The Story Behind America’s Most Notorious Bank Robbery

By the 1980s, Los Angeles had earned the title of “the bank robbery capital of the world.” National bank robberies had increased by 50 percent within five years, and L.A. was the perfect place because the freeway network allowed robbers to make a quick getaway. However, the Norco bank robbery was unlike any other, and it changed history forever.

Chris Harven / Deputy Officers / George Smith / Norco Bank / George Smith.
Source: RSO

The motives for bank robbing had remained the same since the James-Younger gang in the 1800s, but the men who committed the Norco robbery were doing it for entirely different reasons. The infamous robbery changed American policing forever, and this is the real story behind the Norco shootout.

The Ringleader Thought Humanity Was Headed for Disaster

George Smith may not have had a serious criminal record prior to the robbery, but he was one of many people who believed that humanity was headed for disaster. After serving two years in the U.S. Army as an artilleryman, he was sent to West Germany to work with tactical nuclear weapons.

A photo of George Smith during the military.
George Smith. Source: RSO

Smith later moved back to California to work as a maintenance person. It was here that he met Chris Harven and preached his anarchist ideas of overthrowing the government. Smith was swept up by Southern California’s Christian youth culture, focusing on the Rapture. His past work with nuclear weapons only made him more paranoid.

Smith Turned Into a Survivalist

Smith became obsessed with his religious beliefs and turned into a survivalist to prepare for what he thought would be the end of the world. Smith and Harven moved to Mira Loma, where they hatched a plan to remove themselves from society and prepare for the apocalypse. They planned to earn money by selling marijuana.

A portrait of Chris Harven and his family.
Chris Harven Family. Source: RSO

They cultivated 300 plants, but their business never took off. Smith knew they needed a better plan to make money quickly, and they thought robbing a bank would be a better idea. However, with their radical ideas, this wouldn’t be a bank robbery like the ones of the past; it was going to be big.

Creating a Team

To concoct his plan, Smith and Harven needed a team of people to help them pull off the robbery. They recruited three more people to assist them. The first to join them were brothers Billy and Manny Delgado. Billy was just 17 and had no permanent address, while his brother Manny was motivated by money.

A mugshot of Manny Delgado after his arrest / A photo of Russell getting arrested.
Manny Delgado, Russell Harven. Source: RSO

The third man they recruited was Harven’s brother Russell. He lived with his parents in California and needed money to pay for child support. Besides a few drug charges, none of them had serious criminal records. This would be their first significant crime−and their final. They probably didn’t even know what they were getting into.

Each Person Had a Different Role

While Smith and Harven were the leaders of the operation, Billy served as the getaway driver. His brother Manny was to storm the bank with Russell and the others. The three other men thought they were robbing the bank just to get the money and get out. That’s how ordinary bank robberies worked.

An image of Chris Harven getting arrested.
Chris Harven. Source: RSO

Manny and Russell both had child support to pay and needed to make money quickly. Billy was just a teenager who got caught up with the wrong people because he didn’t have a stable life and lived on the streets. Smith manipulated them easily, and they went along with his plan because they were vulnerable.

Planning the Ultimate Robbery

Smith was the mastermind behind the robbery and planned everything at his home in Mira Loma. He did everything from casing the bank beforehand to telling each person exactly what to do inside. Smith also told police that he had made the bombs. Surprisingly, this didn’t take months of planning.

An aerial photo of the bank.
Source: RSO

Smith and his crew started the preparations a week and a half before the robbery date. Smith visited the bank and made a mental map of its layout. This would help their team get in and out of the bank within the two-minute timeline Smith prepared.

Building an Arsenal

While Smith was creating the plan, the rest of the crew built an arsenal of weaponry, including shotguns, pistols, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and nine assault rifles. They were particularly ambitious about the explosives. Smith made several grenades, incendiary bombs, and IEDs in his garage.

An image of bullet holes in the windshield of a police car.
Source: RSO

The IED was designed to divert the police from the bank so the men could get in and out before the authorities showed up. With their guns and explosives ready, they just needed a getaway car. Russell, Manny, and Billy stole Gary Hakala’s van from a mall parking lot and took him with them as they drove to Corona.

