The Norco Shootout: How America's Bloodiest Armed Robbery Changed US Law Enforcement
Wild West shootouts are something we're only familiar with thanks to Hollywood movies. However, this time 40 years ago, one of the last of these gunfights unfolded down in the dusty little town of Norco, California.
Known as the Norco shootout, the incident went down in history as one that would change America's law enforcement forever.
It all started back in 1980 when five heavily armed bank robbers were hoping to grab some cash from the local Security Pacific Bank.
The plan was to get the goods, before jumping into the car of their getaway driver, who was waiting outside to transport them to safety.
However, the cops made it to the scene before they could getaway, leading to a brutal shootout that resulted in one of the five perpetrators and the Sheriff's deputy, James Evans, being killed.
A toll of 15 people (including nine officers) and at least 30 police cars and one police helicopter were also injured or damaged by the gunfire.
Aside from the setting, the incident resembled that of a Wild West movie as it saw locals diving under tables or running for cover as bullets flew through houses, shops and a feed store across the street.
What's more, Smith and the three remaining perpetrators, including brothers Christopher and Russell Harven, fled for the hills, leading cops on a car chase into neighbouring San Bernardino County.
California Highway Patrol and San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department joined Riverside County to help with the attack, and eventually the robbers were ambushed, resulting in a second shootout. Once again they escaped, this time making it to a wooded area in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.
However, two days later, one of the criminals was killed by police, while the remaining three were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
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This case is fascinating for a myriad reasons, one of which being the motive. These men weren't drug addicts, they weren't thieves, they weren't members of a gang. None of them even had criminal records.
Instead, the two men who led the gang, George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven, believed that the US was on the verge of an apocalypse in which only the well-armed would survive.
The best friends came together to devise a plan, and started to purchase military weapons and make their own illegal devices.
Eventually they decided they needed to create their own fortress, but of course this doesn't come cheap and so their plan was to rob a bank and make it happen, recruiting friends along the way with promises of a cash payout.
Arming themselves with firearms and devising a diversion bomb, the five went in all guns blazing.
But the diversion bomb failed to go off, the gang were spotted by a bank teller almost immediately and in the two and half minutes they were in the bank, a lot of drama unfolded - resulting in one of the most destructive shootouts in recent history.
What's more, the incident ended up changing the way law enforcement functions in the US. As was pointed out by The Mirror, one of the young deputies who rushed to the scene grabbed and made use of a high-powered military M-16 machine gun confiscated by the department from a drug gang months before.
Fellow deputy, Rolf Parkes, said: "There would have been a lot more dead cops on that road if not for that weapon."
In the aftermath of the robbery, the Riverside and San Bernardino Sheriff's Departments put in orders for more weapons of the type used by the deputy. Together they went from owning a pair of rifles to stocking over 100 firearms, while their helicopters were fitted with machine guns at the ready.
This is often considered the event that kickstarted the militarisation of local police forces, which has swept America ever since and led to officers across the country issued with military-grade weapons.
That's not to say this wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the Norco robbery, but it certainly played a significant role in the changing way firearms are utilised by law enforcement today.