russell Harven had to point the “Shorty” AR at a downward angle in order to shoot Bill Crowe through the windshield of his patrol car.

The first bullet from Harven went through the right side and out the rear window, shattering it. The second hit dead center, tore the rearview mirror in half and fragmented, sending shards of copper into Crowe’s arm and leg, lodging others under his scalp and in his sternum, and piercing the soft pinna tissue of his ear. Crowe was ducking for cover when the last bullet came through the driver’s side of the windshield, entered his body through his left bicep and exited his back just above the shoulder blade. The truck sped away, leaving Bill Crowe stunned and bleeding in the front seat of his CHP unit.

Rudy Romo had jammed on the brakes in a hail of gunfire at the same time Crowe did. He ducked below the line of his dashboard the instant before a bullet came through the windshield and blew the headrest clean off the driver’s seat above him. Like Parkes and Brown before him, Rudy Romo had come within inches of taking a direct headshot from an assault rifle.

As Doug Earnest approached the intersection at Bellegrave, he saw Crowe’s CHP unit go into a full skid just behind the yellow truck. Then Crowe’s unit seemed to disintegrate before Earnest’s eyes, exploding from the inside out, glass and metal flying in all directions. When Earnest reached Crowes patrol unit, Crowe was leaning to the passenger side of the vehicle, blood coming down his face, in his hair, on his uniform and still-holstered gun. Earnest called his name. Crowe did not respond. He’s dead, Earnest thought, and it’s my fault. I’m the one who guided him straight into the truck and they killed him. Earnest called out sharply to Crowe again. This time Crowe responded weakly and began to sit up in the seat, still pale and waxy but at least somewhat coherent.

“Roll an ambulance to Bellegrave and Dodd,” Rolf Parkes radioed when he and Chisholm came upon the scene. “Officer shot!”

“Copy. Bellegrave and Dodd. Officer shot,” dispatcher Gary Keeter acknowledged flatly. That was six men down.

•••

A.J. Reynard never saw the yellow truck that day. Approaching Dodd just behind Crowe and Romo, a bullet suddenly came through the bottom right corner of Reynard’s windshield. Thinking the gunfire was coming from the field directly to the right of him, A. J. ducked down across his seat and stomped on the accelerator to get clear of the line of fire. He did not know that the men shooting at him had turned onto Bellegrave directly in front of him. Three rounds smashed through his windshield and then it felt to A.J. as though someone grabbed ahold of his arm and jerked it off the steering wheel. When he looked, blood was rushing out of a large hole on the inside of his left elbow.


Riverside deputy A.J. Reynard was inside this sheriff’s car when the robbers unloaded a hail of bullets at him. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

Still unaware of the source of the gunfire, Reynard reached back up with his bloody arm, grabbed the steering wheel, and kept going, not realizing he was now just feet away from the business end of a “Shorty” AR.

Five hundred feet overhead in Baker-1, a dumbfounded Paul Benoit radioed an urgent message over the RSO frequency. “Riverside, you better tell that unit to back off.”

With Russ Harven about to unload on Reynard at arm’s length, Chris Harven abruptly turned right onto Bain Street. Reynard kept going.

In all, Reynard traveled over a quarter mile down Bellegrave at full acceleration without looking up once, finally skidding to a stop in front of deputies Kurt Franklin and Bill Eldrich manning a roadblock at Van Buren Boulevard.

Moments later, Kurt Franklin was on the radio. “2-Edward-73. I am transporting Officer Reynard; he’s taken a round in the arm.”

Reynard made seven men down.

When Rolf Parkes and Fred Chisholm reached the area of Bellegrave and Dodd, what they found there shocked them. Passing the ruins of four police and three vehicles within a single block, Rolf Parkes decided on a name for the place. He called it “The Graveyard of Cars.”

•••

When they reached the end of the block on Bain Street, Chris Harven made the right turn onto 50th and accelerated, passing their own house again.  With every cop in the Inland Empire now looking for a bright yellow pickup, he decided they needed to swap out their ride.

Turning right up Etiwanda again, there was a small mom-and-pop convenience store called the Can Do Market. As usual, it was busy on a Friday with at cars parked in the small lot outside or fueling at the two gas pumps in front. A railroad crew of about 15 men stood around a picnic table, finishing off their workweek with a few beers in the shade of a cottonwood.

Chris cut sharply into the market parking area and brought the yellow truck to a stop beside a white van waiting to get gas. Behind the wheel of his 1974 GMC van, a Vietnam veteran named Robert LeMay was about to pull forward to an open pump when Chris Harven appeared at the driver’s window aiming the Long Colt at his head. “You better get the (expletive) out of there,” Harven yelled at him. LeMay looked down the barrel of the gun and then at Harven. Then he drove away.

With their intended target now gone and more than a dozen burly railroad workers staring at them, there was nothing left to do but get back in the yellow truck and get away from the Can Do Market.

“Vehicle at this time is resuming its northbound traffic on Etiwanda,” Baker-1 updated. “Northbound again.”

The moment the yellow truck crossed Bellegrave, every cop in the Inland Empire knew where it was headed. Like every bank robber in Southern California, these guys were headed for the freeway.

For the first time that day, dispatcher Gary Keeter sounded almost defeated as he relayed the information. “Northbound, coming to Highway 60,” he said wearily. The men who had just robbed a bank and shot seven cops and five civilians were not only leaving Mira Loma, they were escaping Riverside County entirely. For the last 21 minutes, Keeter had been dealing with a complete disaster. Now he would have to inform the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office that the disaster was heading straight into their county.

•••

Coming Thursday: Part 10 – The pursuit on the freeway and in the air intensifies as it enters San Bernardino County.

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Norco ’80, part 7: Deputy arrives at gun battle before bank robbers flee

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history

Parts

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Deputy Andy Delgado cut his siren and crested the rise between Fifth Street and Fourth Street going 75 miles per hour. Scanning the intersection, he spotted the green van off the road on Fourth Street just short of Hamner. Figures darted out from behind the van and disappeared again. Another stood between the open side cargo door and a chain-link fence unloading duffel bags. Andy heard so much gunfire he assumed it must be automatic weapons fire.

Andy swung his patrol unit into the empty northbound lanes and angled it toward the side of the road, bringing it to a stop at a 45-degree angle at the curb 50 yards short of the intersection. He exited the vehicle with his shotgun and stood behind the V of his open driver’s door.

Now he could see more clearly what the men at the front of the van were doing. Three of them were taking turns stepping out from behind the van to fire down Fourth Street, where Bolasky must be. Andy saw they were all wearing military jackets and black ski masks and firing military-type rifles. Delgado thought he must be facing a band of Middle Eastern terrorists. After all, more than 60 Americans were still being held hostage in Iran, where thousands in the streets chanted “Death to America” every day.

Assessing the situation, Andy had another problem. There were people everywhere now. Vehicles were backing up in both directions on Hamner. Motorists were out of their cars trying to figure out just what was going on. Gawkers streamed from the Carl’s Jr. or wandered across the Stater Bros. parking lot to see what all the commotion was about. Andy estimated close to 50 civilians in the immediate area. But for the moment, Andy’s field of fire was free of noncombatants.

Andy lifted the Wingmaster shotgun over the top of the open door of his patrol car and unloaded three rounds of buckshot. One pellet grazed the back of Chris Harven’s neck. Russell Harven felt a burning sensation as a shot of buck burrowed under his scalp at the hairline and tunneled its way beneath the tissue all the way to the back of his head without penetrating the skull.

Another of the blasts from Andy’s modified-choke Wingmaster at a distance of 50 yards haloed George Smith in buckshot, rattling pellets off the thick exterior of the van. George felt something dig into the meat of the inside of his left leg, up high in the groin area. A second struck the outside of his right thigh, coming to rest deep inside the tissue of his buttocks. George felt the warm wetness of blood spreading down his inner thigh.


George Smith was hit in the leg by a round fired by Riverside deputy Andy Delgado near the bank but was able to continue exchanging fire with multiple officers despite the loss of much of his blood until the chase ended on Mount Baldy where he was captured. (Photo courtesy of San Bernardino Sun)

Chris and Russell Harven were through being sitting ducks. Russ moved to a position on the driver’s side of the van for protection, peeking around to fire shots in the direction of the cop who had just put a shotgun pellet under his scalp. Chris lay prone on the pavement, sighting over the barrel of the gun, reeling a dozen rounds at Andy’s radio car. He rolled to his right, ejected the banana clip, flipped it over and locked a fresh one into the magazine port.