The Final Preparation

With everything secured for the day of the robbery, the men had one last thing to do to get ready: plant the IED. They put it on a gas main at a building site south of Norco. The idea was that the explosion would take all police attention away from the bank robbery.

An exterior view of the house where planning takes place.
Source: YouTube

When the bomb was detonated, the diversion would be in effect, and the men would have the right amount of time to storm the bank. However, not everything always goes according to plan, and the men should have had a backup plan.

The First Problem Arises

Although the men planted the bomb, something went wrong on the day of the robbery. They lit the fuse and waited for it to go off, but nothing happened. The bomb didn’t detonate, which meant they would have to deal with the full force of the Norco police.

A photo of the mountain section where the pursuit of the robbers finishes.
Source: RSO

The IED was an essential part of Smith’s plan, and when it didn’t work, he had to decide if they would continue with the robbery or not. After some contemplation, Smith told the crew to follow through with the plan, and they arrived at Security Pacific Bank in Norco, California, at 3:30 p.m.

Storming the Bank

Wearing parkas and ski masks, the men burst into the bank, which was busy at that time of day. Manny jumped on the counter with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, while Smith walked around the room with an HK91 yelling out orders.

An indoors picture of the bank.
Source: YouTube

Meanwhile, Harven forced the bank manager into the vault to retrieve $20,000 in cash. While the four men were in the bank, Billy stayed in the car and kept the engine running, ready to make a quick escape. The bank tellers tried to get to the silent alarm, but Manny threatened anyone who pushed one.

The Cops Show Up

Although the robbery wasn’t going according to plan, Smith still wanted to stick to the two-minute timeline. When the two minutes were up, Smith repeatedly yelled “time” to keep his team focused. However, two minutes wasn’t long enough, and the police showed up because there was a call across the street.

Police cars are gathering outside the bank.
Source: YouTube

Smith and his men tried to escape with the money, but Deputy Glyn Bolasky arrived at the scene. In an attempt to get away, Smith and his men opened fire, forcing Bolasky into the street where his patrol car collided with a passing vehicle.

The Firefight Begins

Although his car was damaged, Bolasky engaged in a firefight with the men, firing his pump-action shotgun four times from a distance. The fourth round hit Smith in the groin while Billy was shot in the neck and instantly paralyzed. He was all but dead at the wheel.

A picture of Bolasky’s vehicle after the gunfight.
Source: RSO

The van crashed into a fence when Billy was shot, and they had to jump out to fire at Bolasky. They hit his car 42 times and inflicted several wounds, including a vein in his arm that caused him to bleed a lot.

The Firefight Intensifies

Shortly before Bolasky was injured, Officer Andy Delgado arrived and fired at the robbers as more police showed up. As soon as Deputy Chuck Hille got there, he came under fire but managed to get Bolasky to the nearby Corona Community Hospital.

A diagram of the gunfight by Bolasky.
Source: RSO

Deputy Delgado was left to fend for himself because the two other officers had gone to the hospital. He continued to shoot at them, but he was too far away to stop them. Delgado watched as the men stole a yellow pickup truck and took off.

They Tried to Get Away

Harven was driving the pickup truck, Smith was in the passenger seat, and Manny and Russell were standing in the truck bed defending the vehicle. As they drove away, they shot Delgado. Their plan was falling apart.

An image of the van the robbers carjacked during the robbery.
Source: RSO

Only four minutes since the robbery and Billy was dead, a cop was badly injured, and the $20,000 was left behind. It was just the beginning of the shootout, and the robbery was pointless because they didn’t get any of the money they stole. Smith’s plan quickly unraveled.

Everything Turned to Chaos

The robbers drove north, and chaos ensued. They ran red lights, hit cars, and whenever police units got near, the men would fire aggressively, hitting civilians and police. Deputy Rolf Parks had his head grazed by a bullet and said they would blast him when he wasn’t even close to their car.

An officer aids a fellow wounded officer.
Photo by Jim Edwards

Smith later said they weren’t aiming to kill anyone; they were actually trying to hit car engines to stop the police. However, the book “Norco ’80” said they injured seven police officers and a 12-year-old riding his bike.

