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!
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.
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.
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.