Bullets ripped into Andy’s vehicle, one in the hood on the driver’s side and another in the molding at the roofline. A third hit the pavement, sending fragments through the open door he was using for cover as though it were nothing more than a shower curtain.

Andy had six more shotgun shells in a stock sling strapped to the butt end of the gun. He pushed two loads of buckshot and a rifled slug – a one-ounce monster chunk of lead the size of a Civil War Minié ball – into the magazine port on the belly of the gun.

Over the gunfire, he heard the radio transmissions from Bolasky that he had an artery hit and was bleeding badly. That explained why Bolasky was no longer laying down fire on the suspects. But what about Hille? With Hille coming in from Sierra and Andy down Hamner, they should have their suspects caught in a crossfire right now. Andy listened, but there was no sound of fire coming from the area down Fourth Street where he knew Hille and Bolasky must be. A terrible feeling came over him. He could sense he was alone.

Andy racked the first shell into the chamber, stood and fired off both rounds of buckshot. He threw himself to the ground as rounds struck the pavement and the side mirror on the driver’s door shattered, the frame around it exploding. Fragments erupted from out of the dashboard inside the vehicle just to his right. Andy stood and fired his seventh round, the rifled slug, missing the suspects and punching a hole in the side of the bank building.

He ducked down and pushed his last three shells into the magazine port. A chorus of sirens swelled in the distance. Andy took a deep breath, stood, fired two more rounds at the men beside the van and then went back down. All he had now was one slug and his .38 revolver. He set the shotgun to the side, drew the six-shooter and waited.

•••

George gripped his leg to stop the bleeding, but the blood just oozed between his fingers. “Take a bag,” he yelled to Chris and Russ, tossing the duffel bags into the road. The two fired a few more rounds in the direction of Andy Delgado and then grabbed a bag each. Manny let loose a blast from the riot gun and then threw the third over his shoulder. George pointed toward the lines of cars backed up at the light south on Hamner. “Fan out and get another vehicle.”

The three men spread out and moved toward the lines of cars, the Harvens with assault rifles tucked under their arms, Manny with the riot gun at his hip. The scene at Fourth and Hamner became one of total madness as three masked and heavily armed men descended on the trapped motorists, menacingly swinging high-powered rifles as they approached, sending passengers and onlookers running for their lives.

As the others searched for a new getaway car, George Smith flipped the jungle clip at the bottom of the Heckler .308, locked in a fresh 40-round magazine and limped out to the middle of the intersection.

 


Riverside deputy Andy Delgado arrived at the scene of the robbery and immediately ended up in a gun battle with the bad guys. (Photo courtesy of Andy Monti)

When Andy Delgado peeked over the door of his patrol unit, he could hardly believe what he saw. A tall man in a ski mask and military-green duster, pants tucked into black boots, came out from behind the van and walked, no, strolled out to the very center of the busiest intersection in Norco. The man positioned himself right where a traffic cop might stand and coolly surveyed the area. Standing in the wide open, flat-footed and unafraid, the man did not look at all concerned that it had come down to a firefight. There was no question in Andy’s mind that he was looking at the leader of the gang.

The man turned toward Andy, lifted the assault rifle to his hip and began firing. A round entered through the grill, passed through the radiator, slammed into the engine block and fragmented. Shards of lead and copper cut the hood cable in half and passed though the dashboard and into the interior of the vehicle. Delgado lay on the ground as more rounds cracked the sky above him and struck the road in front of him, spraying the area with a lethal mix of asphalt, lead and copper. This is it, Andy thought. This is where it all ends.

•••

A 24-year-old heavy-machinery mechanic named Mikel Linville was driving a company service vehicle northbound on Hamner when he stopped at the light at Fourth Street. The yellow-orange 1969 Ford F-250 pickup had been modified with steel utility cabinets on the sides. Tall cylinders of compressed gas were secured upright behind the cab, welding equipment and tools scattered about the bed of the truck.

Stopped in the far-left lane, Linville heard the popping of gunfire and spotted three men in ski masks moving through the lanes of stopped traffic, leveling guns at passengers. One was headed directly for him. When Chris Harven lowered the Heckler .223 and aimed it directly at him through the windshield, Linville knew it was time to leave. He threw open the door to the truck and sprinted away.

Harven called for the others and climbed into the driver’s seat of the truck. Russ hurled a duffel bag over the side cabinets and scrambled into the bed after it while Manny jumped in the passenger side of the cab.  Chris swung the yellow truck out of its lane and pulled into the intersection.

From his position, Andy Delgado saw the man in the center of the intersection walk to the rear of the truck and hand his rifle up to the man in the back. He seemed to be in no hurry at all. He stepped up onto the bumper and swung himself over the tailgate and disappeared into the bed. The truck accelerated, angling back into the northbound lanes heading toward Andy’s location.

Andy put his head to the pavement, holding the .38 and peering under the patrol car, looking for any boots that might hit the ground.

He could hear the engine of the big truck as it drew closer. There was a rapid Bam! Bam! Bam! of gunfire as George Smith fired the Heckler over the tailgate of the truck, one .308-caliber bullet gouging a deep, five-inch trench in the metal roof of Andy’s unit. The truck accelerated away, up the low grade between Fourth and Fifth streets. Andy grabbed his shotgun off the pavement and fired off his last round at the truck as it crested the hill and disappeared.

“Three suspects fled, a yellow pickup north on Hamner,” Andy radioed breathlessly.

•••

The intersection at Hamner and Fourth was eerily quiet except for the crackling bursts of radio traffic coming from the shot-up police cruisers, the wail of distant sirens. Through the glass doors of the Security Pacific Bank, 18-year-old James Kirkland watched the green van rocking back and forth against the chain-link fence. And then something very peculiar happened. A head emerged out the back window of the van. Moments later, a man with his arms and legs bound in packing tape, squirmed his way out of the window and flopped onto the pavement below. “I’m a hostage! Help me!” Gary Hakala called out.

Inside the van, Billy Delgado’s body came to the end of its struggle as he drew his last bubbly breath. Scattered across the floor of the van behind him was the cause of it all, a sad little mix of wrapped and loose bills and coins amounting to a lousy $20,112.36. A moment later, the van’s engine also gave up its futile struggle against the chain-link fence, and it died too.

•••

Coming Tuesday: Part 8 – Robbers flee the area near the bank, and reinforcements join the pursuit.

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Norco ’80, part 6: One deputy is on the scene and others arrive quickly to confront bank robbers

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history
Parts1 2 3 4 5 6 of 14

The only way Riverside County Sheriff’s dispatcher Gary Keeter could explain what went down in Norco that day was that it had all happened so fast. “Riverside to Norco units, have a 211 in progress at the Security Pacific Bank at Fourth and Hamner.”

Within two seconds of Keeter’s initial dispatch, deputy Glyn Bolasky responded, “3-Edward-50, 1097,” indicating his radio ID and 1097, the code for “officer on scene.”

Bolasky was already 1097? thought Keeter. He was never en route. “Riverside to all, clear the air,” Keeter added, instructing all nonessential radio traffic to cease.

Deputy Glyn Bolasky had been stopped in the left turn lane at Hamner and Fourth Street staring straight at the Security Pacific Bank when Keeter’s 211 tone for a robbery in progress went out. Activating his overhead lights, he made the left onto Fourth Street toward the east entrance of the parking lot, scanning the lot and bank building as he went. Immediately, Bolasky heard a muffled popping noise and saw red and blue plastic falling around his unit. Momentarily distracted, Bolasky never saw the man in the ski mask standing beside the green van shooting out his light bar with an assault rifle.

On the phone at the dispatch center, Gladys Wiza scribbled something on an index card and slid it in front of Keeter. Keeter looked down. Now we got a real problem, he thought.  “3-Edward-50,” he radioed. “The suspect vehicle is a green van with weapons.”

If Bolasky heard the transmission at all, it was too late to do anything about it. As he swung his patrol car into the bank parking lot, four men in black ski masks and olive-drab field jackets came into view no more than two car lengths in front of Bolasky’s unit. An instant later, Bolasky’s windshield glazed into an intricate spider web as three rounds crashed through it. He felt his face and arms go hot as flying glass peppered him like birdshot. The young deputy threw his body across the bench seat for cover.  “3-Edward-50 taking fire!” he yelled into his mic, gunshots in the background cracking with the irregular cadence of popping corn.