They Shot Down a Helicopter

As the chase continued, a police helicopter was on their tail, and Smith wanted to stop it. Smith thought if they could stop the helicopter, they could get away because the helicopter was why everyone was hanging on to the chase. The robbers turned their attention to the sky.

A photo of the helicopter after landing.
Source: YouTube

The men turned their semi-automatic rifles towards the helicopter’s fuselage, forcing it to land before it crashed. This caused the local airport to close because authorities thought they would start to shoot civilian aircrafts.

The Biggest Chase in Law Enforcement History

With his adrenaline pumping and the situation getting out of control, Deputy Rolf Parks realized he was part of one of the biggest law enforcement chases in history. Parks was the unit in front chasing the men, but his vehicle broke down because of gunfire.

A photo of Bolasky car after the gunfire.
Source: RSO

Parks watched the robbers’ yellow truck race towards Lytle Creek Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains as his car broke down. He knew the chase was long from over, and it was about to get worse because the area had many car accidents.

Deputy Jim Evans

As the robbers sped through Lytle Creek Canyon, Deputy Jim Evans joined the chase. Evans was a Green Beret and Vietnam veteran before becoming a deputy sheriff for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. People said he was like a cowboy who wore jeans and cowboy boots.

A picture of Jim Evans.
Source: RSO

When Evans held his son one day, he said to his wife that some men never get to see their children grow up. She wondered why he said that out of the blue, and he said It was just a feeling. He was referring to officers being killed in the line of duty.

The Robbers Assumed Their Positions

Evans had campaigned for officers to be better equipped to defend themselves, but nothing was ever done. Even though he knew it was dangerous, Evans continued to chase the robbers along the jagged mountainside. Deputy Daniel McCarty was close behind, trying to keep up.

An image of a police vehicle.
Source: RSO

Suddenly, Evans’ car came to an abrupt stop right before a sharp turn in the road. Around the bend, the men stopped their car and assumed their positions for the ultimate shootout because they couldn’t outrun the police. They were ready to fire at anyone they could see.

An Officer Sacrifices His Life

As Evans hid behind his patrol car to reload his gun, McCarty observed everything that was happening. He thought to himself, “Evans, don’t stand up. Don’t get up.” However, Evans stood up, and he took a round to the eye, which killed him on the spot.

A photograph of a car with bullet holes.
Source: YouTube

Tragically, Evans’ conversation with his wife came true, and he wasn’t able to see his son grow up. McCarty was shocked by Evans’ death and tried to pull himself together. However, the gunmen now turned their focus on him, shooting his patrol car with bullets every time they saw movement.

A Stand-Off in the San Bernadino Mountains

Fortunately, McCarty had a fully automatic M16 in his car that he took from his station’s evidence room, so he fired everything he had, sending the robbers into the woods. The sun was starting to set, and the robbers were getting weak.

A deputy officer is arriving at the scene.
Source: Andy Monti

Smith was bleeding out, but they weren’t going to surrender. The officers set up camp and waited till the morning to make their move on the remaining criminals. As the sun rose the next day, Smith and the Harven brothers were quickly located and didn’t resist. Police shot Manny because he was still carrying a gun.

The Shootout Was Finally Over

After Manny was dead, the shootout was finally over, and the repercussions started to settle in. If McCarty hadn’t brought the M16, there would have been a lot more dead cops on the road. However, there were still many officer injuries.

A photo of George’s arrest.
Source: RSO

One officer was hit five times in his face, left shoulder, both forearms, and left elbow. McCarty was shot once in the arm, but they recovered from their injuries. Bolasky also recovered from his wounds and was awarded several decorations for being the first to arrive on the scene.

The Aftermath

Once the suspects were arrested, they revealed that they had been ready to fight to the death. The three arrested suspects, George Smith and brothers Chris and Russell Harven, were charged with 46 felonies and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

An image of George Smith in the hospital after his arrest.
Source: RSO

They were accused of everything from attempted murder, assault, armed robbery, and kidnapping to the use of explosives. It was an event that no one in the area would ever forget, and people were shocked during the following days because they couldn’t believe how intense the situation was.

