It was one of the those perfectly unscripted moments of cosmic synergy, happening right before our eyes at a Ralphs parking lot on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Just as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was about to get up on Wednesday to address the heroic and valiant efforts of the LAPD during the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, helicopters cut across the sky overhead and three police cruisers screamed past, sirens wailing, in pursuit of a blue SUV. As it sped past, the driver, a Latino guy with a shaved head, flashed a huge smile and flipped the bird at the mayor, Chief William Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca, the entire press, and just about everyone else who had gathered at this surreal media event to mark the 10-year anniversary of the positively cinematic bank-robbery shootout that cost two lives, those of the gunmen.
“All of us want to see that guy get caught,” Villaraigosa managed to say, while the crowd clapped and laughed nervously. The whole time Villaraigosa spoke, a young, heavyset girl stood behind him near the sidewalk, chewing gum and absently swinging her arms. Other pedestrians, mindlessly drawn to the news cameras, wandered past and stopped, listening but not really.
And what were we doing here, exactly? Difficult to say. The shooting that started at the Bank of America across the street wasn’t especially tragic. No officers or civilians died. It wasn’t a major turning point in LAPD or city history, aside from giving the department a needed morale boost after the Rodney King debacle. The AK-47–toting, body armor–wearing gunmen who died that day — Emil Matasareanu and Larry E. Philips Jr. — are all but forgotten. Wait, the L.A. Times’ Valley metro staff won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the story, an achievement that LAPD media-relations boss Mary Grady, a former news reporter herself, failed to mention during the proceedings. There was also no mention of the mental trauma suffered later by several bystanders, some of whom have since faded away and died. Instead, the Police Department rolled out the rusting white sedan and the holed-up cruiser involved in the final standoff that ended the famous 44 minutes of firepower, as if they were movie props. And they set up blue-and-white balloons, as if this were a used-car sale. They even passed out event programs.
Reporters were left scratching their heads. “Are they going to bring out a cake in the shape of a machine gun?” someone quipped.
Fitting, in a way, for a meta-postmodern-pop-meltdown of the North Hollywood shootout. It happened right after the release of the Michael Mann film Heat, with its breathtaking and legendary bank-robbery shootout sequence in the downtown financial district, and everyone at the time noted the similarities. The shooting later inspired a film, 44 Minutes, made for TV and starring Mario Van Peebles. Just writing this paragraph caused my head to make a complete 360-degree revolution on my neck.
Yet it was nice to watch these real, live working police officers and dispatch ladies get a little recognition. And Dr. Jorge Montes, the dentist in the strip mall who did emergency triage work on wounded officers, was there, proudly sporting his “Courage” pin from the city and a Seven Dwarfs necktie.
“I went eye to eye with this guy as I was shooting with him,” recalled Detective Thomas Culotta, a big, burly guy with a gray mustache. “I saw my bullets hit his black jacket with dust flying from it; every time I squeezed the trigger, I’d see a little poof.”
Culotta said he was a 31-year LAPD veteran. He showed up at the event wearing dirty jeans and an open flannel shirt, looking more like a friendly truck driver. “I told myself, ‘This might be the day you die, man, this might be the day.’ ”
The other journalists and I shook our heads in affected reporter empathy. We were all glad he didn’t die.