Interview: Peter Houlahan, Norco '80
By: A.M. Larks
Peter Houlahan is a pen-wielding Emergency Medical Technician and he has written about the most notorious bank robbery in Southern California history in his debut book Norco ’80 (Counterpoint, July 2019).
I came across Norco ’80 after it was thrust in my hands by Peter’s Editor, Dan Smetanka. Dan promised me that it was an action-packed, screen-worthy read and it is. Nonfiction books aren’t typically filled with gun spray, smashed cars, and treacherous mountain-side police chases, but both the author and the book defy expectation. And if you think that Norco ’80 is only a Rambo-esque read you would also be mistaken. Norco ‘80, like the author himself, is more introspective than it first appears. Houlahan is equally parts intelligent and daring, which I found out as I caught up with him over email.
Kelp: You have an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence and are an E.M.T., which is an interesting pairing. Can you talk about your journey to writing?
Houlahan: I began writing short stories with no aspirations for publishing them. It only took some well-placed words of encouragement from a few very good writers along the way to get me serious about it and constantly working to be a better writer. They were novelist, Julie Gilbert, who invited me into her writer’s group, Andrea Barrett at Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, and Joan Silber at Sarah Lawrence. I figured if two National Book Award winners tell me I have what it takes to be a writer, I should probably go for it.
Kelp: Growing up Southern California you must have heard about the Norco robbery and the subsequent trial. What was that like?
Houlahan: I was an 18 year old surfer kid and news junkie sitting at the kitchen table in Whittier, California about 20 miles from Norco, when I opened the Saturday morning edition of the L.A. Times and saw the photos and story splashed across the front page. I sensed right then this was an extraordinary event. But it was not until I began researching it 35 years later that I realized just how extraordinary.
Kelp: Many people talk about the action-packed spectacular nature of this event (which it most certainly has), but your book also includes a deeper look at all involved and gives the reader an answer—if not an understanding--of the participants. Why did you want to include this? What was that important to you?
Houlahan: My “training” is in fiction writing, and the old adage in that genre is that everything revolves around the “characters.” It is no different in nonfiction. At the heart of any great story is the human drama. That is the only thing that gives it any greater meaning. As astonishing as the Norco event itself was, I would not have had much interest in writing anything more than an article if for the immense human drama I found contained within it when interviewing those involved.
Kelp: This book is packed full of information and stories and in addition, there are several intersecting personal narratives: the ones of each robber, each responding member of each policing agency, and each witness. How did you find each person’s story amid the chaos of the events?
Houlahan: Yes, the story of Norco is an ensemble piece in which many lives intersect at a single place in time with horrific consequences. To focus on a single person would have missed the real meaning of the event, which is the way something of this scope alters the course of so many lives.
When it came to the dozens of law enforcement officers involved, I chose to focus on four of them, each of whom had a distinctly different roles in the event itself and went on different life journeys afterwards. However, while unique their detail, they were also representative of the impact and experience on others involved. Criminals are always compelling characters and I did show the personalities and motivations of all five. I focused on the two ring leaders, George Wayne Smith and Chris Harven, not just because of their roles, but because of the fascinating interpersonal dynamic between the two. Of the civilians, hostage Gary Hakala’s experience was clearly the most compelling.
Kelp: The Norco bank robbery included so many shootings, not too mention a car chase that stretched over twenty-five miles from Norco to the San Bernardino foothills, involving multiple different law enforcement agencies, and then a manhunt in the mountains. The trial was also and lengthy, how did you handle all of the information? The files you have must be massive.
Houlahan: Yes, the scope of the event and trial and the number of people involved necessitated a tremendous amount to research. I split the research into two parts: the event and the people.
The advantage to researching a crime, particularly one that goes to trial, is that there are detailed investigation reports, witness interviews, and incident reports made by law enforcement officers involved, usually within hours of the event. If it goes to trial, all of this is meticulously presented and people involved questioned exhaustively about what they saw. So figuring out the “what” and “where” of the crime itself and the actions of those involved was not difficult, provided you have the determination to find it and patience to read it all. I did.
And, yes, you better think carefully in advance about a system for organizing all the data, especially naming the documents. Don’t be afraid to give them long file names that include dates, people and events contained therein so you can locate them with the “search” function. (God bless the search function!) Ditto for creating a logical system of folders and sub-folders within which to group them.