There Were Many Valuable Lessons Learned

When the report of the silent robbery alarm was broadcast to police, Bolasky was parked at an intersection across from the bank. He knew if he drove straight through the intersection, he would pass the large window of the bank and ruin the element of surprise.

An image of Bolasky talking to the media.
Source: YouTube

Instead, Bolasky made a left turn and drove to the side entrance of the bank. He didn’t activate his siren, but the getaway driver spotted his headlights and warned the robbers inside the bank. Even though he was spotted, his indirect tactical approach was a good example of problem-solving under stress.

The Deputies Were Scared

Just two months after the Norco shootout, the Riverside Sheriff’s Department deputies didn’t think their department was doing enough to prevent it from happening again. These feelings started right after the Norco shootout because they felt there was inadequate training, weapons, and communication.

A photo of the deputies involved in the pursuit.
Source: San Bernardino Sun

Most of the accusations were aimed at Sheriff Ben Clark. It was his 17th year leading the department, and he said, “Riverside’s deputies are as well-trained and equipped as any police officers in the state. The bad guys simply had better weapons.” But he dismissed the fact that high-powered rifles would have helped his men.

Other Agencies Involved Had Different Ideas

Although Clark thought his men didn’t need better weapons, the other agencies involved in the Norco shootout ordered dozens of high-powered rifles within the two months following the incident. The San Bernadino Sheriff’s Office acquired three dozen weapons and an M60 for their chopper.

A photo of a police vehicle.
Source: YouTube

Shortly after, an article was published about the Norco incident by the Riverside Press-Enterprise, and Clark decided to order his department 40 mini rifles. The policing system was quickly changing in California, and it would have a ripple effect across the country.

After 100 Years, Policing Was Changing

Instead of revolvers, police in the Inland Empire area were on their way to becoming the most heavily armed in the nation. The two sheriff’s departments (Riverside and San Bernadino) went from a pair of high-powered rifles to more than 75 and counting, plus helicopters armed with machine guns.

A picture of George Smith sitting in court with his attorney.
George Smith, Clayton Adams. Source: YouTube

As the new weapons were announced, deputies Andy Delgado and Dave Madden saw a video on the news of German police with body armor and MP5 submachine guns. They both thought, “That’s the way it’s going. That’s how we’ll all be soon.”

Two of the Police Officers Were Fired

Norco caused detrimental damage to the mental health of Andy Delgado and Glyn Bolasky. Plagued by bad dreams, anxiety, and dark thoughts, Bolasky quit the RSO for a job at Riverside PD. However, shortly after starting the field training program, his training officer let Bolasky go because he was a vicarious liability.

An image of Russell Harven’s arrest.
Source: RSO

Delgado also began to slide with increased outbursts and confrontations with fellow officers and supervisors. He felt like he couldn’t trust anyone after the shootout, and the department decided to medically discharge him for PTSD.

They Were Falling One by One

It had taken 20 months since the incident, but two of the three deputies involved in the shootout were fired from the only career they ever wanted. It wasn’t much longer until Chuck Hille would follow with a related medical discharge. It caused them too much mental harm, and they didn’t get proper help.

George Smith sits in court next to an investigator and his attorney.
Source: San Bernardino Sun

Although these three officers suffered, it helped other departments learn that they need robust plans to provide mental healthcare to employees and families affected by critical incidents such as the Norco shootout. Everyone saw the effects the events had on those involved and knew that things needed to change.

A Legacy Left Behind

The notorious Norco robbery/shootout left a lasting legacy on policing. Following the robbery, the Irvine Police Department used the case to create a training video. Although it occurred in 1980, it is still used in training law enforcement personnel in anti-terrorism and survival.

A mugshot of George Smith.
Source: YouTube

The events of that day contributed to improving officer survival training for police forces across the U.S. While people outside of Norco have forgotten about the event, the shift in firepower became federal law in 1997. This allowed the Department of Defense to send military-grade equipment to police forces across the country.

