40 Years Later, the Aftermath of a Deadly Bank Robbery Still Lingers in a Small SoCal City

On a spring afternoon in 1980, a gang of heavily armed men terrorized the town of Norco, California

The motive for robbing banks has remained the same since February 13, 1866, when members of the James-Younger Gang walked into the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri, stole $60,000, and shot a bystander to death in what is widely believed to be the first bank robbery in United States history. Robbers rob for money and rob banks “because that’s where the money is.”

The motive for the 1980 robbery of the Security Pacific National Bank in Norco, California, may have been typical, but the reason the men who planned it wanted that money was not. They were not drug addicts desperate for their next fix, a ring of thieves looking to pull a string of heists, or members of a street gang eager for a roll of hundreds to flash around. They were none of those things. The two men behind the Norco bank robbery believed that America was on the verge of a catastrophe of biblical proportions, one in which only the well-armed and well prepared would survive.

George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven were certainly not the first people to conclude that humanity was headed for imminent disaster. They were part of a long line stretching back at least two thousand years to the time when an apocalyptic preacher known as Jesus of Nazareth roamed the Sinai Peninsula warning of the end of the world. The book of Revelation had laid out the general game plan. All George and Chris had to do was untangle the parables, decode the timeline, and match up the current events that would usher in the Rapture, Great Tribulation, and the Second Coming. If one were on the lookout for warning signs of the collapse of civil society and the obliteration of mankind, there were plenty of them to see by May 1980.

To understand why a group of young men with no serious criminal records would attempt a bank robbery that turned into one of the most violent events in law enforcement history, one must first understand the times in which it took place. At the time of the robbery, George Smith and Christopher Harven were 27 and 29 years old, respectively. They had both entered adulthood at the dawn of the 1970s, so whatever beliefs and world views they possessed were formed almost entirely by the peculiar zeitgeist of that decade.

The 1970s were not a hangover from the 1960s, but more like those menacing, early-morning hours of a party that has gone on way too long. It was a decade of national disillusionment and self-destructive indulgence where many of the counterculture philosophies formed in the late 1960s played themselves out in very ugly ways. Drug use became drug abuse as recreational pot smoking evolved into daily pot smoking and then cocaine, crystal meth, and the mind-obliterating angel dust. The idealism of Woodstock became the pure hedonism of Club 57. Pornography evolved from sexy girls in bunny tails into the explicit raunchiness of Larry Flynt’s Hustler. Free love became an epidemic of venereal disease and unwelcome pregnancies. Cities descended further into lawlessness, poverty, and bankruptcy while violent crime across the country escalated at a rate that would be almost unimaginable today. Communes turned into cults or business opportunities for predatory self-help gurus. In November 1978, just 18 months before the Norco robbery, more than nine hundred members of the Peoples Temple died in what cult leader Jim Jones labeled an act of “revolutionary suicide” but was, in fact, mass murder.

The more traditional idea of armed revolution was also particularly active in the 1970s. It was not long before the 1960s idea that you could change society morphed into the belief that you must destroy it first. In the first half of the 1970s, just after their graduation from high school, George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven witnessed a constant parade of radical groups who not only believed they could overthrow a government, start a civil war, or collapse a society, but actively tried to do just that. Leaders of 1960s sit-ins and protests went underground, made bombs, blew up others and sometimes themselves. There were more than 2,500 bombings by radical groups in the United States over an eighteen-month period between 1971 and 1972 alone. Cops became “pigs,” regarded by the radical underground as foot soldiers of a deeply corrupt status quo and targeted for assassination in major cities from coast to coast. It did not matter that groups such as the Symbionese Liberation Army, Weather Underground, and Black Liberation Army had little support and stood no chance of succeeding. What mattered was that for the first time in the country’s history, many, including George Smith and Christopher Harven, were looking at American society and seeing a house of cards teetering on collapse. Smith and Harven did not want to change the world, they just wanted to survive it once the whole shithouse went up in flames.

If creative interpretation was required to match up events and cultural trends with End Times biblical prophecy, the means by which that prophecy would be fulfilled was utterly unambiguous. Vast arsenals of nuclear warheads locked and loaded on land, sea, and air assured that the Apocalypse was not only possible but, in the view of millions, inevitable. Never was that threat more acute than in the 1970s. Détente and the SALT I treaty notwithstanding, what made the 1970s so dangerous was the dramatic increase in tactical battlefield nuclear weapons deployed throughout Western Europe by both the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1980, the number of European-based tactical nukes reached well over ten thousand, including missiles and artillery shells tipped with W48, W50, and W70 thermonuclear warheads with kiloton loads reaching well into double digits.

As devastating as a single one of those tactical weapons would have been to the troops in the field, the greater danger they posed was their potential role as a “gateway” nuke to eventual strategic, intercontinental nuclear warfare. After all, once you’ve morally justified using the first nuclear weapon, is it really going to be all that hard to justify defending your country with more and bigger ones?

norco bank robbery
George Smith circa 1970

Courtesy Riverside County Sheriffs Department

Both George Smith and Christopher Harven were part of the first generation to live their entire lives under the threat of nuclear war. They had spent their early childhood overhearing adults chattering nervously about Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the nuclear arms race. Their school days from kindergarten through twelfth grade had been punctuated by monthly “duck and cover” drills. Both Smith and Harven went straight from high school into the military. Smith was sent to Germany in the shadow of the Iron Curtain for two years as an artilleryman trained in the art of lofting battlefield nukes into enemy forces. Harven, booted out of the army after only two months, still gained an insider’s understanding of the implications of the sharp ramping-up of tactical nukes that was underway. The key takeaway for both was simple: We are all going to die.