Only 28 seconds after initial dispatch, Keeter keyed up the dispatch mic again. “It’s a green van. It’s Fourth and Hamner. They are shooting.”


The robbers carjacked a van to use in the robbery, which was disabled as the fled the Security Pacific Bank in Norco. Getaway driver Billy Delgado was shot and killed as he drove away. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

Manny Delgado walked in front of the van, lowered the riot gun, and unloaded several booming shotgun blasts. “We’ve got a hostage in here!” George Smith screamed in Bolasky’s direction, but the only thing Glyn Bolasky could hear were bullets ripping into the metal surrounding him, blowing out windows, the muzzle blasts echoing back from a cinder block wall behind him. There was sharp pain in his left shoulder as a round came through the dashboard, sending fragments of lead and copper jacketing into his flesh.

Still lying across the bench seat, Bolasky grabbed the steering wheel with one hand, jerked the gearshift into reverse, and slammed on the accelerator. Bullets pinged off the Impala as it shot backward out of the parking lot onto Fourth Street, clipping a Ford Thunderbird driven by 15-year-old Jody Ann Tygart, behind the wheel taking a driving lesson from her father. Swerving into the oncoming lane, the Thunderbird sideswiped a Buick Regal and careened eastbound on Fourth Street, coming to a stop 75 feet beyond Bolasky. There was a sharp crack as a bullet came through the back window and fragmented, grazing Darryel Tygart on the side of the head and hitting his daughter Jody Ann in the back.

Traveling another 30 feet east on Fourth Street in reverse, Bolasky’s vehicle skidded to a stop sideways in the middle of the road. Throwing the release on the shotgun mount, Bolasky felt blood running down his face and arm. “I’ve been hit!” he radioed.


Deputy Glyn Bolasky’s car was shot up and the deputy injured as soon as he arrived at the bank. Over the course of the gun battle 32 police vehicles were destroyed or disabled. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

Two seconds later, Keeter sent out the transmission that changed everything: “Officer hit. Clear the air. 1199.”

Across Riverside County, every patrol car in the field, every detective at a desk, every undercover narc on stakeout, every helicopter in the sky, every officer from California Highway Patrol, Riverside PD, or the RSO stopped what he or she was doing to converge on the intersection of Fourth and Hamner.

•••

Crouching behind the Impala holding his shotgun, Glyn Bolasky heard the screeching of tires as the van came out of the bank parking lot and turned away from him toward Hamner. When Bolasky came up with the shotgun, the back windows of the van exploded out and he began taking fire from the men inside. With bullets striking the body of the patrol unit in front of him, Bolasky pumped all four rounds from the Wingmaster at the rear of the van 25 feet away.

A single ball of lead the size of a standard BB traveling 1,300 feet per second flew through the length of the van and struck Billy Delgado at the base of his skull, entering the cranial cavity just north of the medulla oblongata. Instantly, Billy’s somatic nervous system ceased relaying voluntary commands below that point. But the medulla itself dutifully carried on its job of running the autonomic nervous system that kept Billy’s vital organs functioning. Passing through the brain stem, that one shot of #4 buck punched a hole through the cartilage wall of his trachea, allowing his still-beating heart to pump blood into his still-breathing lungs. That’s when Billy Delgado began the process of slowly drowning in his own blood.

Without Billy, the van decelerated and drifted harmlessly off the road into a chain-link fence on the north side of Fourth Street, coming to a stop just a few feet short of Hamner Avenue.

•••

The moment George Smith realized the van was not moving, he knew what had happened to his driver. Billy was slumped limply to the right side, involuntarily convulsing. In the passenger seat, Manny was shaking him, calling his name, trying to push him up straight. But Billy’s body was dead weight.

“I’m getting out of here,” Chris yelled. “I’m not getting toasted in this van.”

“Go out the back,” George said, grabbing duffel bags and tossing them in the direction of the side cargo door. “We need another vehicle.”

Chris put a foot up on the back seat and went straight out the shattered back window still holding his Heckler. He fell onto the street and then popped up, aiming the assault rifle toward the police car still sideways in the road. Russ followed his brother out the same way with the “Shorty” AR. Manny grabbed the riot gun, climbed over his dying brother, and out the driver’s door. Alone in the van, George grabbed his Heckler .308. and took a final look around. His eyes settled on the cabinet holding their hostage and saw it punctured and gouged with buckshot. That dude was dead, for sure.

•••

Glyn Bolasky tossed his empty shotgun onto the pavement, drew his .357 Python service revolver, and crouched behind the front tire again. With a break in the gunfire, he came up, aiming the gun over the hood of the Impala. Standing at the rear of the van was a man holding a rifle at his hip with the barrel leveled directly at Bolasky. Staring out from the single eye hole in a black ski mask, he did not look so much like a man as he did some sort of gothic nightmare, a hooded executioner about to drop the guillotine.


Riverside deputy Glyn Bolasky was shot by the robbers as he responded to the Security Pacific bank in Norco. (Photo by Riverside Press-Enterprise)

The two men fired at each other almost simultaneously, Bolasky getting off a single round, which hit low, throwing up a puff of dirt and asphalt. He dove back down behind the front tire, rounds striking his patrol unit, zinging off the pavement, whizzing homicidally overhead. When he came up again, there was a second man alongside the first, each firing from the hip. Bolasky raised his .357 and got off two more rounds. Then something jerked his left arm backward. When he looked, there was a hole on the inside of his left elbow. Blood began squirting onto his face.

•••

A mile directly north on Hamner Avenue at the Donut Corral on Sixth Street, deputies Chuck Hille and Andy Delgado threw down their coffee cups and jumped into their vehicles at the first 211 dispatch. The two men split up, Delgado heading down Hamner and Hille paralleling him on Sierra.

Turning westbound onto Fourth Street from Sierra, rounds struck the radiator and hood of Hille’s patrol unit so hard he felt the impacts resonating through the frame of the Plymouth Fury. “2-Edward-59, we’re taking fire now,” Hille radioed. He began zigzagging his car to evade gunfire and then jerked the wheel right, heading into a dirt lot. As he skidded his cruiser to a stop, Hille heard a chilling transmission coming from Bolasky.

“3-Edward-50, I’m bleeding badly. I have an artery hit. I need help!”

Hille threw open the driver’s door and headed toward Bolasky’s position, dashing the last 50 feet across a wide-open field of fire as bullets thudded into the dirt around him. When he reached Bolasky, what he saw alarmed him. There were fragments of glass embedded in his fellow deputy’s face, and blood was dripping from his chin and cheeks onto his uniform shirt. Bolasky was pale white and gripping his left elbow.

Let me see it, Hille said. Bolasky lifted his hand off the wound and a jet of blood spurted onto Hille’s uniform. Hille clamped Bolasky’s hand back over the elbow to stop the bleeding. Another tire on the Impala took a round and blew out. Hille reached for Bolasky’s .357. He emptied the spent rounds from the cylinder, reloaded and pushed the gun back into Bolasky’s hand. Let’s get to those trees, Hille said, helping Bolasky to his feet. The two men took off running to a row of eucalyptus trees.

Chuck Hille knew he needed to get Glyn Bolasky out of there. “Stay here,” he said. For a second time, Hille crossed the open field to his unit parked in the dirt lot. There was the sound of shotgun blasts and then the cracking of rifles as he ran, but this time there was no sign of rounds striking anywhere near him.

Reaching his patrol unit, Hille swung a big looping U-turn, crossed the dirt lot and Fourth Street, jumped the curb, and pulled up to Bolasky’s location. “Get in the back!” he called. Bolasky dove into the back seat. Hille took off away from the intersection and turned right onto Sierra, focused on a single task: get Glyn Bolasky to Corona Community Hospital before he bled out in the back seat of an RSO patrol unit.

Chuck Hille did not know the reason why he had not taken fire as he ran back to his car that final time. The gunmen had abruptly shifted their attention to a man standing behind the door of a Riverside County Sheriff’s patrol unit on Hamner Avenue, pumping shotgun blasts into their midst. That man was deputy Andy Delgado.

•••

Coming Sunday: Part 7 – Deputy Andy Delgado enters the fray and engages in fire with the bank robbers.