Norco Woke People Up

Although many disagree with the amount of weaponry police are allowed to have, experts in law and weapons believe they are necessary because Norco was a slap in the face that forced California to realize that heavily armed, coordinated groups were a fact of life.

A photo of a crowd protesting against guns.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred, NYPD police union leader Patrick Lynch said every patrol car should be a mini counter-terrorism unit with heavy weaponry. People still have very mixed views on this topic, and it has been a considerable debate in recent years.

Russell Harven Thinks They Got the Wrong Sentence

Harven and his brother are still angry about their trial. Russell, Chris, and George were tried together, and all three defense teams accused the prosecution of police misconduct, including perjury and destroying evidence. He stands by the claim that friendly fire from McCarty caused Evans’s death.

A photo of Russell Harven.
Source: YouTube

Instead, Russell believes they should have gotten 25 years to life instead of a life sentence. He said he used to be a happy-go-lucky guy, and now he is just waiting for death. He doesn’t like to think about that day and hopes one of his bullets wasn’t the one that killed Evans.

Everyone Was Affected by Norco

After years passed, nothing helped those affected by Norco. The police officers and civilians terrorized on that spring afternoon are still suffering the effects. Even the families of the bank robbers have suffered heavily. Some of the damage was immediate. It tore apart friendships, ended marriages, and ruined lives.

A photo from Gary Hakala, a Norco hostage, speaking in court.
Gary Hakala. Source: LA Times

It continues to ripple through the next generation. The Norco events are carried forward by heartbroken parents, wives, brothers, sisters, and some children left fatherless. It is not an event frozen in time. In the case of Norco, the past seems to go on forever.

Their First Victim

When the men stole their original getaway car, they kidnapped the owner, Gary Hakala. During the trial, Hakala said he knew something was wrong when he pulled into the mall parking lot. He tried to walk to the back of his truck to lock the doors, but they ambushed him.

A current photo of Gary Hakala.
Gary Hakala. Photo by Mark Lentine

He said there were three men, but reports only said two. After six hours of pain, Hakala thought his ordeal was over, but when he finally got out of the hospital and made it home, he found muddy footprints all over his house because the robbers had gone to his address.

There Was a Sixth Assailant

Hakala recalls that there was a sixth man who was smaller than the other men. He was held hostage while they set the diversion bomb, and Hakala said he heard a third man who wasn’t shown on the news. Although he was in a scary situation, he wasn’t afraid.

An exterior view of the bank.
Source: Pinterest

For a year after the incident, Hakala always carried protection in case he was attacked again. After over forty years since the event took place, Hakala sticks to his story that another person wasn’t arrested with the three surviving men.

George Smith’s After Plan

Although he ended up behind bars with the Harven brothers, Smith planned after the robbery if they got away with it. Smith hoped to purchase a house in the Utah foothills and ride out the end of times there. His way to pay for that was going to be the bank robbery.

A panoramic photography of Utah’s landscape.
Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

He believed the apocalypse was coming, so he wanted to go away until the world ended. However, the world has yet to end, and Smith is still sitting in jail because he got a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It Was the Largest Crime Scene

By nightfall on the night of the robbery, the crime scene extended for more than 40 miles when the shootout was in the mountains. It was the most significant crime scene in U.S. law enforcement history. However, by sunrise, the robbers realized they had no advantage over the police.

A photo of a deputy rushing towards the crime scene.
Source: YouTube

It also turned into the most extended jury selection process in U.S. history. The ensuing legal circus took six months and 200 witnesses. It also saw a defense investigator accused of performing a sex act on Smith during a jail investigation, and she later married him in jail.

Why Did They Do It?

Many people think asking criminals why they committed their crimes is silly. However, every criminal has a different answer. When Russell was asked why they committed the robbery, his response was, “Because I thought we’d get away with it.” There isn’t any particular reason why they did it.

Chris Harven sits in church during an interview.
Chris Harven. Source: YouTube

When police apprehended Smith, he said, “criminality isn’t my profession.” However, he made a legacy for himself, and that is what most criminals want. They want notoriety, and it probably excited him to know that he would go down in history.