It’s pretty clear early on in Norco ’80 that very few people are going to come out at the conclusion looking like heroes. In Peter Houlahan’s deeply researched, thrilling recreation of the 1980 robbery and the trial that followed it, there is always the overriding sense of, well, senselessness. From the obviously obtuse robbers to the officers who rushed to the scene and, depending on your perspective, bravely or foolishly tried to engage the heavily armed men with six shooters and shotguns, the events of May 9, 1980 echo uncomfortably in today’s reality of mass shootings and police militarization.
Houlahan roughly divides his work into three parts: a brief prologue which introduces the robbers, their backgrounds and the planning of the heist; a lengthy and detailed account of the robbery and chase that followed; and the trial of the remaining robbers, with its aftermath. The depiction of the robbery is a remarkable work of reconstruction: Houlahan practically puts readers beside the first responders and the robbers as the event unfolds. And it’s not an easy job. From the time five men walked into the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, California, late on a May Friday payday, to when they fled in a commandeered truck, less than five minutes had elapsed. Yet in that time, over five hundred rounds had been fired into a busy California intersection, with only seventeen of those being from law enforcement. Firing at bystanders and officers from the truck, the robbers drove into the inhospitable San Bernardino Mountains, creating a crime scene that would stretch forty miles over freeways, residential streets and into rough chaparral. By the end of the chase, two robbers and a deputy would be dead, with numerous officers and civilians wounded or otherwise traumatized. Houlahan draws on radio transcripts, witness interviews and the like to really capture the chaos surrounding the chase. Particularly telling is the helplessness that seemed built into law enforcement practices at the time: the robbers were rank amateurs who made innumerable mistakes, but police were handicapped by their own low-powered weaponry and especially the inability to communicate across channels, which may have directly contributed to Deputy Jim Evans’s murder by the suspects. And while it would appear that the trial would be an open and shut case—the shootout was witnessed by a forty-mile swath of witnesses after all—it was anything but. From lawyers being held in contempt to a ‘Pencil Fencing Incident’ the trial of the Norco 3 turned out to be one of the weirdest in California history. Houlahan recreates it in its full ignominious glory.
Norco ’80 is Houlahan’s first full-length nonfiction, and it’s a solidly written account. Houlahan is himself an EMT who has responded to shootings, and his experience shows in the obvious attention to detail and the sense of really being present through all the confusion, adrenaline and exhaustion of a quickly changing situation. But he also does a good job of portraying the conundrums that are the instigators. The question of motive always appears after a mass shooting, and Houlahan here doesn’t make any pronouncements about what turned hapless Bible-thumpers into murderous desperados, but lets the reader make their own conclusions. A quibble against the book is the lack of systematic citation of his sources—readers have to make do with an author’s note; a pity given the obvious amount of work that went into the narrative. That aside, Norco ’80 brilliantly captures a moment when the battle between law enforcement and criminals changed irrevocably and the repercussions of which are still being felt nearly forty years later.