Kelp: The robbers used an extreme amount of firepower in this book, various types of guns and even a variety of explosive homemade devices. How do you make a reader care about that?
Houlahan: The ultimate goal is to give the reader an emotional rather than technical understanding of these weapons and what it is like to come under fire from one. The raw stats and specs on the guns and ammo are certainly part of it. That a .308 caliber bullet of the type fired by bank robber George Wayne Smith weighs 168 grams, travels at 2,600 feet per second and strikes its target with a staggering 2,200 pounds of energy might seem overly technical for the average reader. But add that this is eight times more powerful than the .38 revolvers used by police, can crack the engine block of a pickup truck and take down any animal on earth from a distance of a half mile away, and you start to get an idea of the awesome power of these weapons.
As for what it is like to be shot at, all you have to do is talk to people who have been, whether they be combat veterans or the cops in Norco that day. They will tell you that a full metal jacket bullets fired from a military-grade weapon snap like a bullwhip and buzz like giant bees as they fly by, scream and sing when fragmenting off pavement, and will tear through your automobile with a guttural three-dimensional sound. If you are unfortunate to be hit by one, they tumble and fragment and send shards of copper and lead traveling through your body on long random journeys.
I also went out to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s weapons range and fired all the weapons used by both cops and robbers in Norco. And then I struck writer’s gold when range supervisor sent me up a hillside and fired the guns over my head so I could experience what it feels like to be on the wrong end of those things. Even behind the safety of a stack of railroad ties, the experience was profound.
Kelp: It can be hard to talk about the same thing over and over again without sounding repetitious. Were there any tools or tricks you used to describe all of the shot-up cars, the gunshot wounds and other injuries, and all the shot-up cars and vehicular wreckage?
Houlahan: Yes, that certainly was a challenge, especially concerning all the objects and action of an extended gunbattle. I learned the technical and slang words for all the guns, ammo and component parts. It was also helpful to know about the material composition of the objects being shot. A bullet shattering glass is different than one traveling through an engine compartment. I also listened closely to how those who went through it explained their experience of taking fire. They often dropped adjectives, descripters and lingo I had known before .
I found that strictly adhering to the technical terms for the weapons and ammo to be very limiting. On one hand, if I got any of that wrong, the gun community would be on me in a flash. But how many times can you use the word “bullet” or “slug” when there are thousands of them being shot? So I made the decision to use the terms “bullet” and “round” as well as “clip” and “magazine” interchangeably even though I know the difference (e.g. clips feed magazines, magazines feed guns). The reason I decided to do that is because the cops and everyone else in the book does not differentiate either. “I took a round in the shoulder” is not technically correct, but that’s what Ken McDaniels said over the radio when what he really took was a “bullet.” But, even though I had a reader’s note in saying the same, I still got a star knocked off an Amazon review by a gun guy who tagged me for incorrect usage. It won’t be the last time.
Kelp: You have mentioned that there were handwritten notes in the files, can you talk about that?
Houlahan: Scanning through tens of thousands of pages of trial transcripts, a single 4 x 6 inch piece of paper fell out of one of the volumes. It was an original warning slip issued by the San Diego County Jail to a female investigator on the defense team telling her not to bring any more photos of herself “nude and in various positions” into the jail when meeting with her client, the mastermind of the Norco bank robbery. Yeah. That threw open the door to discovering a huge scandal during the trial involving jailhouse sex, drug smuggling and other things I had previously been unaware of.
Kep: Interviewing people about traumatic events can be a difficult task. Do you think your experience as an E.M.T. who has responded to events like Sandy Hook helped people open up to you?
Houlahan: Absolutely. Being in the wider circle of “first responders” lent me a lot of street cred with these guys. I’ve been on crime scenes and work with cops all the time. I know the lingo, what it’s like to drive lights and sirens, how to talk with police dispatchers and all that. I also have stories to tell that are just as crazy as theirs.
Kelp: Books often go through rigorous editing before publication (and I know your editor Dan). Was there anything that got cut from the book that you wish was still included?
