Photograph credit: Gerard Burkhart/LA Times

It is hard to believe, knowing what we do of these two men now, that for eleven months between June 1995 and May 1996 that they both sailed the straight and true.
Were there any takeover robberies in this timeframe? Of course, but none that seem to match this duo's modus operandi.
Were there any armoured car robberies? Again, of course. Can they conclusively be tied to this pair? No.
Their criminal career had so far been less than stellar, and if Herman Cook's shooting can be attributed to them then they had earned less than $150,000 and taken a life. A poor return.
An escalation in tactics was about to land them two huge hauls of money; justification for this escalation would have lain in the bricks and bricks of banded bills spilled over the floor of their safe house for two robberies in the space of three weeks would see them net a little over $1.5 million.
They had plotted and planned, schemed and studied and on the morning of Thursday, 2nd May 1996 they stormed what was to be the first of their three takeover bank robberies. Three robberies so bizarre in their execution that nine months later when the two men lay on the Los Angeles County Coroner's steel tables questions would be raised as to whether these men had a suicidal streak.
The overall bell curve that spanned their criminal career rose, peaked, and declined so fast that the outcome on 28th February 1997 was almost a certainty to happen.
What follows is a recreation of that robbery based on the FBI file, witness statements and several media sources.

At shortly before 10:00am, the south doors of the Bank of America at 7255 Woodman Avenue crashed open.

In strode Matasareanu, Phillips slightly behind him and carrying the empty bag they expected to fill with millions and both men were armed with what was to become their criminal trademark, AK-47 style rifles.


The shouted orders were drowned out milliseconds later by a deafening barrage of gunfire as Matasareanu shot through the armoured teller door between teller stations #2 and #3.
The 1 1/4 inch thick polycarbonate sheet shattered and fractured easily under the onslaught of twenty-one 7.62x39mm steel-cored bullets.
Customers and staff were already dropping to the floor.
Matasareanu's bullets tore through the door with ease, spraying the cowering tellers with shards of plastic, the bullets themselves hammering into a filing cabinet on the back wall behind the door.
The terror amongst the customers was instantaneous and complete, one female customer broke from the line and scooping her child from a nearby sofa dived under a desk, she would share that space with the desks occupant for the duration of the robbery.
At the north-east doors, one of the two security guards from American Protective Services was helping a disabled customer exit the bank as the gunmen entered the other doors, once the gunfire started and he and his charge were clear of the doors, he bolted next door to the Hughes Market, a location that would end up providing shelter for several witnesses.
But not everyone was trying to escape the bank.
One person, incredibly, was trying to get in despite hearing the gunfire.

Phillips shoves elderly customer

Inside the bank, Matasareanu's large foot, clad in a black Reebok type running shoe crashed into the teller door; and at precisely that moment an elderly gentleman entered the north-east doors looking for his wife.
He saw the customers curled up on the floor, practically walked past Phillips, almost ignoring him until Phillips shoves him toward the teller lines hard enough to where the elderly man can be seen stumble a couple of feet and instructs him to lie down. Stories of this man being motioned to the floor at gunpoint are wide of the mark, Phillips rifle remained, for the duration of this encounter, pointed toward the floor.

Mere seconds had passed since their entry to the bank, they would now enter a phase that can only be described as either a stroke of criminal genius or the wanton behaviour of two men with such disregard for human life as to be stunningly breathtaking.
For it is at this point we must pause the reconstruction and look (as much as we are able) at the planning and reasoning behind their actions.

Underneath Phillips blue and white, and Matasareanu's black jacket, they wore body armour, not the usual attire for bank robbers but an understandable accessory given the logic of their planning.
It was the firearms that were out of place, although they were later to be identified as illegally converted civilian models it was the mentality behind taking a full auto weapon into a bank that is interesting.
These weapons were obviously not for 'crowd control', a single shot from a handgun or a semi auto rifle would have gotten that particular job done. The rifles were present to serve two purposes.
Phillips and Matasareanu knew that to gain access to the teller area, they would need to shoot their way through the 1 1/4" polycarbonate door. They also knew that to afford themselves sufficient amount of time in the bank's vault to bag up what they presumed to be millions of dollars that they would be wide open to being penned in by responding police units; and to deal with that scenario they must have decided that the only way out would be to shoot their way out.
Body armour and rifles became the logical choice for them.

