May 29, 2019

How ‘Norco ’80’ author Peter Houlahan tracked down the true story of a deadly Southern California bank heist and shootout

By anaheimsigns

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?’”

  • A.J. Reynard

    Norco ’80 by Peter Houlahan (image courtesy of Counterpoint Press)

  • attorney

    Defendant George Smith consults with defense investigator Jeanne Painter in court in Vista. (Photo courtesy of San Bernardino Sun)

  • Sound
    The gallery will resume inseconds
  • Chris Harven

    Riverside deputy Jim Evans was the only law enforcement officer to die in the Norco robbery and shoot out. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • Doug Earnest

    California Highway Patrol officer Bill Crowe was chasing the bad guys when they opened fire and injured him. His friend and fellow CHP officer Doug Earnest stopped to give aid. Crowe recovered from his injuries. (Photo by Jim Edwards/Riverside Press Enterprise)

  • freelance writer , novelist

    Riverside deputy A.J. Reynard was inside this sheriff’s car when the robbers unloaded a hail of bullets at him. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • Jim Edwards

    Riverside deputy Andy Delgado arrived at the scene of the robbery and immediately ended up in a gun battle with the bad guys. (Photo courtesy of Andy Monti)

  • press-enterprise

    The robbers carjacked a van to use in the robbery, which was disabled as the fled the Security Pacific Bank in Norco. Getaway driver Billy Delgado was shot and killed as he drove away. His brother Manny Delgado died on Mount Baldy as SWAT officers attempted to arrest him. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • Sandy Hook

    Riverside deputy Glyn Bolasky was shot by the robbers as he responded to the Security Pacific bank in Norco. (Photo by Riverside Press-Enterprise)

  • Security Pacific Bank

    Deputy Glyn Bolasky’s car was shot up and the deputy injured as soon as he arrived at the bank. Over the course of the gun battle 32 police vehicles were destroyed or disabled. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • Wyoming

    This police sketch shows the position of several of the robbers in the back of a utility truck they carjacked as they fired on pursuing police. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • A.J. Reynard

    George Smith’s evangelical religious views led him to conclude the apocalypse was coming, so he planned a bank robbery in order to afford a remote hideout in Utah or Wyoming when trouble descended on Southern California. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Press Enterprise)

  • attorney

    George Smith was hit in the leg by a round fired by Riverside deputy Andy Delgado near the bank but was able to continue exchanging fire with multiple officers despite the loss of much of his blood until the chase ended on Mount Baldy where he was captured. (Photo courtesy of San Bernardino Sun)

  • Chris Harven

    Russell Harven is seen here moments after his capture on Mount Baldy the morning after the bank heist. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Press Enterprise)

  • Doug Earnest

    Robber Chris Harven was shot and wounded by Riverside deputy Jim Evans just before Evans was killed by gunfire from the bad guys he’d been chasing. Harven is seen here after his capture on Mount Baldy. (Photo courtesy of San Bernardino Sun)

  • freelance writer , novelist

    Riverside deputy Jim Evans came under immediate fire as he rounded a narrow curve on a dirt road on Mount Baldy and was ambushed by the robbers. He was able to return fire and wound one before he was shot and killed. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • Jim Edwards

    An aerial view of the Security Pacific Bank that was hit by the robbers. Deputy Glyn Bolasky, who arrived just as the bad guys were leaving the bank, was shot and injured almost immediately. His police car is in the road at the upper left. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)

  • press-enterprise

    Defendant George Smith sits in court with his attorney Clayton Adams in Vista. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Press Enterprise)

  • Sandy Hook

    Riverside deputy Rolf Parkes, left, and San Bernardino deputy D.J. McCarty were airlifted from Mount Baldy to Loma Linda University Medical Center after the pursuit ended. (Photo courtesy of San Bernardino Sun)

  • Security Pacific Bank

    Robber Russell Harven was convinced to join the heist by his older brother Chris Harven, he testified in court in Vista. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Press Enterprise)

  • Wyoming

    Robber Christopher Harven is seen here in a jailhouse interview. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Press Enterprise)

  • A.J. Reynard

    This washed out mountain section of Baldy Notch Road is where the pursuit of the Norco bank robbers came to an end. Deputy Jim Evans was ambushed and died here. The four robbers still alive at this point fled into the wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Riverside Sheriff’s Office)



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: