By David M. Olsen
“We just got our asses kicked, didn’t we?” Deputy Andy Delgado says to Deputy Rolf Parkes while in the hospital after an eye surgery to remove bullet shrapnel. This exchange, found in the new book Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan, captures the sentiments universally shared by the police after their forces were eviscerated by five masked and heavily armed men in the wake of a botched bank robbery in Norco, California in 1980. Norco ’is an expertly rendered accounting of these events that reads like a crime thriller and courtroom drama, with all the brutal gravity of a true story. This is true crime at its best.
I was born less than eight miles from the bank on Hamner Avenue in Norco where the terrifying and dramatic robbery took place. I was, thankfully, born two years too late to bear witness to the brutality that day. And although the robbery took place in Norco, the crime scene stretched through the Inland Empire for over forty miles, a dozen towns, and ended in three dead, thousands of rounds of ammunition spent, thirty-two cop cars destroyed, and a helicopter forced down. It was, to say the least, one of the most violent, spectacular, and horribly botched bank robberies of all time. Reading Norco ’80, I started to wonder if the bank robbers had even planned on succeeding. At least, George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven didn’t seem to care, because they had spent less time casing a bank near a freeway than stocking up on over five thousand rounds of ammunition, boxes of homemade bombs, and a dozen assault rifles—all to hit a small-town bank.
Houlahan begins the book by tracing the personal and cultural landscape that leads the two primary suspects, George Wayne Smith (29) and Chris Harven (27), toward committing this heinous crime. We learn that the pair were both ex-military and had spent their limited time serving under the threat of nuclear annihilation. When they returned home from the military, the world around them in Southern California was crime-addled and obsessed with doomsday theoreticians and evangelical movements. Together, the two men were able to combine their knowledge of pseudoscience to decode the Book of Revelation to see the bigger picture: the Jupiter Effect was coming, and so was the end of the world. The men were not career criminals or drug addicts, nor did they even have a previous criminal history. No, when they moved in together as roommates and lost their girlfriends, wives, and jobs, they became desperate—they needed to get ahead of the impending apocalypse, and to do so, they would need money to build a secluded hideaway. Because only the well-armed and properly prepared would survive what was ahead for civilization.
After Houlahan renders the fantastical crime portion of the story, he delves into a long and dramatic courtroom saga where the three surviving criminals are dragged through a media circus and are viewed by the public as “contemptuous and childish.” Houlahan’s eye for character development and detail makes the story tactile and real to the reader, and that comes full circle as the book evolves to follow up on the lives of the officers and bystanders who became collateral damage in the extended offensive. The author makes a foray into other topics, too, including how the police force used the incident to militarize, changed their response tactics, and also refused, at the time, PTSD treatment. Many officers involved in the chase subsequently quit the force.
As an avid reader of both fiction and true stories, I highly recommend this book. It is a thorough and engaging recounting of one of the most violent and dramatic bank robberies of all time.
David M. Olsen is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and poet. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR-Palm Desert. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a book of poetry. David is a former fiction editor at The Coachella Review and is currently editor-in-chief at Kelp Journal. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Scheherazade, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere.
In a past life, David won awards as a chef and brewer. He is a cicerone, sommelier, and a certified pizzaiolo trained by 11-time world champion Tony Gemignani.
He resides on California’s central coast where he surfs daily.