Whilst on the surface this would seem an understandable course of action for one so inclined there are other factors that seem to have been strangely ignored, or had been written off as unknowable therefore 'deal with it if it happens'.
SWAT was never designed to deal with bank robbers, it is a misconception that they could be on scene in a few short minutes and match gunfire one for one. SWAT was designed to deal with entrenched and barricaded subjects, mobile bank robbery suspects were not their forte.
If local PD could manage to contain a pair of bank robbers who were unwilling to surrender then it was game on for the SWAT teams.
Phillips and Matasareanu had a counter for this, not to be contained. Full auto firearms and body armour would see them with a clear advantage toward escape if they were ever to be cornered.
SWAT response would surely have been a consideration, albeit a secondary one.
The second and most crucial consideration would have been the plethora of media helicopters that swarm through the skies of Los Angeles, and on the back of that the police AIR units.
These (as was to be shown later in North Hollywood) could be on scene in mere minutes, and escape from the cold eye of their recording equipment would prove all but impossible.
It appears to have been a consideration that was not paid much due in the duo's planning phase.

Returning to the bank.
Matasareanu's boot slammed into the shattered door, and as the door crashed open he was already calling for the manager to identify themselves. Phillips was hovering at his shoulder.
As the bulky gunman's head swung around swathed in a black ski mask with dark plastic glasses underneath, the manager rose to her feet.
Matasareanu stepped forward and roughly grabbed the woman, a teller who had been sheltering with the manager rose as well, to be pushed back to the floor by Phillips.
As Matasareanu and his captive moved toward the vault, Phillips then returned to the lobby area, taking position closer to the busier north-east door, and according to one witnesses recollection, he was walking around kicking female customers purses out of their reach, one of whom would later report $900 missing.
Matasareanu shouted another command:
With the muzzle of his rifle pressed into the terrified manager's ribs he herded four tellers and the manager before him toward the vault.
The manager scrambled the gate key from her pocket.
With the gate open Matasareanu followed his plan:
The tellers all entered the vault and stood at the back wall.
Matasareanu barked instructions.

The drawers he referred to were the compartments that the bank staff broke shipments down into, another tactic to stall takeover bandits, it is however his comment about the Brinks delivery that is worthy of closer inspection.
The Brinks delivery for that day was slated to be a midday drop off, however the delivery time was changed at very short notice and the armoured van made its drop at 8:30am instead.

This would then leave only four possibilities.

  1. Phillips and Matasareanu were conducting surveillance on the bank, with all their robbery kit in the trunk of the car, saw the delivery and got ready 'on the street' and started the robbery at 10:00am. This scenario, although it is a possibility, remains an outside one. A member of staff had seen a white car parked in the north-west corner of the BoA parking lot at a little after 08:30am, but it is unclear as to whether the white car was indeed the bandits Chevrolet Celebrity.
    You would have to ask the question that after the close shave with the Glendale pinch in 1993 why would they be driving around in daylight with an almost identical loadout? A simple traffic stop would have seen them with a second arrest under very similar charges. Whilst one can debate the merits of their logic performing bank robberies in the first place one cannot debate that they had a certain amount of cunning and after wriggling out of the noose once I find it more than difficult to believe they were brazen enough to put their heads back into the noose a second time and wait for it to snap shut.
    So whilst the 'gear in the car' scenario is obviously possible I do not believe it was probable.
  2. Phillips and Matasareanu were conducting surveillance on the bank, observed the drop off, returned to a local safe house, suited up and came back to the bank. Given the time between the delivery and the robbery I would suggest that this is the most likely scenario.
    This logic shows a certain indication of their impulsiveness; If they had been there at 08:30 to observe the delivery this means that they did not know the exact time the delivery was slated for as there was no way they were going to be waiting around for nearly four hours in their work gear for the scheduled midday drop off. To me this indicates that they were performing reconnaissance, saw the delivery and decided on a whim to take the bank down.
    This leads to a further question: Was the bank the original target or the armoured car?
    I would say that the bank was, given how smooth their plan was effected once they crashed through the doors some 95 minutes later. I do not believe that they had time to return to their safe house, gear up and formulate a plan that smooth and return to the bank in such a short time. Ergo the bank was always the primary target.
  3. An 'inside man' at Brinks, although the FBI would later check out the Brinks staff I can find no notes or final report clearing all Brinks employees. This remains a very real possibility.
  4. An 'inside man' at Bank of America. One rather strange occurrence happened, an employee who was in the break room when the robbery went down and who fled the premises had asked their superior questions about what to do in case of a robbery, going as far as to almost describe events that happened before they happened. This looks suspicious at first glance but given the reputation for bank robberies in the LA area it is perhaps not so suspicious that a new employee would ask what to do if such an event happened. All BoA staff were vetted by the FBI and no suspicions were laid at any employee's door.

