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Monday, March 3, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Parents Say Upset Son One Of L.A. Robbers -- `He Just Said To Me That He Wanted To Die'

Los Angeles Times: AP

LOS ANGELES - The parents of a bandit gunned down by police during a botched bank robbery say that their son had an "attitude problem" and that his brazen assault was "like suicide."

"Never I heard that he fight with someone," Viorel Matasareanu, 77, said yesterday of his son, Emil Dechebal Matasareanu, whom he brought with him from Romania. With a what-did-you-expect shrug, he added: "He grows (up) here. He grows in America."

On Friday two men clad in ski masks and neck-to-ankle Kevlar armor stormed a Bank of America branch in the Los Angeles suburb of North Hollywood, toting an arsenal of guns.

They were making off with cash when police arrived and the gunfight erupted. They were both killed by shots to the head, left unprotected by the body armor.

Police in suburban Glendale said the robbers were the same men arrested there in 1993 in a car full of high-powered weapons, smoke bombs and disguises.

In that case, Matasareanu and Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. served less than four months in jail after striking a plea bargain that cut a conspiracy and weapons case to a handful of misdemeanors.

The FBI has not yet identified the two men, though Matasareanu's mother confirmed that her 30-year-old son was one of the men killed. The 26-year-old Phillips is believed to be the other.

Matasareanu's mother said her son was a sharpshooter and computer whiz who had grown increasingly despondent in past months, causing her to fear he was suicidal and might hurt somebody.

Valerie Nicolescu said her son was a man haunted by demons. When Matasareanu was 8, bullying by schoolmates caused him to turn to computers as a refuge, she said.

He became an expert and programmed arcade and video games, eventually earning a degree from DeVry Institute, Nicolescu said. But things had begun to unravel by 1993. Matasareanu and his wife and young son were living with Nicolescu and running a home-care service for the mentally disabled.

The next year the service was closed because of an allegation made that Matasareanu abused one of the six residents. She said health authorities forced Matasareanu out of the home.

In August, Matasareanu split up with his wife after having a seizure, Nicolescu said.

"He cannot handle it anymore," she said. "Those were his words . . . He just said to me that he wanted to die. His actions were more of a suicide mission."

She said she hadn't spoken to her son since Christmas. Viorel Matasareanu and his son became distant in 1990 in a dispute over education and the father's belief that Emil had married too early. They hadn't spoken since July.

Part of a group?

Nicolescu said she did not believe her son was involved with any underground political or terrorist group. But authorities are investigating whether the gunmen in Friday's incident had funneled money from a pair of earlier robberies - which netted at least $1.3 million - to subversive paramilitary or criminal organizations.

"The way they struck and the way they handled their weapons, one would have to expect that they got some training somewhere," said Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Tim McBride.

Sources disclosed that the FBI, even before Friday's incident, had been looking into the possibility that the two extraordinarily lucrative bank robberies in the San Fernando Valley last May were the work of an organized group with connections to political or terroristic groups. Because the timing of all three robberies came just after large deliveries of cash, one source said, "It's obvious these guys did their homework."

Friday's plan foiled

That plan, however, was foiled Friday largely because an LAPD officer spotted the gunmen in full body armor carrying automatic weapons into a Bank of America branch. When the robbers emerged, they were confronted by officers and tried to shoot their way clear with superior firepower.

The two men sprayed bullets at police and other people before they were fatally shot in a battle that left 16 officers and civilians injured and stunned the nation with its live, televised pictures.

No third suspect

Despite earlier reports that a third suspect may have been involved in Friday's attempted robbery, McBride said investigators now believe that Matasareanu and Phillips were the only assailants in that incident, as well as the two other robberies.

So far, investigators have released few details about the pair. They do know, however, that Matasareanu and Phillips had been acquaintances since at least Oct. 23, 1993, when police caught them with a carload of weapons and military gear, including AK-47s, 9-mm handguns, six smoke grenades, two homemade explosives and a gas mask. Also found in the 1993 red Thunderbird were police scanners, bulletproof vests, a stop watch, gloves, sunglasses, wigs, ski masks and other clothing.

Deputy District Attorney James Grodin, who supervised the prosecution of the case, said he initially charged them with conspiracy to commit robbery, but had to settle for several less-serious weapons charges because he lacked evidence to prove a conspiracy.

A critical piece of the puzzle, authorities said yesterday, was tracking down where and how Matasareanu and Phillips obtained their weapons.

Such information, authorities said, could indicate whether they acted alone or had accomplices.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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