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

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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