A less existential yet equally contributing factor to the evolution of the two men from weed-smoking, petty scofflaws to violent bank robbers was rooted as much in the “where” as it was in the “when.” When George Smith stepped off the transport plane from Germany, he returned home to Orange County, California, to find himself at ground zero of the biggest religious youth movement since the Children’s Crusade.

There is no doubt that the “Jesus movement” had a positive impact on some young lives, especially considering the other counterculture alternatives available in the early 1970s. However, this brand of aggressive theology, intended to frighten the youth of Orange County into the pews and keep them there, was viewed by many as irresponsible, abusive, and dangerous. Born-again ministries such as the Melodyland Christian Center and Calvary Chapel, from which the movement originated, employed Pentecostal-style fire-and-brimstone tactics to keep membership in a perpetual state of terror, afraid that when the Rapture came, Jesus would find them unworthy and leave them behind. Most dedicated themselves unwaveringly to the game plan laid out by the church to assure their entry into the Kingdom of the Lord. Others saw their destiny as protectors, arming and preparing themselves to ride out the Apocalypse and the collapse of civil society they believed would precede it. George Wayne Smith was one of those.

bank robbery norco
Chris Harven (top right) and his family

Courtesy Riverside County Sheriffs Department

Christopher Harven was a different breed of cat, but when he looked out at the world, he saw all the same things Smith did. Harven viewed signs of impending social collapse in the alignment of planets, predictions of cataclysmic overpopulation, ecological disaster, and an array of other doomsday scenarios that gained traction during the decade. Harven was not what you would call a follower, but George Smith was a particularly articulate and persuasive young man, adding his own extreme biblical interpretations to Harven’s hodgepodge of pseudoscientific beliefs. George and Chris became friends, looked for signs of the approaching Apocalypse together, bought a house together, lost jobs and wives and girlfriends together, and eventually descended into desperation together. So together they made a plan. A very, very bad plan.

While Norco can in many ways be defined by the times in which it took place, it did not occur in an entirely bygone era. Aesthetically speaking, its world looked much the same in 1980 as it does today. The boulevards of Norco are still lined with the same fast-food restaurants, taco joints, gas stations, and convenience stores, many of which have the same names they did back then. The teenagers still wear their hair long and hang out in front of the 7-Eleven and the bowling alley in ripped jeans and ratty rock concert T-shirts. You can still buy a dime bag of weed off a street corner dealer in Rubidoux. Parents still shuttle kids to school and ballet classes or to the Little League field at Detroit and Hamner where the robbers parked their getaway cars forty years before. The feed store that sheriff’s deputies stormed in the mistaken belief there were gunmen holed up inside is still there, as is the row of small stucco ranch houses that took semiautomatic gunfire through their windows. You can even pull your car into the drive-through banking lanes at the Security Pacific Bank building, but no one will help you; it houses an architectural firm now.

bank robbery 1980

Courtesy Riverside County Sheriffs Department

While the men who robbed the bank might be products of their time, the men on the other side of the confrontation were not. The cops involved in the firefight that day were not so different from the cops who came before and after them: working-class guys, many from families with a long history in law enforcement, most of whom knew from an early age that they wanted to be in police work too. Many went into the military first, which in those days often meant a tour in Vietnam. They had rigid definitions of right and wrong. Back then they were more inclined to go outside the official department protocols with a suspect if they felt it was justified, whether that meant giving a car thief an extra whack with the baton after a particularly harrowing pursuit or giving a drunken driver a lift home if they thought he was just a good guy having a bad day. Off duty, they looked like regular blue-collar guys, reflecting the fashion, hairstyles, and trends of the time. In 1980 that meant long sideburns, blow-dried hair, wide lapels, ugly polyester shirts, flared slacks, and, to a man, mustaches.

As always, they boasted that cop swagger and thought themselves immune to any lasting effects from their experiences on the job. But they were not immune, of course, not then and not now. Even today, 40 years later, many of the men involved in the Norco shootout break down and cry when recounting it. The helplessness of being completely outgunned or the terror of being shot. The sound of having your cruiser torn apart by military-grade weapons. The thought that maybe you could have done something different that might have saved the life of a fellow cop.

For whatever reason, the passing of years does not seem to help all that much, not for the police officers and civilians terrorized on a spring afternoon by a gang of heavily armed men, and not for the families of the bank robbers who so needlessly threw their lives away. Some of the damage was immediate, tearing friendships apart, ending marriages, destroying careers, and ruining lives. But it just keeps rippling out through the generations, carried forward by heartbroken parents, wives, brothers, and sisters, and handed down to the half dozen children left fatherless on both sides. In this way, the Norco bank robbery is not frozen in time. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of Norco, it seems to go on forever.

norco 80

Courtesy Counterpoint Press

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

Houlahan appears for a reading on June 3, 6 p.m., at Norco Public Library, 3240 Hamner Ave Suite 101B, Norco; a reading and signing on June 5, 7 p.m., at Pages: a bookstore, 904 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach; and a reading and signing on June 6, 7 p.m., at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena.