Jason Kandel

North Hollywood Shootout: Officer Recalls Thrill of Bank Robbery Call Turn to Horror

Then-rookie LAPD Officer William Lantz sought cover near a Del Taco during the shootout on Feb. 28, 1997.

William Lantz was just days into his new job, fresh out of the Los Angeles Police Academy, when the bank robbery call came in.

The 27-year-old set aside his first official field report and jumped into a squad car with his training officer, Dean Schram.

"'Wow, this is going to be interesting,'" he remembered thinking on the morning of Feb. 28, 1997. "'This'll be fun.'"

The officers raced, lights and sirens blaring, from the Foothill Division in the northeast San Fernando Valley to the Bank of America at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood.

As they pulled up to the intersection near the bank, the rookie was a blank slate.

"I didn't know what to expect, being brand new," he says. "I thought it was going to be a simple bank robbery, like what you see in the movies."

He grabbed a shotgun and took cover behind his black-and-white Chevrolet Caprice.

Then all hell broke loose.

A gunman wearing body armor and a ski mask popped out of the bank. Lantz heard the hissing sound of automatic rifle fire.

"These guys are shooting at us. They just keep firing at us."

"Get down! Take cover!" Schram yelled.

The gunmen sprayed "everything that moved" from automatic assault rifles while officers returned fire with pistols and watched as police bullets bounced off the robbers' body armor.

"They looked like monsters."

A barrage of bullets struck the patrol car. A sergeant and three bystanders were hit.

Then bullets began piercing Lantz's squad car. It was time to move.

They were sitting ducks, Lantz remembers thinking.

He and Schram needed better cover.

So they ran to a Del Taco. That's when Lantz took a bullet in the right knee. The force knocked him down.

Blood gushing, he crawled for cover behind the engine block of a parked car.

"I was sitting there, praying to God we were going to make it through this," Lantz said.

He couldn't stand because of the pain. He couldn't fire. His shotgun was useless because the bad guys were too far away.

Then he saw an LAPD motorcycle officer riding down Laurel Canyon, looking like something out of "The Terminator."

The officer calmly parked his motorcycle near a phone booth for cover and began shooting at the robbers.

When the gunmen fired at him, the motorcycle officer ducked, popped up and fired back.

During the gun battle, the officer reassured Lantz that, "everything's going to be OK. We're going to get out of this."

Then the gunmen moved east and the motorcycle officer told Lantz to suck up the pain and cover for him while he negotiated around to get a better shot.

From out of nowhere, an armored bank truck that police commandeered for protection against the hail of bullets raced to pick up the wounded. SWAT officers, wearing T-shirts and shorts from the workout they interrupted to respond to the emergency, provided cover.

Lantz sat on bundles of bank money covered in blood during the short ride to an awaiting ambulance.

At the hospital, doctors stitched up Lantz's wound, then sent him home.

After months recovering he returned to the job, back to Foothill to continue his probation.

"They didn't treat me like a trainee anymore," he said.

Now 47, Lantz is still with the LAPD. He's never had a scarier moment than the bank shootout. And he's never fired his weapon in the line of duty.

He'll keep working until he retires in eight or nine years, he says. Nothing -- not the flashbacks, the nightmares, or the lingering pain from that horrific day in 1997, can keep him away from a job the kid who grew up watching "Adam 12," "CHiPs" and "Cops" says is his calling.

Today Lantz works as a training officer patrolling the southwestern San Fernando Valley, near where he grew up. He took a transfer recently away from the elite Metropolitan Division so he can spend more time with his wife and 16-year-old son. That unit was a place he always wanted to be.

"I was fortunate to get picked for that," he says. "They only take the best of the best."

He doesn't talk about the shootout much. The younger cops in their 20s were toddlers when the shootout happened. They learn about this part of LAPD history in the Academy.

On Tuesday, he'll be at the 20-year reunion with his colleagues to remember a significant moment in their lives.

He'll reminisce and listen again to the broadcast of the police radio dispatches from that morning.

He'll remember the years he passed by that bank when he patrolled North Hollywood. He'll remember becoming anxious glancing at the bank and the Del Taco, replaying the whole thing over in his mind.

He'll remember the bullets breaking windows and exploding off tiles. He'll remember the smell of burning rubber from bullets hitting tires.
"It's hard to believe it lasted 45 minutes. I can remember everything in my head."

He has had doubts about his actions that day. He's questioned whether he could have fired his gun or avoided getting hit.

He has no regrets.

"You did good out there," he remembers hearing during a phone call after the shootout from the motorcycle officer, who was a Vietnam War veteran. "Don't worry about it."

Lantz takes pride in the fact that he was a part of history. In 2011, Lantz and seven others wounded in the North Hollywood bank shootout were among 82 LAPD officers awarded the department's first Purple Heart medals honoring police officers who made "significant personal sacrifice that resulted in traumatic injury or their untimely death."

"It was like being thrown in the fire," he says. "In the long run, I survived."

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