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Norco ’80, part 5: Bank robbery starts, and it’s a race against the clock

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history
Parts1 2 3 4 5 of 14

Eighteen-year-old James Kirkland was filling out a deposit slip at the island in the center of the Security Pacific Bank lobby when he heard someone threaten to blow his head off. When he turned to look, Chris Harven stepped in front of him, pulled an assault rifle out from under a green military poncho, and aimed it straight at his head. Kirkland hit the floor.

“Everyone down,” George Smith commanded, swinging his HK91 from one terrified customer to the next until all dozen or so had complied. “This is a robbery, everyone down!”

Customer Beverly Beam was seated in a chair against the wall next to the entrance waiting for the new accounts manager when the masked men burst through the door. Afraid any movement would surprise the gunmen, she froze. George Smith caught sight of her, whirled and aimed the Heckler at her. “Do you want your head blown off?” he shouted. She shook her head, no. “Then get on the floor.” Beam went down onto her stomach.

Seated at her desk, assistant branch manager Sharon Higman saw an opportunity to trigger the silent alarm mounted just below the edge of the desktop. But the moment she began to move her hand, Chris Harven had the assault rifle trained on her from 20 feet away. “If you hit that alarm, I will shoot your head off,” he growled. Higman lifted her hands where he could see them and sat down on the floor beside her desk.

“If there are any alarms or anything,” Smith barked, roaming between customers flattened out on the marble floor, “there are going to be a lot of dead people here. We have explosives. We won’t be afraid to use them.”

Manny Delgado crossed the bank lobby holding the riot gun at his hip and then vaulted the teller line. Standing atop the counter, he swept the barrel of his shotgun along the row of four cashiers manning their windows below. “You heard him, hit the floor!” he bellowed.

Standing behind the teller line sorting checks, proof operator Denise DeMarco was so frightened at the sight of the shotgun that she began to back away rather than sit down as ordered. “Get down on the floor!” Delgado exploded, lifting the shotgun in her direction. The petrified DeMarco continued to back away. “Please get down, Denise,” one of the tellers begged. DeMarco reached the rear wall of the bank. Terrified, but unable to retreat any further, she slid down the wall and took a seat on the floor.

Delgado ordered the four line tellers to get up and threw a blue drawstring bag onto the counter. “Put the money in it!”

Tellers Janice Harper, Sharon Marzolf and Teresa DeRuyter emptied their drawers into the bag, DeRuyter adding her traceable bait money before passing it on to Marlene Faust. Faust put her cash in the bag and passed it back toward Delgado. Nobody in the bank knew it, but while Delgado had been busy threatening Denise DeMarco, Faust had remained calm enough to trigger the silent alarm button mounted beside her drawer. But Marlene Faust’s silent alarm would do the customers and employees in Norco no good. Due to an installation error, the alarm had been transmitted to the police department in the neighboring city of Corona. Within minutes, police units were descending on the Corona branch of the Security Pacific National Bank, 5 miles away from the robbery in progress.

•••

While Manny Delgado terrorized the teller line, Christopher Harven worked on getting at the big money. Harven turned his rifle on branch manager Ron Richter, seated on the floor with the other employees. “Come on, Manager, we’re going across the lobby.”

Seated nearby, assistant manager Sharon Higman knew that Richter was about to have a serious problem on his hands: There was no more money in the vault. Just an hour before, Richter had called for an armored car delivery of additional bills, but the delivery was late. Anticipating a volatile situation once the gunman saw there was no more cash in the main vault, Higman called over to the second assistant branch manager, Cynthia Schlax. “Cindy, give them the keys to the nests,” she said, referring to the individual teller back-up currency in the vault, usually about $2,000 to $5,000 each.

“You come, too,” Harven ordered Schlax.

“One minute left!” George Smith called out, checking his watch as he continued to pace the floor back and forth, menacing the prone customers with the Heckler. Smith looked over at Russell Harven guarding the west entrance against anyone going in or out during the heist. Standing behind an artificial ficus tree, Harven was transfixed on the activity within the bank, neglecting the only task he had been assigned. “Watch the door!” Smith barked at him.

When Russ turned back, it was too late. A woman opened the side entrance and walked inside the bank clutching her purse. Already a nervous young lady, Sheila Deno now seemed utterly paralyzed trying to comprehend the scene before her. Almost as surprised as Deno, Russell Harven stepped out from behind the tree and aimed the “Shorty” AR at Deno from 5 feet away, ordering her to the ground. Deno stood stone still, her eyes darting from the bodies strewn facedown across the lobby floor to the man standing on the teller counter waving a shotgun and back to the one in the ski mask aiming the gun in her face.

“Get the (expletive) down!” Russ yelled again.

Sharon Higman, seated on the floor at Deno’s feet, reached up and took ahold of Deno’s wrist, yanking her to the floor.

•••

The moment vault teller Janet Dessormeau realized there was a robbery in progress, she had pulled closed the steel side entrance door to the vault, locking herself and employee Gail Altenburger inside. However, she had no time to swing shut the heavy main vault door. Now the only thing between the two women and the heavily armed man coming toward them was the grill gate.

Harven stuck the barrel of the Heckler through the bars of the gate. “You better get this vault open.”

Dessormeau nodded, went to the side door, and opened it. Chris pushed Richter and Cindy Schlax inside and then shoved Dessormeau up against the wall of the vault with his rifle. “Don’t look at me,” he said. Dessormeau shifted her eyes to the floor as Schlax opened the teller nests, hoping Harven might not notice that the larger reserve area of the vault was completely bare. Ron Richter scooped bills from the teller nests into a drawstring bag held by Schlax. “We have no reserve currency,” she whispered to him. “I know,” he said.

“Stop wasting time,” Chris growled, poking Richter in the ribs with the gun.

“Thirty seconds left!” George called out from the lobby area.

At the west entrance to the bank, Russell Harven did not notice Miriam Tufts approaching the door to the bank until the woman had pulled it wide open. Russ stepped out from behind the plant to face her. Tufts looked back at the two eyes staring out from the ski mask and then glanced down at the jet-black assault rifle in the man’s hands. Without a word, Tufts turned and left, the door swinging shut behind her. “Don’t go in there, the place is being robbed,” she warned two customers crossing the parking lot.

At the same time, 17-year-old getaway driver Billy Delgado was running into trouble of his own outside the main entrance. Heart pounding, gulping in shallow breaths, Billy had been so busy trying see what was going on in the bank that he never saw Debi Paggen approaching. Paggen walked directly in front of the green van to the entrance of the bank, but paused and looked back just as she reached for the door. When she did, Paggen found Billy Delgado leaning across the passenger seat pointing a handgun out the window at her.

Paggen let go of the door handle. “Go ahead and rob the bank,” she said, “I’m not going in there.”

The boy with the gun said nothing, his hand shaking as he aimed it at her. Paggen backed away slowly and then turned toward the rear of the van and out of his line of fire.

At the two-minute mark, George Smith called out again. “Time. Now!”

Clutching his bag of coins and bills, Manny Delgado leapt down from the teller counter and made his way to the middle of the bank. Russell Harven abandoned his post at the west entrance and joined the other two. When Chris Harven did not immediately appear, Smith ran to the vault. “Quit stalling,” he screamed at bank manager Ron Richter. “It’s taking too much time!”

But they had already run out of time. Two minutes earlier, a customer getting out of her car at the Redlands Federal Savings Bank on the other side of the intersection happened to look in the direction of the Security Pacific Bank. Racing inside Redlands Federal, the woman approached teller Maria Casa Grande. “I just saw four men with guns go inside the bank across the street!”

At 3:32 p.m., veteran dispatcher Gladys Wiza took an incoming call at the headquarters of the Riverside County Sheriff. Scrawling the info on a notecard, she handed it to deputy Gary Keeter, who was working the dispatch mic. At about the same moment George Smith yelled “Time. Now!” Keeter dropped a priority alert tone over the Riverside County Sheriff’s radio system: “Riverside to all Norco units. 211 in progress, Security Pacific Bank, Fourth and Hamner.”

Billy Delgado had just slid the .45 Colt automatic back into the ankle holster after scaring off Debi Paggen when his side mirror lit up with flashing blue and red lights. Jerking his head around, he settled on a police car making a left turn from Hamner onto Fourth Street, its light bar whirling. Billy fumbled for the walkie-talkie in his lap and pressed the talk button.

