They call it the last of the great Wild West shootouts.
Five bandits storm the Security Pacific Bank in the dusty little town of Norco, California, a place that goes by the name of “Horse Town USA.”
When they flee the bank with their bag of loot, they come face-to-face with a sheriff’s deputy and the shooting begins.
When two other deputies arrive, there is a ferocious gunfight between the cops and the robbers in front of the bank.
Dozens of citizens dive under tables or run for their lives as bullets whistle through houses, store fronts and Murphy’s Hay & Grain feed store just across the street.
Outmanned and outgunned, the three deputies are overwhelmed and one badly wounded.
With one of their own dead and three others wounded, the bandits do what bandits in the Wild West have always done – they head for the hills.
But the sheriff is hot on their trail and when the fleeing bank robbers reach the soaring San Gabriel Mountains and head up treacherous Lytle Creek Canyon, past Convict Springs, Glenn Ranch and Stockton Flats, they are trapped.
At 6,500 feet up a narrow trail clinging to the side of Mount San Antonio the outlaws find their escape blocked by a washout.
Desperate to flee, they ambush dozens of pursuing peace officers and disappear into the rugged canyons of Lytle Creek.
If you guessed that the Norco Bank Robbery & Shootout happened sometime around 1880, you’d be off by a hundred years. The date was May 9, 1980.
The bad guys were not on horseback but shooting from the back of a Ford F-250 pickup.
The rifles they were firing were semi-automatic AR-15s and a German-made Heckler chambering a .308 caliber round capable of killing any animal in the world from a half mile away with a single shot.
And the lawmen? They were shooting with the same guns they had guarded the western frontier with back in 1880 – a six shooter and a Winchester shotgun.
When the Norco Bank Robbery & Shootout was over, the toll was staggering.
Three dead, 15 wounded, 33 police vehicles disabled or destroyed, including a sheriff’s helicopter shot out of the sky above an abandon steel mill in San Bernardino County.
The pursuit stretched for 40 miles and lasted a full hour with over 1,500 rounds fired.
To put it in perspective, the legendary 1881 “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone Arizona lasted 30 seconds in which 30 rounds were fired.
It all began in the neighboring Orange County, California, when a born-again Christian with apocalyptic beliefs named George Wayne Smith got it into his head that the End Times were upon us.
Smith had come out of the youth-oriented “Jesus Movement” that swept America in the 1970s and was led by aggressively evangelical ministries whose theology centered around the prophesies in the Book of Revelation.
Smith had been the star of his high school tennis team, sang in the choir, was a member of the chess club and editor of the school newspaper.
He served in the U.S. Army stationed in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.
As an artilleryman, he was trained in the use tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.
Smith came home convinced he had seen exactly how the world would end. In the 1970s, that was not such a crazy idea.
Smith’s roommate and best friend, Chris Harven, was a different breed.
He was a survivalist who believed the collapse of society and end of the world, or at least California, would come about by any of the numerous doomsday scenarios being thrown out in the era.
It could be population bombs, asteroid strikes, massive earthquakes, or a rare alignment of planets called “The Jupiter Effect.”
Where George believed the end would come at the hand of God, Chris believed it would come by the hand of Mother Nature.
George and Chris became friends, worked together, looked for signs of the approaching apocalypse together, bought a house together, lost jobs, wives and girlfriends together and eventually descended into desperation together.
So together they made a plan.
With the apocalypse looming, the two armed themselves with legally bought military grade weapons.
The homemade fragmentation grenades and Molotov cocktails they put together in their garage were decidedly not legal.
Then they turned their suburban home into a fortress, lined with barbed wire and featuring an escape tunnel running from underneath the house to the back garden.
But it wasn’t enough. What they really needed was a cabin up in the mountains of Utah where they could stockpile weapons and supplies, gather together their loved ones and ride out the Tribulations to come.
As it turns out, surviving an apocalypse costs a lot of money.
So, George and Chris, both in their late 20s, set about the task of financing their grandiose endeavor and decided the most expedient way was to rob a bank.
Harven recruited his younger brother, Russell.
George recruited a fellow city parks landscaper, 21-year-old Manny Delgado, who then brought in his 17-year-old brother Billy to be the getaway driver.
The five men who robbed the Security Pacific Bank on afternoon of Friday, May 9, 1980 had no serious criminal records and no history of violence.
But all that changed in one morning when they stole a getaway van at gunpoint and kidnapped the owner so he could not report it missing.
Then came the diversion bomb they planted beneath a gas line a mile away from the bank to draw away all the police in the area.
But the bomb made of beer bottles filled with gasoline and a detonator, fizzled and along with it their entire plan.
When they burst out of the bank in ski masks and armed with high-powered rifles and a sawed-off shotgun, Riverside sheriff’s deputy Glyn Bolasky was not putting out fires a mile away, he was waiting at a traffic light directly in front the bank.
Pulling into the bank parking lot, Bolasky immediately came under heavy fire, rounds coming through his windshield and dashboard, wounding him with fragments and spraying him with broken glass.
