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Saanich bank robbery and shootout has echoes of North Hollywood shootout in 1997

The North Hollywood shootout involved two bank robbers wearing bulletproof vests and homemade body armour on their legs and carrying automatic rifles. They entered a Bank of America branch at 9:16 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1997.
The body of a suspect is removed from the scene of a robbery at the Bank of Montreal at Shelbourne and Pear streets on Tuesday. Two suspects, identified as twin brothers Issac and Mathew Auchterlonie of Duncan, were killed in a shootout with police. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

When news broke Tuesday of men in tactical gear with high-powered weapons calmly robbing a Saanich bank, followed by a shootout outside, retired Saanich detective Chris Horsley was struck by the similarities to the 1997 North Hollywood shootout that changed policing across North America.

“My mind immediately went to the Bank of America shooting — it’s the first thing that popped into my head because I just recognize some of the similarities between those two incidents,” said Horsley, who was asked to comment on the case.

The North Hollywood shootout involved two bank robbers wearing bulletproof vests and homemade body armour on their legs and carrying automatic rifles. They entered the Bank of America at 9:16 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1997.

There was a shootout when they exited.

“They were incredibly casual but they were wearing body armour from head to toe and at the time had significant firepower — high-velocity military-grade sort of weapons,” said Horsley.

The two perpetrators died, and 12 police officers and eight civilians were injured. It’s estimated the robbers fired 1,100 rounds and the police, most of whom carried standard-issue pistols, fired about 650.

“It was a landmark incident in policing for North America,” said Horsley. “The Bank of America robbery was used for training police officers. We actually watched the video, we listened to the radio transmission from the robbery … the whole purpose being to learn from the incident and to prepare in the event of something similar happening again.”

That level of firepower was new to police in the late 1990s, “so those responding officers in North Hollywood had their handguns and their body armour, but they were simply no match for this firepower and the suspects casually walked out of the bank and engaged multiple police — thankfully all of [the officers] survived.”

After the Bank of America robbery, long guns were introduced in patrol cars in the United States and then Canada. “That permeated all the way to Saanich and Victoria police here,” said Horsley.

“In recent years, if there’s a call for service, you’ll see a police officer carrying a long gun. That’s become the norm. At the time of the Bank of America robbery that was unheard of,” said Horsley.

On Tuesday in Saanich, two heavily armed suspects in protective gear were killed and six members of the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team were wounded in a shootout at the Bank of Montreal on Shelbourne Street in Saanich.

The suspects have been identified as twin brothers Issac and Mathew Auchterlonie of Duncan. Police said the brothers don’t have criminal records.

The RCMP bomb disposal unit removed “extremely dangerous” explosives from a suspect vehicle at the scene and transported them to Hartland Landfill for destruction.

Witness Shelli Fryer, 59, told the Times Colonist she was in the manager’s office of the Bank of Montreal for an appointment when there was an “incredible explosion.” Then a man carrying an assault rifle and wearing a balaclava asked the manager for access to the vault. Fryer noted that during the ordeal, the gunmen were quiet and calm. When they left the building, however, there was a massive shootout.

“As a retired officer on the sidelines having received that training, there just appears to be so many similar parallels to this recent incident and that case from all those years ago, including the demeanour of the suspects and the fact they appear to be wearing a lot of protective gear in anticipation, potentially, of an armed encounter,” said Horsley.

Horsley said the weight of protective gear, heavy weapons and ammunition can in part dictate the way a person moves, and in the 1997 robbery, the men might have had an air of invincibility because of their weapons.

According to the documentary North Hollywood Shootout — Situation Critical, both men took the barbiturate phenobarbital prior to the robbery to calm their nerves. They allegedly filled a jam jar with gasoline and put it in the back seat of their vehicle to set it on fire and destroy the evidence.

Horsley said despite the time gap, he wondered if it was a copycat case. “Bank robberies have almost become a thing of the past,” said Horsley. “They don’t happen that often anymore because even if they do get some money by passing a note, they get a minimal amount.” Bank-robbery perpetrators are also often career criminals.

Horsley said it struck him as strange that Tuesday’s bank robbery, based on public reports, started with an explosion. He said standard practice would be to enter the bank quietly and avoid a scene.

As for the bravery shown by officers, Horsley said that reflects their training. “I know locally, not just with the Saanich police, but with other departments, those officers will be the first to go into danger and put themselves at risk and we’ve had many incidents here in Greater Victoria where that’s exactly what has transpired." 

Horsley suspects there will be more accounts of heroism, not only by police but by B.C. Ambulance personnel, Saanich firefighters, other first responders, and hospital staff.

Horsley, who retired while a detective staff sergeant in February, said he felt helpless hearing the news and not being able to assist.

“There’s a feeling of helplessness that you can’t go to help people who are not just your former colleagues, but a lot of them are your friends,” said Horsley, “but I also know that the level of training that police officers receive in this country is very high and at times like this, you will always default back to your training and the skills that have been ingrained in you.”

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