Inside the vault, George Smith’s radio crackled to life. “The cops are here,” came the trembling voice of Billy Delgado.

George and Chris looked at each other. “There’s no way,” Chris said.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” called Smith, bolting from the vault area to the north entrance of the bank.

Still lying on the floor of the bank lobby, 18-year-old James Kirkland kept his cheek to the carpet as the boots of the four men stomped by inches from his head. “We’ve been seen,” one of the men called out as they passed. “Let’s go, we’ve been seen.” The door flew open and the men ran out. Before the door swung itself closed again, Kirkland heard a final voice yell, “There’s one!”

That’s when the shooting started.

•••

Coming Saturday: Part 6 – Shooting starts outside the bank and the robbers’ plans change on the fly.

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Norco ’80, part 3: Even near ‘Bank Robbery Capital,’ deputies couldn’t know what was coming

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history

Parts

123of 14

If you had robbed a bank in the greater Los Angeles metro area on May 9, 1980, you would not have been alone. Los Angeles was the undisputed “Bank Robbery Capital of the World,” with one-quarter of all bank heists in the United States committed withing the jurisdiction of the L.A. field office of the FBI, which included Riverside and San Bernardino counties. By 1980, an average of six banks were being robbed each business day. More than 1,500 a year. The reason was simple: freeways.

The Southern California car culture had resulted in a sprawling landscape ideal for bank robbery. By hitting a bank near a freeway on-ramp, a holdup man could jump on and off and be cruising side streets 5 miles away before the cops even arrived at the crime scene. Have the foresight to park a second “cold” getaway car a few miles away and you were gone-baby-gone.

When George Wayne Smith announced to Chris Harven that he had the perfect bank for the job, his decision was not based on the cardinal rule of L.A. bank robbery. From the Norco branch of the Security Pacific Bank it was 4 miles south and nine miles north to the closest freeway. There was a different reason George had targeted the bank at Fourth and Hamner.

Chris was dumbfounded. “You’re going to rob your own bank?”

•••

The sun had crested over the San Gabriel Mountains on the morning of Friday, May 9, when the deputies on the 6 a.m. shift began arriving at the Riverside Sheriff’s Office. The RSO, as the men who worked there called it, covered most of a county larger than the state of Delaware stretching from the edge of the Los Angeles metro area to the Arizona border. The larger cities in the county had their own police departments. The California Highway Patrol ruled the freeways. The RSO got what sheriff’s departments always got: everything else.

Three-quarters of the population of Riverside County was centered in an area west of the San Gabriel Mountains known as the Inland Empire, called I.E. by the locals.

The I.E. of 1980 was a dusty, hot and smoggy land populated by a blue-collar, ragweed-smoking, hard-rocking population as tough as that of any Pennsylvania steel or Texas cow town, of which it was a little of both.

With unemployment rising along with the proliferation of street gangs and drugs throughout the 1970s, it only got rougher. Cops were increasingly coming up against weapons they had never seen before. There were already rumblings among RSO deputies about their need for more powerful, high-capacity weapons to combat what was emerging on the streets. So far, Riverside sheriff Ben Clark had deflected the issue. Few of the deputies had the confidence to put their concerns in writing to the sheriff, but one did. He was a veteran deputy named James Bernard Evans.

•••

Deputy Jim Evans came into the briefing room wearing his brown-and-olive patrol uniform and a Stetson cowboy hat. Evans was a Texan, a Special Forces Green Beret who had seen combat on some of the riskiest deep-jungle missions in the Vietnam War. At 39, Evans was one of the older deputies on the force, easygoing and highly respected. He was handsome, 6 feet tall and trim, with sandy-blond hair and mustache and hazel eyes that looked out at the world through the thick lenses of early-’60s-era tortoiseshell eyeglasses. He had a soft West Texas drawl and countrified vocabulary. Evans had been a city cop but felt penned in by the urban landscape and made the move to the more far-ranging sheriff’s department.


Deputy Jim Evans, who was killed in the 1980 Norco bank robbery. (Courtesy of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association)

Deputy Dave Madden entered the room. Evans looked him over. “Are those new boots you got on, Brother Madden?” he said.

“Indeed, they are,” Madden replied with a smile, taking a seat next to Evans.

Dave Madden was an outlier of the force. Raised a Roman Catholic, he could quote everyone from Lao Tzu and John Lennon to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. He spoke fluent Klingon, responded to calls with the theme to “Star Wars” blasting from a handheld tape player, and shaved his head on a whim. His colleagues called him a hippie and nicknamed him “Mad Dog” Madden.

More of the two-shift deputies sat down around the table. At 23, A. J. Reynard was the youngest deputy on the entire RSO. Cajun by heritage, Reynard had a uniquely SoCal mix of hyperkinetic energy and laid-back attitude with a vocabulary somewhere between surfer and stoner. Fred Chisholm was a tall, good-natured, and deceptively tough transplant from a blue-collar town just outside Boston who still retained his thick regional accent. Veteran Ken McDaniels had just finished radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s disease the week before and was about to work a full Friday shift for the first time in months.

Shift sergeant Ed Giles set a folder down and took a seat at the head of the table. The men turned their attention to the briefing. Giles pointed out a few hot spots, ran through a list of the latest bank robberies, and warned the patrol officers of a possible gang riot at Rubidoux High School. The men groaned. Nobody wanted to get assigned to a riot.

Giles gave Rubidoux to Reynard and McDaniels and told them to keep a high visibility around the school. As usual, deputies Chuck Hille and Andy Delgado would cover the contract town of Norco.

At the conclusion of the briefing, the deputies of the two-shift went to the board, grabbed a radio and keys to one of the available cruisers, and checked out a shotgun for the day. As usual, the only other weapon they would carry was a six-shot revolver firing county-issued soft lead rounds.

•••


Riverside deputy Andy Delgado arrived at the scene of the robbery and immediately ended up in a gun battle with the bad guys. (Photo courtesy of Andy Monti)

Deputy Andy Delgado sat in a chair across the desk from sheriff Ben Clark waiting nervously. Andy was sure he was about to get dressed down over a fight he had with another deputy at a party two weeks before. The whole thing had been stupid, just a dustup over an off-color remark by a drunk fellow deputy. If Delgado had any triggers, one was his Mexican heritage and the other was his size, a generous 5-foot-4, 145 pounds. The drunk deputy – a solid 6-footer who outweighed Delgado by 60 pounds – had managed to pull both. A champion wrestler and accomplished judo competitor, Andy had made quick work of the much larger man.

Clark put down the report and took a sip of his coffee, studying Delgado over the rim of the cup. “Well, deputy Delgado,” he said, finally. Here it comes, Andy thought. “I’ve been reading nothing but superior reviews about your performance for years now and we think you’d make a good detective. Is that something you would be interested in?”

Andy looked back at the man for a few seconds. “What?”

•••

There was no way Andy Delgado should have ended up a cop. The illegitimate child of a poor, 15-year-old Latina with drug and alcohol problems. Abandoned by his birth mother, raised by a grandmother who died a violent death, passed around among relatives who either could not afford or did not want him, placed under the jurisdiction of Child Protective Services, and housed in facilities run by the California Youth Authority. On paper, his childhood history was the familiar trajectory that led far too many young Mexican Americans into street gangs and the California correctional system.

Andy’s childhood had been one of abandonment, rejection and tragedy, but it had also been one of salvation. After walking out of two lockdown orphanages at age 12, Andy was in danger of becoming a long-term inductee into the juvenile corrections system. But at a court hearing to determine Andy’s future, a young cop named Darrell Creed, who had befriended Andy years before, agreed to foster the boy until he was old enough to go out on his own.

From then on, Andy Delgado knew he wanted to be a cop like Darrell Creed. However, the experience of being abandoned, locked up, bullied and treated unfairly was one that Andy never forgot.

Delgado reflected on his life as he drove to his beat in Norco. After all he had been through, things were finally falling into place. A family of his own, on the verge of a college degree, and now a promotion and pay raise to detective.

Andy had grown quite fond of Norco with its quirky Old West feel. Where else in the greater L.A. metro area did residents keep horses in their backyard and ride them to the supermarket to pick up a loaf of bread? “HorseTown USA,” it called itself.