The manager made either a unknowing mistake or a very brave move in a further attempt to slow down the gunman.
She opened a vault drawer that contained only low denomination bills and 'discard' money (money that is so worn it is returned to the Treasury Department to be destroyed).
Matasareanu picked up a bundle of $10 bills, looked at them and threw them down.
He instructed the manager to open all the cabinets.
The cabinets clicked open and bundle upon bundle of notes lay before him, all neatly sorted by denomination. He started scooping them hurriedly into the large black and red bag that Phillips had carried into the bank.
Time was ticking by, minutes were passing, the acid test of their plan regarding police response was drawing ever closer.

Back in the lobby Phillips grew impatient.
He entered the teller line, and opening several teller drawers apparently scooped cash into a small brown bag. after which he approached the vault door.
Matasareanu called back 'OKAY OKAY', and ordered the five other occupants of the vault to get on the floor.

Their exit procedure from the bank would be a pattern they would use again, Phillips walking point with his weapon held ready and muzzle down, Matasareanu walking close behind dragging the bag laden with stolen money.

Phillips & Matasareanu making their way to the bank's south side exit

Phillips & Matasareanu exiting the bank (south side)

Matasareanu drags the money bag as he exits the bank

They were observed leaving the south doors by many witnesses, and then running westbound in the alley toward the white car idling without a driver. Nobody saw them enter the car or the car leave the area, but as they left police sirens were within seconds of reaching the bank.
They had been in the bank approximately six minutes, and had escaped with a staggering $755,048.

Their escalation in tactics had earned each of them $1048.67 per second of exposure.
It seemed easy money, yet they would be victims of their own success and egos in less than a year.
They would pay for it with their lives.


It is remarkable how efficient this pair were with their supposed first takeover.
Not withstanding the excessive amount of time they spent in the bank, a fact that shocked police and FBI investigators, they executed this takeover remarkable well.
The division of labour was shared well, Phillips acting as crowd control and the buffer between the doors and Matasareanu in the vault.
Matasareanu tasked with breaching the teller line, entry to the vault, and removal of the money; a job he completed with remarkable aptitude.

There is an adage that states that Fridays 9am and somewhere close to the end of the month are the best time to perform a takeover, this may be true in some respects yet the Department of Justice have released a infographic that shows the differences between amateur and professional bank robbers.

The list shows that amateurs tend to strike on Fridays, believing the whole 'payroll check cash only comes in on a Friday' myth.
Phillips and Matasareanu tick fourteen out of the possible twenty-four items in the professional list, and only two in the amateur; those regarding the time of day of the robbery which can be written off quite easily as their robberies were influenced by the Brinks deliveries and not by any other factors.
From snatch and grab, highly disorganised, armoured car jobs to very professional bank takeovers within eleven months. It is difficult to believe that this came out of the blue, with no coaching, training or external influences to their thinking.
Yet it was what it was, the first of their three, and despite being relatively competent mistakes were still made.
Matasareanu handled the money in the vault, thereby reducing his effectiveness in handling his hostages.
Phillips twice left his post in the lobby to head behind the teller line, severely impeding his ability to control any person that attempted entry to the premises.
Phillips also took money from the teller drawers, a location notorious for containing dye packs and bait bills. An amateur mistake which could have quite easily, and literally, gone off in his face.
It would have been easy to miss these mistakes whilst they sat and counted out their gains, high on the euphoria of a mad six minutes, yet they didn't miss them. At some point they must have reflected upon their actions, what they got right and what they did wrong, and they learned. The next robbery would see these mistakes eradicated. They would hone their craft.