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Book excerpt: Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History

The Norco shootout left one sheriff’s deputy dead and nine wounded, with 32 police vehicles hit by ammo and a police helicopter forced down from the sky

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Norco ’80 is a true crime account of one of the most violent bank heists in U.S. history.

On May 9, 1980, five heavily armed men led by a born-again Christian with apocalyptic beliefs attempted a takeover robbery of the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, California, just outside of Los Angeles. What followed was one of the most violent events in law enforcement history.

After their getaway driver was killed during a ferocious firefight with Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies in the middle of a busy Southern California intersection, the four surviving bank robbers commandeered a heavy-utility pickup truck and began a running gun battle with police through the streets of Riverside County.

One of the first law enforcement officers to encounter the fleeing bank robbers was Riverside Deputy Rolf Parkes. He would become the third of seven responding officers hit by gunfire in the first 20 minutes of a pursuit that raged through suburban neighborhoods, onto a busy freeway, and ended an hour later in a deadly ambush on a rugged mountainside high above Los Angeles.

The following is excerpted from Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan, available on June 11, 2019.

With a name that belied his true heritage, Rolf Parkes was of mostly Hawaiian descent, born on the island of Oahu and adopted at birth by a Caucasian, non-native “haole” couple who lived there. When his parents divorced, Rolf and his mother left the beaches of Waikiki for the beaches of Southern California where Rolf grew up the only child of a single mother just blocks off the water in the Belmont Shores area of Long Beach. He was a good-looking kid with black hair and dark eyes who, by virtue of local demographics, was assumed to be Hispanic. But once teachers and friends learned he was Hawaiian by blood, it all made perfect sense: the Islander’s smile, the smoky complexion, his love of sun and water. It also explained his middle name: Napunako.

Rolf developed a passion for flight at an early age and was soloing a Cessna in the skies above Long Beach by age seventeen. He wanted to be a professional pilot, but with all the veterans returning home from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the labor market was glutted with experienced fliers. Parkes earned a four-year degree from Long Beach State, worked for a while as an EMT, and then decided to enter police work at the encouragement of some cop friends.

At twenty-seven with under two years on the Riverside force, Parkes was highly regarded by his fellow officers. Andy Delgado considered Parkes one of the “Lions” on the force: a quiet, brave cop who would be there when you needed him. Reserved by nature, Rolf kept a few close friends on the force but did not fraternize much after work because of the ninety-minute commute back to Long Beach. Rolf liked the ocean, the beach, and his childhood friends too much to move to the landlocked smog belt of Riverside County.

It was Rolf’s desire to be closer to Long Beach that led him to accept a lateral move to the Irvine Police Department. He was headed into his final week at the RSO when he arrived for the cover shift the afternoon of May 9, 1980. At the shift briefing, Parkes had tried to grab the Norco beat ahead of Glyn Bolasky to avoid working in Rubidoux, but Bolasky was having none of it, pulling rank on Parkes with a sly smile. Bolasky kept his Norco shift while Rolf hit the streets that day with the call sign 3-Edward-13—“3” for the three shift, “Edward” for Riverside station, “13” for Rubidoux.

When the 1199 went out, Parkes responded in the direction of Fourth and Hamner by way of Mira Loma. Trying to follow reports of the suspects’ location over the increasingly cluttered radio traffic, Rolf listened as every one of his fellow deputies who encountered the bank robbers took fire or had been wounded, maybe even killed. He heard Doug Borden report being fired on at Schleisman. The next transmission put the suspects on 68th Street headed in the direction of Holmes Avenue. Turning off Etiwanda onto Holmes, a two-lane road lined with ramshackle houses, doublewides, and animal pens, it suddenly occurred to Rolf that he might be seconds away from a battle in which he would be outgunned, outmanned, and utterly alone.

Rolf abruptly slowed and pulled his cruiser onto the dirt beside the metal fencing of a horse corral to give him time to consider his options. Before he could make any decisions, the yellow truck appeared, traveling at an ominously slow speed. To Parkes, it did not look like a vehicle fleeing police as much as it did one daring anyone to get close to it. And now it was 150 feet away, headed directly at him.

At once, three men with rifles simultaneously turned their weapons on Rolf. Bullets ricocheted off the pavement in front of him with a singing sound as they fragmented. Others cracked like bullwhips overhead as they shattered the sound barrier on their way to God knows where. There was the tearing sound of rounds striking his vehicle, ripping through multiple layers of metal, plastic, and glass with a guttural, three-dimensional quality. Fragments lacerated the interior and seats while heavier rounds from George Smith’s .308 passed through one side of the vehicle and out the other. Rolf had been around plenty of guns, but this was like nothing he had ever heard before.

Closing in on him, the truck methodically crossed the dotted line, veering into his lane like a trapper walking up to a snared animal to blow its brains out. The fucking thing seemed to amble, in no hurry at all. These sons of bitches are not trying to get away from me, he thought, they are trying to kill me. He was out of options. In the move of a desperate man willing to put anything between himself and death, Rolf Parkes did the only thing he could think of: he rolled up his side window.

A calm resignation came over him. He wondered if he would die slowly or quickly and how much it would hurt. He lay across the bench seat on his right side, all the shit mounted on his dashboard preventing him from getting down on the floorboard. Rounds were already tearing through the interior of the Monaco. He reflexively lifted his left arm up to shield his head, peering out from underneath his elbow.

The truck slowly rolled into his field of view no more than a yard away from his window, drifting by like a pirate ship pulling broadsides on some helpless, wallowing frigate. Time seemed to slow down as they appeared one by one, looking like pirates themselves. The wild eyes of Christopher Harven stared out at him from the two holes of a black ski mask. With one hand on the steering wheel, Harven reached out with the other and fired the .45 Long Colt revolver at point blank range, the bullets striking the quarter panel and door. Manny Delgado managed to get off a few shots over the top of the cab, gouging ruts in the roof of Parkes’s unit. There was an explosion of gunfire coming from multiple weapons and then the face of Russell Harven appeared above him, looming like some sort of insane hillbilly while aiming his rifle down at a violent angle, shooting fish in a barrel. Broken glass sprayed Rolf in the face. He shut his eyes against it. Something whizzed by, cleaving his scalp right down the middle, just above the hairline. Finally, it was George Smith’s turn, firing over the edge of the tailgate into the body of the Monaco as they pulled away, the last round from the .308 exploding the back window of the patrol unit.

Rolf could hear the truck accelerate away. He opened his eyes and felt his head. There was only a spotting of blood from a flesh wound on his scalp. A few inches lower and it would have been the proverbial bullet right between the eyes. There was glass all through his hair and a stinging in his right eye, but Rolf Parkes knew the impossible had just happened: He was still alive.

Copyright © 2019 by Peter Houlahan, from Norco ’80. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.