Delgado began his patrol by driving the length of Hamner Avenue. It was a usual busy Friday but otherwise calm. By midafternoon, deputy Chuck Hille noticed Andy was not generating his usual amount of radio traffic running plates, reporting suspicious activity and bringing in arrests. An experienced cop, Hille was a stout ex-high school football star with an intellectual manner of speaking that some of his fellow deputies found off-putting.


An aerial view of the Security Pacific Bank that was hit by the robbers. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

About 3 in the afternoon, an hour before the end of their shift, Hille radioed Delgado for a 1087 meet-up at the Stater Bros. supermarket parking lot at Fourth Street and Hamner Avenue, the busiest intersection in town. In addition to the always-bustling market, the intersection was anchored by other popular businesses: a Carl’s Jr. fast-food restaurant, Redlands Federal Savings Bank, Murphy’s Hay & Grain, and, directly across Hamner, the Norco branch of the Security Pacific National Bank.

Arriving at the parking lot a few minutes later, the two deputies pulled their patrol cars side by side in opposite directions, so they could talk.

“You’re pretty quiet today, Andy,” Hille said.

“I’ve been taking it easy, Chuck,” Andy smiled.  “I just got promoted to detective.”

Hille nodded his head approvingly and smiled in his understated way. “That’s great, Andy,” he said. “You’re a good cop, and I’m really happy for you.”

Andy was surprised and a bit touched to hear Hille say it. The two men had their share of disagreements over the years.

Over the radio, deputy Glyn Bolasky signed on to start the “cover watch” that bridged the transition between the two-shift and night shift. Between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., the RSO would have three deputies patrolling Norco rather than just two.

“Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee at the Donut Corral,” Hille said, referring to a shop a mile north on Sixth Street.

As they sped away, the two deputies barely took notice of the green van parked just 50 feet away in the supermarket lot. But the five heavily armed men sitting inside the van had certainly noticed them. The unexpected arrival of the sheriff’s patrol units had even caused them to consider calling the whole thing off. But when the two RSO units suddenly peeled off and headed up Hamner Avenue, the leader of the men inside the van made his decision.

The time was 3:25 p.m.

•••

Coming Thursday: Part 4 – Once they have the van, it’s time to move on the bank.

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Norco ’80, part 2: Would plans for apocalypse be helped by a bank robbery?

Norco ’80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history

Parts

12of 14

April 1980. Mira Loma, California.

Chris Harven was at the bottom of the pit. He set the shovel down, leaned against the cool dirt sides, and looked straight up at the rectangle of blue sky visible above the coffin-shaped mouth of the hole. A figure darkened the pit’s opening, a big man with a full beard and a mound of black curly hair circling his head. George Wayne Smith crouched down at the edge to inspect the pit, now 12 feet long, 8 feet wide and 10 feet deep, extending beneath the foundation of the garage. “We better start reinforcing these sides,” he said to Harven.


Christopher Harven in Vista, CA, June 21, 1982. (AP Photo/Linnett)

Chris climbed the homemade wooden ladder out of the pit and into the choking smog of another scorching-hot Riverside County afternoon. He raised his hands above his head and stretched out his back, muscles hardened by eight years working as a city parks landscaper. With sandy brown hair, mustache and something of a Clint Eastwood squint to his blue eyes, Harven had rugged good looks to go along with his powerful build.

Harven surveyed the work they had put into the backyard. The entire perimeter of the property was secured now. They had raised the height of the walls separating them from their immediate neighbors by adding three feet of corrugated fiberglass to the top of the cinder block. Razor wire was strung along the fencing, and hundreds of carpet tacks hammered in with the sharp ends sticking up through the wood on top. Harven inspected a cluster of tacks, running his finger over the sharp tips.

Shielding the sun from his eyes, Harven looked up at George standing on a ladder, uncoiling concertina razor wire across the top of the greenhouse filled with over one hundred young marijuana plants. “Those tacks rusted up pretty good,” he called to Smith.

George paused and looked around the place. The son of a Japanese mother and Anglo father, Smith had a light brown complexion, round face, full lips and jet-black hair he had recently let grow out wildly in all directions. What drew most people’s attention were the dark, almond-shaped eyes, giving him a gentle, soulful look. At 27, George was a year younger than Chris, an inch shorter, and 10 pounds lighter with the same sort of lean-muscled build.

“Sure did,” he said. “Tear up your hands and give you tetanus too, climbing over that.”


George Smith in Vista, CA, June 14, 1982. (Photo by Tony Kmiecik, The Press-Enterprise)

Christopher Harven and George Smith met on the job, maintaining parks and the grounds of municipal buildings for the city of Cypress in 1973. The two young men hailed from the same sort of working-class Orange County neighborhood and found common ground in things they both loved: camping, guns, music and marijuana. Harven had a strong interest in survivalism but was less clear on exactly what he would need to survive. Smith knew what he would need to survive but not exactly how to survive it. So they talked about guns, bomb shelters, Jesus and the end of the world while shoveling dirt, planting oleander, and mowing lawns, sneaking off every few hours to get stoned.

With both their marriages on the rocks, Harven and Smith scraped together a $5,000 down payment and bought the house in the Mira Loma area of Riverside County in the spring of 1979. It was a ratty-looking, ranch-style affair that was becoming overgrown with weeds, the fruit trees in the back-yard withering from neglect.

The carpet tacks and barbed wire had been Harven’s idea, partly to keep the neighbor kids from stealing their weed. The pit was George’s brainchild, designed as an escape tunnel leading from the garage to the backyard if the cops ever came busting in. But both had in mind something much bigger than protecting a greenhouse full of pot. The pit would be stocked with food and water to serve as a bunker when the great earthquake hit or the A-bombs started to fall. The perimeter fortifications would help them hold off the bands of marauders who would come after their supplies. For any who managed to breach the perimeter, well, Chris and George had plenty of firepower to take care of them.

The two young men might have had varying visions of how it would all go down, but their beliefs led to the same place: a catastrophic event followed by social collapse, anarchy, and a fight for survival in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic landscape.

Each had their timeline for how it would come about. For Chris, it was called “The Jupiter Effect,” a rare alignment of planets scheduled for March 1982, resulting in huge enormous tidal shifts, volcanic eruptions, and a massive earthquake that would tear California lengthwise up the San Andreas Fault. For George, it was a prediction by Calvary Chapel founder Pastor Chuck Smith that the Rapture would come before 1981. With the Iranian Hostage Crisis now in its sixth month and reports beginning in March that an ancient volcano in the Pacific Range named Mt. St. Helens might be about to blow, both felt confident it was going to be one or the other.

But, in August of 1979, Smith was fired from the city of Cypress parks job he had held for most of the decade. Several months later, his wife left him, taking their young daughter along with her. By Christmas, George was without a job, without a car, and without a family. That’s when things started to get weird. He began to grow out his hair so he could weave it into seven braids like Samson and convinced Chris that it was time to start turning the Mira Loma house into a fortress. After all, if they were not going to have enough money for George’s ultimate plan to buy a remote cabin in Utah, they better make sure they were prepared to ride out the Apocalypse right where they were.

In February, Chris Harven’s wife Lani, who had been living at the Mira Loma house off and on, finally took their young son and left for good. In March he lost his job along with all the benefits of a municipal worker. Chris told his mother he felt like his life was going down the tubes.

By the spring of 1980, they were barely scraping by, picking up day labor jobs here and there for lousy pay. The two were running low on money and beginning to get desperate.

One day while Chris was sitting at the kitchen table, George came home and announced he and a 21-year-old former co-worker from Cypress named Manny Delgado were going to rob the Denny’s restaurant in neighboring Corona.

Chris told him it was a ridiculous idea. “If you’re gonna rob anything,” he said, “why don’t you just rob a bank?”  When George asked if he would help pull off the heist, Chris had one condition. “I’m not going into any bank unless we’re armed up.”  George agreed, stating what would become his mantra for the whole enterprise. “I won’t get taken alive.”

•••

Manny Delgado was 21 years old from Crow Village barrio of Stanton. A bantamweight, barely over 5 feet tall and weighing in at about 120 pounds, Delgado had worked for the city of Cypress parks department along with Chris and Smith since he was sixteen.

When George suggested the bank job instead of the restaurant stick-up, Manny was in. He already had one child under age 2 and was expecting another. Succeed or die, George told him. Manny quit his job at Cypress and told them he was moving to Arizona.