Houlahan: Counterpoint and Editor Dan Smetanka let me write the book I wanted to write. That said, length was an issue, so some trimming was necessary. I would have liked to have included a little bit more about Deputy James Evans, who was killed in the mountainside ambush. He was such an amazing and fascinating person. On more of a sidelight, the FBI had such a hilariously disastrous day bungling everything, including losing the tail on a different bank robbery gang in Riverside County that same morning and then naming of five innocent people as the fugitive cop killers, including the man who had his truck stolen at gunpoint during the pursuit. We had to cut all that for space.
Kelp: You have published on P.T.S.D. in the past, and in your book you talk about the long-lasting psychological impacts of events like on the members of law enforcement involved. Can you talk about the choice to talk about P.T.S.D. as it relates to this event?
Houlahan: 1980 just happened to be a watershed moment in the understanding and treatment of PTSD among first responders, and Norco provided a sweeping profile of both. That was the first year the term “post traumatic stress disorder” appeared in the DSM and the first time the psychiatric community did not attribute the condition primarily to emotional weakness of the sufferer. Law enforcement was only beginning to recognize the need to aggressively address the issue. Some agencies involved had begun programs and others had nothing in place. Those involved in the Norco gunbattle displayed widely varying degrees of PTSD symptoms – some severe, others none; some immediate, some years later. After the Norco bank robbery, all the law enforcement agencies involved ramped up their programs to address PTSD.
Kelp: In an interview with The Big Thrill magazine you stated that the scope of the carnage left in the wake of the robbery was unimaginable at the time of its reporting. How do you think this event appears today?
Houlahan: While America has grown numb to enormous casualties from mass shootings, there have been very few “cops and robbers” incidents that come close to the scope, pyrotechnics and casualties of Norco. A pitched firefight in a crowded intersection, running gunbattle through suburban streets and onto a bust freeway. Bombs thrown at police, dozens of patrol cars destroyed, a helicopter shot out of the sky. Bank robbers literally heading for the hills with the sheriff on their tail, and all of it ending in an Wild West-style bushwacking 6,500 feet up a mountainside. In our time of ubiquitous cell phone cameras to record it, 24 hour news stations to loop it over and over, and an internet upon which to distribute it out to the world, I think it would be a story with a lot of “legs,” as they say in the news world.
Kelp: In your Epilogue, you mention the police response to the San Bernardino shooting was faster and better armed as compared to the response to the Norco robbery. Is that the only way that the Norco ’80 robbery has affected American culture?
Houlahan: The areas of lasting significant impact from Norco were advances in addressing PTSD in first responders and as a gateway event to what is now called the “militarization” of local police forces. Norco was the wake up call that finally pushed local law enforcement over the line – not entirely willingly – to arming at least some regular street patrol officers with military-grade weapons.
Norco remains an influential and notorious event in the law enforcement community, still used in training academies, but mostly forgotten in the popular consciousness. That is one of the things that was so compelling to me as a writer; the ability to tell an important story that never should have been forgotten in the first place.
Kelp: In Norco ‘80 you cited Daniel Oberhaus’ 2017 article “How a 1980 Bank Robbery Sparked the Militarization of America's Police” as further evidence that the Norco bank robbery irrevocably changed our police force. How has the militarization of our police force affected you as a first responder?
Houlahan: Not tremendously because I mostly work at fire departments in small-ish Connecticut towns. But I can tell you, I was relieved to see heavily armed Connecticut State Police arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School when our ambulance crew was staged 100 feet from the entrance and we were not sure if there were any active shooters still be inside.
Kelp: Your tour for Norco ’80 begins in Southern California, specifically in Riverside, Norco, and San Bernardino and sometimes includes surviving law enforcement participants. Can you talk about why you chose to start there?
Houlahan: Both the Riverside and San Bernardino Sheriff’s Departments took a lot of casualties in Norco. Both departments and the retired deputies involved were tremendously cooperative and helpful to me in writing this book. Both also wanted to use the opportunity of the book to honor their personnel involved, so it was only fitting that the first appearances were private events at each of those agencies. The first public event was at Norco Library, which seats 50 and had about 120 town’s folk in attendance, including many who had been directly involved or impacted by the event. All three of those appearances meant a lot to me, and I hope to them.
Bio: AM Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current Fiction Editor at Please See Me literary magazine, the Photo Editor for Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary review, and she is the former Blog Editor of and current contributor to The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She lives in Northern California.