How ‘Norco ’80’ author Peter Houlahan tracked down the true story of a deadly Southern California bank heist and shootout
Peter Houlahan remembers picking up the newspaper one morning in May 1980. A bold headline told of a band of five bank robbers hitting a Security Pacific branch in Norco and raining hundreds of bullets down on the first deputies on the scene before leading dozens more law enforcement officers on a violent chase and rolling gunfight through two counties and up the backside of Mount Baldy.
“On the front page was that photo that has highway patrolmen Bill Crowe and Doug Earnest — Crowe has been shot and Earnest is bandaging him,” says Houlahan, an 18-year-old Whittier native at the time of the May 9, 1980 bank job. “That was a big photo in the middle and I think it said, ‘Ambush on Mount Baldy’ as the headline.
“And I was absolutely intrigued with the event,” Houlahan says. “I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard of, and over the years I would sometimes bring it up.
“I’d tell people the story and they’d always say two things: ‘Did that really happen?’ And the other thing was: ‘How come I don’t know about this?’”
In Houlahan’s new book, “Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History,” the 57-year-old author describes in a deeply researched, thrillingly paced tale, that all this really did happen.
Five bad guys inspired by apocalyptic visions and armed with automatic weapons and homemade hand grenades outgunned scores of officers from agencies including the Riverside and San Bernardino counties sheriff’s departments, nearly all of whom were equipped only with revolvers and shotguns in those days; they shot up police cars and a police chopper, injuring multiple officers, and ambushing and murdering the deputy who finally cornered them on a crumbling mountain track.
Two of the robbers died in the aftermath of the robbery and manhunt. The other three surrendered when they were cornered on Mount Baldy the morning after everything went down, and were eventually convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the California prison system where they remain to this day.
Houlahan, who more than 25 years ago moved from Southern California to the East Coast, has worked since then as a freelance writer, novelist and EMT; he says he often thought about the Norco shootout over the years. Finally about four years ago, he decided to see if there might be a book in it for him to write.
“I think I sensed at a really early age — it doesn’t take a genius — that there was probably a much larger story there,” Houlahan says. “And as a writer, what draws me to stories most is the human element. I wouldn’t have much of an interest in just a bang-bang-shoot-’em-up pulp true crime thing.”
He started to reach out to some of the deputies, lawyers, witnesses and survivors who were part of what happened in Norco and on the streets and highways and mountain roads of the two counties in which the gun battle and pursuit took place.
“And as I sort of dipped my toe in to see what might be out there, very quickly it became obvious that there was a much bigger story here,” Houlahan says.
The amount of reporting that went into “Norco ’80” is staggering. The California Attorney General’s office gave him access to 36 boxes and 50,000 pages of documents from the trials of George Smith and brothers Chris and Russ Harven. He coaxed investigative reports and documents out of the various police agencies, though some of those took years to obtain.
He conducted in-depth interviews with nearly all of the deputies significantly involved in the robbery response and investigation that followed, gaining their trust in part because he’s a working EMT and so knows his way around their world — Houlahan was a first responder at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting near his Connecticut home.
He also spent hours talking with other players, including prosecutors Jay Hanks and Kevin Ruddy, defense attorney Clayton Adams who represented ringleader George Smith, defense investigator Jeanne Painter, whose role in the trial took unexpected twists, friends and family of the the robbers, and all three of them as well, the Harven brothers in prison visiting rooms, Smith through an exchange of letters.
“The thing that opened some doors, I said flat out, I’m coming to this thing with no angle, no agenda,” Houlahan says. “I just think it’s a story worth telling, and I’m going to tell it wherever the chips happened to fall in the end.”
The book divided naturally into two distinct halves — first, the robbery and shootout, and then the courtroom circus that followed. With a background in fiction, Houlahan says he worked to streamline all the research into a compelling story arc and structure with characters to whom readers could connect
“It’s an ensemble piece,” he says of the sprawling cast of characters in the book. “You have people who were in it but then drop completely out of it. So what I did is I picked four that I thought represented different complexions of the pursuit itself and human journey that they experienced.
“That’s Andy Delgado,” Houlahan says of the Riverside sheriff’s deputy whose narrative takes center stage early in the book. “He’s in front of the bank and he has his (difficult) journey afterwards.
“The second is (Riverside deputy) Rolf Parkes, who picks it up in Wineville and is in the running gun battle, and onto the freeway it kind of centers on him,” he says. “Then you had D.J. McCarty, which is the San Bernardino deputy who pulled out the M-16” — the only automatic weapon equal to the bad guys that any cop had that day.
“And the other is Jim Evans, which is really representing the journey up Lytle Creek,” Houlahan says of the Riverside deputy who was the only law enforcement officer to be shot and killed by the robbers in the ambush that ended the pursuit on Mount Baldy.
Once the manhunt is done, Houlahan says he had to navigate the shift from “an action-packed thing to a courtroom drama,” a challenge for which he looked to such literary role models as Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Onion Field” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
“It was probably the most fascinating, because it revealed itself in very strange ways and some obvious ones,” he says. “It was very compelling, very fascinating,and particularly when something like that starts to reveal itself, it’s what makes non-fiction writing all worth it.”
Houlahan will be in Southern California for five book events including two private ones for law enforcement agencies in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the first week of June, and he’s eager, and maybe a little anxious to find out how those he interviewed feel about the no-punches-pulled tale he’s told.
“In the last three weeks, I’ve been mailing out about 75 copies of this book in batches, so it’s just reaching them now,” he says of the early response from sources. “Bill Crowe called up, the highway patrolman, and said, ‘You know Peter, I couldn’t put this down. I now know more about my own story.’
“Nobody in this really knew everything,” Houlahan says. “So anyways, it’s starting to come back, and so far it’s really positive.”
‘Norco ’80’ book events
Monday, June 3: Reading and signing at 6 p.m. at the Norco Public Library, 3240 Hamner Ave., Suite 101B, Norco
Wednesday, June 5: Reading and signing at 7 p.m. at Pages: a bookstore, 904 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach
Thursday, June 6: Reading and signing at 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena
For more: Peterhoulahan.com/appearances