One more thing, George asked. They needed a getaway driver.

Manny’s little brother Billy Delgado was just 17 years old, but always in pain. He had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis that one doctor had told him would rob him of his ability to walk by age 25. So, when George and Manny asked him to come in on the robbery as the driver, Billy figured he had nothing to lose.

Thirty miles due west of Norco, Russell Harven was not preparing for the Apocalypse or anything else. Chris’s younger brother was doing what he usually did: nothing. At 26, a typical day for Russ consisted of lying around his little bedroom in his parents’ house in Anaheim smoking dope and throwing back cans of RC Cola despite being a diabetic.

The two brothers were not close. In fact, Russell often wondered if Chris’ only purpose in life was to torment him. But Russell Harven could usually be talked into just about anything, especially by Chris. So, it didn’t take all that much badgering to get Russ to complete the robbery crew.

•••

With the gang recruited, George and Chris emptied their remaining savings accounts on more weapons. Why not? George said. They’d either end up with a boatload of money from the job or die trying. Both had accumulated a modest collection of handguns, shotguns, and hunting rifles throughout the 1970s, but it was not nearly enough for what they had planned.

On Feb. 3, Harven and Smith went to Dave’s Guns in Costa Mesa and picked up a semi-automatic handgun and a Heckler & Koch HK93. The HK93 was a top-of-the line German-made .223-caliber assault rifle, the civilian semiautomatic version of the M16 used by American forces in Vietnam.

Harven came back to Dave’s on Feb. 13 and bought a sawed-off, antipersonnel version of the Remington 870 Wingmaster shotgun known as a riot gun. A week later, Smith stopped in and picked up hundreds of rounds of .223 ammunition, high capacity magazines, and forty rounds of German Rottweil Brenneke shotgun slugs powerful enough to crack the engine block of an automobile.

On April 28, Chris went to the Gun Ranch in Garden Grove and purchased a second .223-caliber assault rifle, this time a Colt “Shorty” AR-15 with a collapsible stock and shorter barrel for use in confined spaces. Along with it he bought a handful of 40-round, high-capacity magazines.

With his arsenal complete, Chris switched his focus to turning the garage in Mira Loma into a bomb-making factory, where they began assembling an arsenal of explosive devices. Working from a recipe in “The Anarchist Cookbook,” they created two dozen fragmentation grenades using beer cans, PVC pipe filled with gunpowder surrounded by a lethal mix of shrapnel. Using a shotgun as a grenade launcher, Harven and Smith had a devastating antipersonnel explosive with a launch range of one hundred yards.

But it wasn’t enough for George. Concluding that everyone involved in the robbery should be armed to the teeth, he made his biggest purchase yet – and the one that finally raised eyebrows at Dave’s Guns. Smith picked up another Colt AR-15 along with a Heckler & Koch HK91 semi-automatic assault rifle. The HK91 was essentially the same gun as the AR-15 but chambered for a .308-caliber round three times the size of the .223. A .223 might kill you, but a .308 would literally blow your head off.

Guns like these might have been legal, but they were not big sellers in 1980. “What are you doing,” owner Dave McNulty joked, “getting ready to start World War III or rob a bank?”

Smith just laughed.

The date was May 2, 1980.

•••

Coming Wednesday: Part 3 – Even in the “Bank Robbery Capital of the World,” there was no way sheriff’s deputies could know what was coming.

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Norco ’80, part 1: Before the bank robbery and 4-minute gun battle

Dear Reader:

We are proud to introduce today the first installment of “Norco ’80,” the incredible true story of a Southern California bank robbery that occurred 40 years ago this month. Peter Houlahan’s gripping account, which we will be bringing to you in regular installments over the next two weeks, is adapted from his 2019 book, “Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Robbery in American History.” Serializing a story like this is a bit of a throwback to the old days, for sure. But in a time when most of us are cooped up at home around the clock, we hope it provides a little something fresh to look forward to each day. It is an extraordinary story, and Houlahan is a wonderful storyteller. If you like it, which we’re sure you will, the book will be out in paperback next month. Enjoy!

Norco 80
The true story of the most spectacular bank robbery in American history
Part 1 of 14

The entire gun battle had taken just four minutes and two seconds. But to the law enforcement officers flooding the intersection of Fourth Street and Hamner Avenue in the city of Norco, California on the afternoon of May 9, 1980, that seemed almost impossible to believe.

Hundreds of empty shell casings were scattered across the parking lot of the Security Pacific Bank, the length of Fourth Street, and littering the intersection at Hamner. Bullet holes were everywhere – 46 having hit Riverside Deputy Glyn Bolasky’s patrol car alone, several in each of deputies Chuck Hille’s and Andy Delgado’s units, and more in civilian vehicles abandoned on Hamner or parked in nearby lots.  Others went into houses, sheds, road signs, and storefronts.

On Fourth Street, two vehicles sat smashed and disabled in the roadway with four injured civilians still inside.  Bolasky’s Chevy Impala was sideways in the road, every window and three of its tires blown out, with blood on the front seat, on the side of the door, splattered on the asphalt beside it, and trailing away in droplets to a row of trees.


Deputy Glyn Bolasky’s car was shot up. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

Inside the Security Pacific Bank, customers and employees were only now daring to get off the floor, the teller drawers and bank vault still open and empty. Inside nearby offices, stores, and restaurants, dozens of bystanders cowered behind desks or under tables, still too frightened to come out. Others had to be coaxed out of closets, bathrooms, phone booths, from under cars or behind houses, trees, and walls.

On Fourth Street, the green getaway van, still stuck in drive, was rhythmically rocking back and forth against the chain-link fence, a teenage boy slumped in the driver’s seat convulsing, a .45 Colt automatic strapped to his ankle, an AR-15 on the floor beside him. In the cargo area in back a cabinet door still bulged from the weight of the hostage taped up inside.

But what police did not find at the intersection of Fourth and Hamner was even more unsettling than the destruction they encountered there.  “Suspects fled, a yellow pickup, north on Hamner,” Deputy Andy Delgado had radioed just moments before as the men responsible escaped the area. What was already one of the most violent events in American law enforcement history had only just begun.

•••


An aerial view of the Security Pacific Bank that was hit by the robbers. Deputy Glyn Bolasky’s police car is in the road at the upper left. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

To understand why a group of young men with no serious criminal records would attempt a bank robbery that turned into one of the most violent events in law enforcement history, one must first understand the culture in which it took place. The two men behind the Norco bank robbery believed that America was on the verge of a catastrophe of biblical proportions, one in which only the well-armed and well prepared would survive. If one were on the lookout for warning signs of social decay, the collapse of civil society, and the obliteration of mankind, there were plenty of them to see by May 1980.

At the time of the robbery, George Smith and Christopher Harven were 27 and 29 years old, respectively. They had both entered adulthood at the dawn of the 1970s, so whatever beliefs they possessed were formed almost entirely by the peculiar zeitgeist of that decade.

The 1970s was a decade of national disillusionment and self-destructive indulgence where many of the counterculture philosophies formed in the late 1960s played themselves out in very ugly ways. Recreational drug use became drug abuse. The idealism of Woodstock became the pure hedonism of Studio 54. Pornography evolved from sexy girls in bunny tails into the explicit raunchiness of Larry Flynt’s Hustler. Free love became an epidemic of venereal disease and unwelcome pregnancies. Cities descended further into lawlessness, poverty, and bankruptcy while violent crime across the country escalated at a rate that would be almost unimaginable today. Communes turned into cults or business opportunities for predatory self-help gurus. In November 1978, just eighteen months before the Norco robbery, more than nine hundred members of the Peoples Temple died in what cult leader Jim Jones labeled an act of “revolutionary suicide” but was, in fact, mass murder.

The more traditional idea of armed revolution was also particularly active. In the first half of the 1970s, just after their graduation from high school, George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven witnessed a constant parade of radical groups who not only believed they could overthrow a government, start a civil war, or collapse a society, but actively tried to do just that. There were more than 2,500 bombings by radical groups in the United States over an eighteen-month period between 1971 and 1972 alone. Cops became “pigs,” regarded by the radical underground as foot soldiers of a deeply corrupt status quo and targeted for assassination in major cities from coast to coast. It did not matter that groups such as the Symbionese Liberation Army, Weather Underground, and Black Liberation Army had little support and stood no chance of succeeding. What mattered was that for the first time in the country’s history, many, including George Smith and Christopher Harven, were looking at American society and seeing a house of cards teetering on collapse. Smith and Harven did not want to change the world, they just wanted to survive it once the whole place went up in flames.

