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Lawsuit accuses L.A. police of letting wounded gunman die

Civil rights case follows 1997 bank robbery shoot-out

The gunfight left 11 officers and six civilians wounded  

February 28, 2000
Web posted at: 1:49 p.m. EST (1849 GMT)

In this story:

'He looked like a dead body'

Accused officers testify

'Left to bleed to death'


LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Three years after a pair of bank robbers with automatic weapons and body armor shot it out with police, a federal civil rights lawsuit claims Los Angeles police let one wounded gunman bleed to death.

VideoCNN's Jim Hill explains the lawsuit.
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Bradley Gage, an attorney for the officers, says Matasareanu died because he was a bank robber

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Attorney Stephen Yagman, who represents Matasareanu's children, says their father could have survived his wounds

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Don Vincent, assistant city attorney, says, "All the conduct of the officers was exemplary"

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The suit currently being tried, was filed on behalf of Emil Matasareanu's two young children. It names as defendants the city and two now-retired officers -- John Futrell and James Vojtecky -- who stood guard over the dying, handcuffed robber on a North Hollywood street. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

The gunfight on February 28, 1997 left 11 officers and six civilians wounded.

As television stations covered the chaos live, Matasareanu was brought down in a close-quarters firefight with officers in the middle of a street. He was shot 29 times.

Matasareanu's partner, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, died when he shot himself at the same time a police bullet hit him.

'He looked like a dead body'

In testimony last week, an ambulance driver said he decided against picking up the wounded Matasareanu partly because he feared for his own life.

Alan Richard Skier said he was told to leave the scene by police and that he and his partner feared they were about to be shot by other gunmen believed to be loose in the neighborhood.

"We were in imminent danger of getting killed and he looked like a dead body," said Skier, a 14-year emergency medical technician for the Los Angeles Fire Department. "I didn't think I could drag him 50 feet to my ambulance without making his injuries worse."

He added he was already violating Fire Department rules by entering a hostile area where gunfire had been erupting moments before.

Accused officers testify

Earlier in the trial, Futrell told the U.S. District Court jury he did not see life-threatening wounds on Matasareanu and that medical help was more urgently needed by some of the wounded officers and civilians.

A Los Angeles Times photo from the scene, showing Futrell standing over Matasareanu, is part of the trial's evidence  

Under questioning from the plaintiff's attorney, Futrell acknowledged he initially canceled an ambulance call, but later made two calls trying to get an ambulance.

He also said he was convinced at the time that there were at least four suspects in the robbery and that at least two of them were at large in the neighborhood.

Asked if he felt "in danger and tense," the ex-officer replied: "Definitely."

Vojtecky, a retired detective, testified he did not want Matasareanu to die, and that he believes the gunman kept moving about on the ground because he wanted to bleed to death.

"It was your impression that the man on the ground was trying to kill himself?" asked attorney Stephen Yagman, representing the gunman's children.

"Yes," Vojtecky said.

Television cameras recorded the gun battle, including scenes of the wounded Matasareanu (bottom), who was shot 29 times  

'Left to bleed to death'

Matasareanu and Phillips wore full body armor and fired more than 1,200 rounds from automatic weapons during a 44-minute shoot-out with officers who were mostly armed with handguns.

Officers had to reload by snatching rifles from a sporting goods store nearby. The shoot-out prompted the Police Department months later to acquire more powerful guns.

Yagman acknowledged in his opening statement that Matasareanu "did a very bad thing. He robbed a bank and shot a lot of people."

But Matasareanu "was shot and left to bleed to death on the ground," the lawyer said. "He bled to death from a nonfatal wound that was survivable."

Assistant City Attorney Don Vincent argued that contrary to the plaintiffs' claims that Matasareanu lay bleeding to death for a half-hour, he probably died much earlier.

Bradley Gage, an attorney for the officers, told the jury that if there was a delay in getting treatment for the dying man, "the delay in medical treatment came because of the shoot-out and the brutality of the bank robbery."

The Los Angeles Police Department has presented commendations to the officers involved, calling their response to the street battle one of LAPD's finest hours.

Correspondent Jim Hill and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Botched L.A bank heist turns into bloody shootout
February 28, 1997
Family of robber killed in L.A. shootout sues
April 12, 1997

The Los Angeles Police Department
Los Angeles Fire Department

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