Laying across the bench seat of his cruiser, he threw the vehicle into reverse and screeched backward into Fourth Street, his unit skidding to a stop sideways in the roadway.
Speeding from the parking lot themselves, the van with all five bank robbers and hostage inside took four shotgun blasts through the rear end from the wounded Bolasky, a single pellet striking 17-year-old driver, Billy Delgado, in the back of the head.
Without Billy, the van drifted off the roadway and into a chain link fence.
“3-Edward-50, the suspects are stranded, their vehicle is disabled at Hamner and Fourth,” came the desperate voice of Bolasky over the radio.
“Roll help, I need an ambulance. I’m bleeding badly.”
With the bank robbers bailing out of the disabled van, taking their stash of weapons while leaving their dying teenage driver behind, deputies Chuck Hille and Andy Delgado arrived on scene.
Instantly, the crowded intersection of Fourth and Hamner erupted into a ferocious firefight between police and robbers as dozens of onlookers dove for cover and motorists jumped from their cars and ran for their lives.
Commandeering the heavy F-250 pickup at gunpoint, the surviving bank robbers fled the intersection just four minutes after leaving the bank.
Officers responding to the scene minutes later could hardly believe what they saw.
Spent shell casings, over 500 in all, littered the intersection of Fourth and Hamner, so many that one officer said it was hard to take a step without crunching at least one underfoot.
Bullet holes everywhere – 46 having hit Bolasky’s car alone – several in each of Hille’s and Delgado’s units, more in civilian vehicles abandoned or parked in nearby lots.
Others went into houses, cars, sheds, and storefronts. Along with Bolasky, three civilians had been wounded by gunfire.
Inside the green van, Hostage Gary Hakala, burst out of the cabinet that had been his private prison for five hours and found Billy Delgado convulsing in the driver’s seat, a .45 caliber handgun strapped to his ankle and an AR-15 on the floor beside him.
Scattered across the floor of the van was the cause of it all, a sad little mix of wrapped and loose bills and coins.
What was already one of the most violent bank robberies in history had begun with one of its lousiest takes: $20,112.36.
The firefight at Fourth and Hamner was only the beginning of a pursuit that would turn into a running gunbattle through the suburban streets of Riverside County.
Leaving the area a warzone with over a dozen police and civilians wounded, the outlaws fled onto a crowded interstate highway where they tossed fragmentation grenades, shot pursuing police vehicles, some from as far as a half mile away, and downed San Bernardino Sheriff’s helicopter 40-King-2.
Unable to shake what had become a pursuit line of ore than 40 law enforcement units from six agencies, the fleeing robbers left the freeway for rugged Lytle Creek Canyon, the road soon becoming a rough dirt track suitable only for four wheel drive vehicles.
At six thousand feet in elevation, the conditions became even more harrowing, narrowing into a Forest Service fire road clinging to the side of Mount San Antonio with switchbacks and drops of hundreds of feet to the canyon floor for any vehicle unfortunate enough to slide off it.
Under constant fire and unable to communicate with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter above him, Riverside Deputy Jim Evans, an army Green Beret and Vietnam combat veteran, had the lead position in the pursuit line.
Coming around a final curve, Evans drove straight into an ambush by four gunmen standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the roadway, their progress blocked by a complete washout of the fire road in front of them.
Diving from his vehicle as bullets crashed through his windshield, Evans was able to return fire, hitting one of the bank robbers in the back before being shot in the face by a round from an AR-15.
But Norco’s lasting legacy comes from a single weapon in the hands of a single deputy on the mountainside that day.
As the pursuit headed into neighbouring San Bernardino County, a young deputy named D.J. McCarty heard the radio reports of his fellow officers being overwhelmed by superior firepower.
McCarty grabbed the only high-powered rifle in the entire San Bernardino arsenal, a military M-16 machine gun confiscated by the department from a drug gang months before.
Jumping into a patrol vehicle with Deputy Jim McPheron behind the wheel, the two men worked their way to the front of the pursuit line, ending up just behind Jim Evans when ambushed.
Shot in the elbow by the same volley that killed Evans, McCarty dove from his patrol unit and used the M-16 to spray the roadway with the gunfire, finally scattering the bank robbers into the canyon.
“When the suspects heard that rifle, they realised their firepower was now being matched,” said McCarty’s fellow deputy, Rolf Parkes.
“There would have been a lot more dead cops on that road if not for that weapon.”
Under pressure from both inside and outside their departments in the aftermath of the Norco bank robbery, the Riverside and San Bernardino Sheriff’s Departments put in orders for more weapons of the type used by D.J. McCarty.
Within months, the two agencies went from a pair of high-powered rifles between them to over 100 and counting.
The .38 revolver sidearm was replaced with 15-round capacity semi-automatic pistols.
Helicopters, which had been unarmed before Norco, now circled overhead with machine guns at the ready to rain dozens of rounds of ammunition down on hostile suspects if needed.
The age of the “militarization” of local police forces had begun, as military-grade weapons moved beyond the province of highly trained SWAT teams to that of standard-issue firearms for the regular cop on street patrol.
The three who were arrested were convicted of 46 felonies and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Norco '80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan is out now.
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