Both George Smith and Christopher Harven were part of the first generation to live their entire lives under the threat of nuclear war. They had spent their early childhood overhearing adults chattering nervously about Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the nuclear arms race. Their school days from kindergarten through twelfth grade had been punctuated by monthly “duck and cover” drills.

Both Smith and Harven went straight from high school into the military. Smith was sent to Germany in the shadow of the Iron Curtain for two years as an artilleryman trained in the art of lofting battlefield nukes into enemy forces. Harven, booted out of the Army after only two months, still gained an insider’s understanding of the implications of the sharp ramping-up of tactical nuclear weapons that was underway. The key takeaway for both was simple: We are all going to die.

•••

The evolution of the two young men from weed-smoking, petty scofflaws to violent bank robbers was rooted as much in the “where” as it was in the “when.”

In 1972 Orange County, George Smith found himself at ground zero of the biggest religious youth movement since the Children’s Crusade.

Many saw the brand of aggressively evangelical, End Times theology practiced during the “Jesus movement” by born-again mega-ministries such as the Melodyland Christian Center and Calvary Chapel, where George became a member, as irresponsible, abusive, and dangerous. Pentecostal-style fire-and-brimstone sermons kept their young membership in a perpetual state of terror, afraid that when the Rapture came, Jesus would find them unworthy and leave them behind. Most put their spiritual destiny in the hands of the church to assure their entry into the Kingdom of the Lord, in part through mass ocean baptisms carried out at Huntington Beach and Corona del Mar. Others, like George Smith. took a more proactive approach, arming and preparing themselves to ride out the great catastrophes and social collapse that would precede the Rapture and Second Coming.

Christopher Harven was a different breed of cat, but when he looked out at the world, he saw all the same things Smith did. Harven viewed signs of impending social collapse in the alignment of planets, predictions of cataclysmic overpopulation, ecological disaster, and an array of other doomsday scenarios that gained traction during the decade. Harven was not what you would call a follower, but George Smith was a particularly articulate and persuasive young man, adding his own extreme biblical interpretations to Harven’s hodgepodge of pseudoscientific beliefs.

George and Chris became friends, looked for signs of the approaching Apocalypse together, bought a house together, lost jobs and wives and girlfriends together, and eventually descended into desperation together. So together they made a plan. A very, very bad plan.

•••

Aesthetically speaking, its world looked much the same in 1980 as it does today. The boulevards of Norco are still lined with the same fast-food restaurants, taco joints, gas stations, and convenience stores, many of which have the same names they did back then. The teenagers still wear their hair long and hang out in front of the 7-Eleven and the bowling alley in ripped jeans and ratty rock concert T-shirts. Parents still shuttle kids to school and ballet classes or to the Little League field at Detroit and Hamner where the robbers parked their getaway cars 40 years before. The Carl’s Jr. restaurant where diners dove beneath tables to avoid getting shot is still there, as is the row of small stucco ranch houses that took semiautomatic gunfire through their windows. The Security Pacific Bank building is gone now, but not torn down until late 2019.

While the men who robbed the bank might be products of this tumultuous time, the men on the other side of the confrontation were not. The cops involved in the firefight that day were not so different from the cops who came before and after them: working-class guys, many from families with a long history in law enforcement, most of whom knew from an early age that they wanted to be in police work too. They had rigid definitions of right and wrong. Off duty, they looked like regular blue-collar guys, reflecting the fashion, hairstyles, and trends of the time. In 1980 that meant long sideburns, blow-dried hair, wide lapels, ugly polyester shirts, flared slacks, and, to a man, mustaches.

As always, they boasted that cop swagger and thought themselves immune to any lasting effects from their experiences on the job. But they were not immune, of course, not then and not now. Even today, 40 years later, many of the men involved in the Norco shootout break down and cry when recounting it. The helplessness of being completely outgunned or the terror of being shot. The sound of having your cruiser torn apart by military-grade weapons. The thought that maybe you could have done something different that might have saved the life of a fellow cop.

For whatever reason, the passing of years does not seem to help all that much, not for the police officers and civilians terrorized on a spring afternoon by a gang of heavily armed men, and not for the families of the bank robbers who so needlessly threw their lives away. Some of the damage was immediate, tearing friendships apart, ending marriages, destroying careers, and ruining lives. But it just keeps rippling out through the generations, carried forward by heartbroken parents, wives, brothers, and sisters, and handed down to the half dozen children left fatherless on both sides. In this way, the Norco bank robbery is not frozen in time. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of Norco, it just seems to go on forever.

•••

Coming Tuesday: Part 2 — Friends prepare to survive an apocalypse and realize robbing a bank would help.

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Comic-Con 2019: Mad magazine is not dead yet, say artists Sergio Aragonés and Tom Richmond

The news hit comedy fans like an stick of dynamite in one of Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy cartoons: After 67 years, the legendary humor magazine was to be no more?

That was the instant headline when news exploded on July 4 that the cartoon-and-comedy magazine would cease publishing new material after its next two issues.

  • Illustrator, Tom Richmond, draws a portrait at his booth during Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

  • Illustrator, Tom Richmond, poses for a photograph at his booth during Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

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  • Cartoonist, Sergio Aragonés, signs autographs at his booth during Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

  • Cartoonist, Sergio Aragonés, smiles while signing autographs at his booth during Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

  • An illustration of Samuel Jackson by Tom Richmond on display at his booth during Comic-Con International at the San Diego Convention Center on Sunday, July 21, 2019. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

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Layoffs at the publication owned by DC Comics were deep and may or may not have been accompanied by Don Martin-esque sound effects like “Tzing!” “Twong!” and “Floploploplop!” Heartfelt tributes came from far and wide.

But hang on, said a pair of Mad artists with booths at Comic-Con on Sunday morning. Things are changing, but maybe not to the drastic degree everyone expects.

“It’s not really closing, it’s changing,” said Sergio Aragonés, who has worked for Mad since 1962 when the Spanish-born cartoonist arrived in New York City. “Nowadays, somebody will they got fired, puts it on the telephone, and other people can say whatever they want.

“Mad is not dying at all,” he said while sketching himself sketching the magazine’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman for a fan. “It’s a pretty valuable property to let it go. There will be changes. Everybody has to change, and Mad is changing.”

Aragonés and artist Tom Richmond, who has worked for Mad since 2000, say a lot of what’s to come is still undecided.

There may be direct sales of publications to readers, Aragonés said, though he’s not a fan of that idea — Mad should be as easy to get as to pick it up at the supermarket or drugstore, he believes.

Richmond, who has movie parodies — long a Mad staple — of both “The Lion King” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” in the issue that reaches newstands in August, said there is talk of doing Year In Review annuals and other specials going forward.

Even DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio suggested during a Comic-Con panel on Saturday that we’ve likely not seen the last of Alfred E. Neuman’s gap-toothed smile, saying that there still will be new material, though the format it will take is still to be determined.

Richmond’s first issue with the magazine was its last to be published entirely in black-and-white, Richmond said. That’s the way he and so many others grew up reading it.

“When I was a kid, I just enjoyed Mad like everybody else did, for the humor and the voice,” said Richmond, who lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota. “As a kid, a lot of it’s over your head. I was introduced to ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ there when I was kid. I was 11, I had no idea what it was about.”

As he grew older, and started making his own art, he realized that Mad illustrators like Mort Drucker and Jack Davis were “the best of the best.”

And the humor of its writers shaped multiple generations of comedians and culture, Richmond said.

“I don’t think you can overstate the impact that Mad had on popular culture and humor,” he said. “And how many of today’s comedians have been directly influenced by it. It’s in their DNA.”

A lot of that DNA was likely planted there by Aragonés, who has contributed a huge number of cover ideas and whose “marginals” — small cartoons in the margins of the pages — have appeared in every episode of the magazine for more than half a century.

“It made me,” Aragonés says of landing at Mad as a 25-year-old cartoonist in 1962. “Within a month I was following the Gang of Idiots” — the nickname given the magazine’s legendary artists and writers — “I’ll be thankful for ever.”

So while Mad may be getting older: “Mad is like a crazy old uncle who is getting senile,” Aragonés jokes. “And it was very good to me.”

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