The Norco Shootout

Peter Houlahan, author of “Norco 80,” on one of the most disastrous and violent bank robberies in American history.

Norco 80 Book Cover

On May 9, 1980, five young men armed with military-grade weapons attempted an ill-conceived robbery of the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, California. Despite the existence of an elaborate plan, the robbers—an apocalyptic born-again Christian George Wayne Smith, brothers Christopher and Russell Harven, and brothers Belisario and Manuel Delgado—made off with a mere $20,000, only to leave a heretofore unimaginable trail of violence and destruction in their wake.

“When it was over, three were dead and close to twenty wounded; a police helicopter was forced down from the sky, and thirty-two police vehicles were destroyed by thousands of rounds of ammo,” notes author Peter Houlahan in his new book about the robbery, “Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History” (Counterpoint).

In the following Failure Interview, Houlahan addresses the many failures—large and small—that surrounded what is now commonly referred to as the Norco Shootout, as well as the legacy of an incident that contributed to the militarization of local police forces.

What got you interested in writing about the Norco Shootout?

I was a teenager when it happened and I lived not far from Norco, so I followed the story as it was unfolding and in the weeks afterward. It has always stuck with me, so when I turned my attention to writing a book it was high on my list.

What led George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven to plan such a high-risk bank robbery? Did Smith really believe the end of the world was near?

There is no doubt that Smith was a true believer in Revelation-based theology and also believed that there would be catastrophic events leading up to the rapture. But Smith also had a psychological makeup that had a lot of grandiosity about it. Today we would call it narcissistic personality disorder, where you see yourself destined for great things. It was the grandiosity that led to the elaborate plan.

Harven was a different type of person with different beliefs. He was more of a survivalist; he did believe that there would be catastrophic events, but of the natural disaster variety. I don’t think Harven thought he had his back up against the wall in regards to the timeline of a particular cataclysmic event. He just thought we should be prepared because one of these things was going to happen.

Also, both of them had downturns in their personal life lives. They both had their wives leave them and they lost their jobs and were running out of money, so it was a confluence of things.

There were quite a few failures that occurred in the course of the bank robbery. What were some of the things that went wrong?

The plan was to steal a van at gunpoint and tie up the driver so he couldn’t report the van stolen; then they were going to rob the bank and dump the van and kidnap victim. Ultimately they were successful in stealing a van and kidnapping the driver, but not on the first try.

What happened is that Russell Harven and the two Delgado brothers first attempted to steal a General Telephone repair van, but when they told the driver to get out of the van at gunpoint, he stepped out and ran away, so they lost him. Then when they got into the van they saw it was filled with tools and telephone equipment, and that there was no room to ride in the back.

A second failure was the diversion bomb, which consisted of a cardboard box containing six beer bottles filled with gasoline and a crude detonation device. This diversion bomb was placed under a gas main at a construction site. The bomb did go off, but the fire was quickly spotted by a passer-by, who put it out with a fire extinguisher. They had expected a giant explosion and to see every first responder in Norco headed south towards the explosion and fire. When that fizzled and didn’t see first responders going there, they should have called off the robbery and gone home. But they did not.

So they pulled up to the Norco branch of Security Pacific Bank and piled out of the van in ski masks. They were immediately spotted by a customer going into the Redlands Federal Savings Bank across the street, and a Redlands Federal teller called the Riverside County Sheriff. The robbers were in the bank only two-and-a-half minutes, but when they came out they came face-to-face with Riverside deputy Glyn Bolasky, which was not good for either party.

Meanwhile, there was an additional failure—though not on the part of the robbers—that when they got inside the bank there was a teller who was able to activate the silent alarm. But the alarm wasn’t wired correctly, so it sent an alert to the police in the city of Corona, who dispatched officers to the Corona branch of the Security Pacific Bank, five miles away.

In terms of the shootout and manhunt that followed, is there any other bank robbery that is comparable?

The closest one that comes to mind is the North Hollywood shootout [February 28, 1997], in which two heavily armed men wearing body armor robbed a Bank of America in North Hollywood. There were approximately 1,700 rounds fired and twelve Los Angeles police department officers were injured before both robbers were killed. But at Norco there were three fatalities, a 40-mile gun battle, and a police helicopter was shot down. So nothing matches Norco in scale.

There’s an interesting section in the book about the legacy of the Norco Shootout.

It’s widely seen as a gateway event to what is now referred to as the militarization of local police forces. It was the wakeup call that law enforcement agencies needed to start increasing their firepower to meet the growing threats they were seeing on the street.

At the time of Norco, the Riverside Sheriff’s Department and San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department—the two departments most heavily involved—only had two semi-automatic high-powered rifles between them. Within a year after Norco they had over 150 on order, thanks to political pressure and pressure from their own deputies.

That’s also when the Sheriff’s departments began to move toward high-capacity semi-automatic pistols, rather than the six shooter revolver. Riverside put that in as a gradual switchover, telling deputies that they were immediately allowed to buy their own but that the department would be shifting over, and that’s where the Glock becomes part of the story.

In addition to the militarization of police forces and its role in the rise of the Glock, are there any other legacies of this robbery?

Well, certainly the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in law enforcement. The condition was well-known in the military, but at the time law enforcement wasn’t aggressively addressing it among their officers. In fact, there was a huge stigma among law enforcement about seeking help after [officer-involved shootings]. But the agencies pretty rapidly implemented programs—and made those programs mandatory—so there was no stigma about going to see a psychiatrist. The department did not give you a choice.

The details of the shootout and manhunt are best left to the book, but how did things turn out for the robbers?

I don’t know if it rises to irony, but part of Smith’s grandiose plan was not getting taken alive. And in the end, Smith was taken alive; in fact, the only robbers who weren’t, were the two youngest—brothers Belisario (Billy) and Manuel (Manny) Delgado.

In the end all five bank robbers were hit by gunfire. Certainly, the Delgado family was devastated; they lost two children. The other three are serving life without parole in the California prison system.

Were there any other failures associated with the Norco Shootout?

[May 9, 1980] was an extremely bad day for the FBI. The FBI had been tracking a band of bank robbers known as The Stopwatch Gang in San Diego County. The Stopwatch Gang would enter banks, heavily armed, with a stopwatch in hand, and call out times while robbing banks.

The day of Norco, the Stopwatch Gang was on the move, and two FBI vehicles were shadowing them as the FBI was convinced they were on their way to rob another bank and wanted to catch them in the act. The FBI followed them from San Diego up into Riverside County but lost the tail near Rubidoux. The FBI made the decision not to alert the local authorities as they didn’t want to blow their cover.

An hour later, the FBI started to hear mayhem on their scanners and became convinced it was the Stopwatch Gang [so they high-tailed it to the Security First Bank in Norco]. One of the deputies [I interviewed for the book] said to me, ‘I could never figure out why within five minutes of this bank robbery there were a bunch of agents from the San Diego office of the FBI at Fourth and Havner.’ Well, that’s the reason why.

Of course, it turned out not to be the Stopwatch Gang, but that night, when four suspects were still at-large, the FBI released the names of the Stopwatch Gang [as suspects], none of whom were involved in Norco. So they released the names of four people who weren’t involved with this particular robbery, and they also released the name of Mike Lindell, [the telephone repairman] who jumped out of his truck when a gun was pointed in his face.