ST. LOUIS – A quarter-century ago, the North Hollywood shootout rocked the nation as two heavily-armed and armored men battled the Los Angeles Police Department in a firefight on the city streets following a bank robbery. The armed robbers died and 20 people were injured in the shootout.
Fatal bank heist on St. Patrick’s Day
It’s late Monday morning on March 17, 1997 – St. Patrick’s Day. More than two dozen customers and employees are inside the Lindell Bank & Trust branch on Clayton Avenue, near the southwest corner of Forest Park.
Around 10:30 a.m., two men wearing ski masks and dark clothing, and armed with SKS rifles carrying hollowpoint ammunition, entered the bank and began shooting. Security guard Richard Heflin, a married father of three, was shot several times before he could even draw his weapon.
One of the men hopped the counter and took money from the tellers’ drawers. The two men fled the bank minutes later with nearly $52,000 in cash and drove off in a stolen Dodge Grand Caravan.
The van got on nearby Interstate 64 but quickly got off at the Forest Park exit. The robbers lost control of the van, which struck a curb on Wells Drive and then hit a tree. The van became engulfed in flames.
Police caught one of the robbers with the help of a park ranger. The suspect, 21-year-old Norris Holder, had caught fire himself and authorities helped extinguish the flames on his clothes. Holder was then taken into custody. The other suspect, later identified as 19-year-old Billie Allen, escaped on foot.
Meanwhile, Heflin was rushed to a local hospital but died of his wounds. He was 46.
Then-St. Louis Police Chief Ron Henderson said police recovered other firearms and ammunition, a bulletproof vest, walkie-talkies, and a cellphone. Some of the stolen money had burned in the fire, police said.
Investigators at the time suspected this may have been a copycat crime inspired by the North Hollywood shootout and a fatal bank robbery in Detroit a week prior.
That evening, federal agents questioned Holder about the robbery while police searched for Allen. According to court documents filed during a 2013 appeal, Holden told FBI investigators he planned the robbery after watching “Heat” and “Set It Off” approximately 10 days prior. Both films “feature forceful, takeover-style bank robberies by heavily armed robbers.”
Holder said he and Allen chose that particular Lindell Bank because Holder had been a customer there since 1996. Holder said Allen accompanied him to the bank on March 13 to scope out the business while Holder made a withdrawal.
During the interview, Holder said the men had planned on using three getaway vehicles—two of them stolen vans—in order to evade authorities. They had doused the first van in gasoline prior to the robbery so they could quickly light the vehicle ablaze. However, one of them lit the fire too soon.
Holder went on to say he and Allen agreed they wouldn’t shoot their rifles and did not intend to hurt anyone.
Around 3:30 a.m. the following morning, homicide detectives and FBI agents tracked Allen down to a residence in the 3100 block of Oregon Avenue in the Benton Park West neighborhood.
Conviction and Sentencing
With both men in custody, Allen and Holder were each charged with first-degree murder and first-degree robbery, as well as two counts of armed criminal action. A federal grand jury indicted both Allen and Holder for robbery by force or violence resulting in death and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence.
Allen and Holder were tried separately. During both trials, federal prosecutors presented ballistics evidence showing a total of 16 shots had been fired inside the bank. Eight of those rounds were fired from a Chinese SKS rifle (Allen’s weapon) and three from a Russian SKS rifle (Holder’s rifle). The remaining rounds could have been fired from either weapon but could not be conclusively determined.
Heflin was shot eight times. The ballistics expert said bullets recovered from Heflin’s abdomen and kidney came from Allen’s weapon. However, bullets and bullet fragments found in Heflin’s liver, thighs, and knee could have been fired from either rifle.
Both Allen and Holder were convicted in federal court in 1998 and sentenced to death. They remain on death row at the United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute in Indiana. At present, Allen is 44 and Holder is 46.
Missouri has the second-highest number of individuals on federal death row (10), behind only Texas (17).