Up Close: Peter Houlahan
Mining History for the True Story
of a Deadly Bank Heist
By Dawn Ius
Peter Houlahan remembers picking up the newspaper one morning in May 1980, his wide eyes locked on a headline about a band of five bank robbers who had hit up a Security Pacific branch in Norco, California—and then led law enforcement on an epic chase that ended in bloodshed.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Houlahan says. “The scope of the carnage was unimaginable.”
And yet, at the time, local media played down the heist, despite it going on to become one of the most violent bank robberies in history and forever changing the face of American law enforcement.
The story stuck with Houlahan, and now, almost three decades later, his curiosity unfolds in NORCO ’80: THE TRUE STORY OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR BANK ROBBERY IN AMERICAN HISTORY. Part action thriller and part courtroom drama, NORCO ’80 is a culmination of Houlahan’s extensive research—more than 36 boxes and 50,000 pages of documents—not only into the facts of the crime and its subsequent trial, but also the bigger story—the very human side of this tragic event.
He reached out to the law enforcement officers, lawyers, survivors, and witnesses who were there during the event, and conducted in-depth interviews with as many people that would answer his call. Houlahan also spent time getting to know the backgrounds of the five men who—despite having no meaningful criminal backgrounds—held up a bank with automatic weapons and a firm belief that to survive an impending apocalypse, money—and lots of it—would be required.
“The event itself was pretty bizarre,” Houlahan says, noting that with each piece of evidence he found, the story became almost surreal. From notes buried in court document folders, to real-life accounts from officers who’d been there, Houlahan carefully documented his research to paint a vivid picture of what took place on that fateful day. “Certainly, the more details I learned about the incident…it just got more and more astonishing.”
NORCO ’80 is, without a doubt, well-researched, but there’s nothing dry or boring about the way Houlahan shares what he’s learned. Though he is a full-time emergency medical technician—Houlahan was a first responder at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting near his Connecticut home—his background is in creative writing—he holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College—and his literary chops are on full display here.
Perhaps it’s because Houlahan takes special care in researching not only the facts, but the fine details that bring a story—or in this case, a recreation—to life. For one piece of the book, he went to a firing range and not only shot the same guns the bank robbers had used, but he allowed himself to be shot at.
“The sound of one of those bullets going by sure gives you a different perspective,” he says. “They crack like bones when they go over your head, and buzz like bees when they go past your ear. You can feel it in your chest.”
The descriptions are so visceral one might be tempted to think that the majority of the book is entirely made up—but NORCO ’80 goes a long way in proving the old cliché that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
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