An LAPD hero … a Notre Dame usher … and a winning cook

On February 28, 1997, a bank robbery occurred in what was to be the largest shootout in American history.  A robbery call went out on LAPD radio frequencies that a Bank of America in North Hollywood was being robbed.  Two heavily armed and experienced bank robbers did what is called a “takeover” robbery.

LAPD SWAT Officers Rick Massa and his partners Donny Anderson and Steve Gomez were working out at the LAPD Academy when they heard of the robbery.  They responded to the bank in their police vehicles. The robbery was still ongoing and sounded like a battle zone.  They were wearing their SWAT clothes except for Steve who was still in his workout clothes — shorts, T-shirt and sneakers.  

The two masked robbers had entered the bank on a Friday, the last day the month. There is always more money in a bank on the last day of the month. They fired 28 rounds into the ceiling and pushed everyone to the ground.  They knew they could only be in the bank for eight minutes. They were wearing body armor and carried assault rifles. They fired more than 1,100 armor piercing rounds, disabling all the LAPD units and even shooting at and chasing away the police helicopter. 

After a long standoff, they attempted to make their getaway.  Larry Phillips was on foot and came under heavy fire from the police.  He eventually committed suicide.  Emile Matasareanu attempted to commandeer a pick-up truck several blocks away.  When Rick, Donny and Steve turned the corner and drove down the street, they soon found themselves under heavy fire. They were forced to exit their squad car and take a tactical position behind it.

 Rick proned out.  Looking under the vehicles, he spotted the feet and ankles of the other robber, behind the truck he had taken over.  Rick shot at his feet, causing the robber to fall.  Rick, Donny, and Steve were able to subdue him, ending the largest bank robbery shootout in American history.

The two robbers had met six years earlier at a Gold’s Gym.  They were both interested in weightlifting/body building, firearms, and pursuing a life of crime.  Larry Phillips had a long rap sheet.  The other fellow was Decebal Ștefan Emilian “Emil” Matasareanu.  Born in Romania, he was an electrical engineer (!), who ran a computer repair business, which was not flourishing.

The resumes of Phillips and Emil M. included ambushing a Brink’s Truck, killing one guard, and seriously wounding another.  Six months earlier, they robbed two other branches of the Bank of America in the San Fernando Valley area.  They got away with $1,500,000.  They were suspected of other hold-ups.  Bank robbery detectives nicknamed them the “High Incident Bandits.” 

Rick, Donny, and Steve received many awards, including the LAPD Medal of Valor and a similar award from President Clinton.  Ironically, Rick grew up in North Hollywood and attended N.H. High School, as did my two daughters.

Three years before North Hollywood, the two robbers were arrested a few miles away in Glendale. A search found two semi-automatic rifles, two handguns, more than 1,600 rounds of rifle ammunition, 1,200 rounds of handgun ammunition, radio scanner, smoke bombs, improvised explosive devices, body armor vests, and three different California license plates.  How much time did they serve?  Ninety days!  But I digress.

In August, 1995, I was hired by the Notre Dame Athletic Department to consult on the Stadium Usher Program and the crowd management needs of the stadium heading into the stadium expansion (to 80,000) seats, for the 1997 season.  In March of 1996, I was hired to take charge of the 67-year-old Stadium Usher program, founded by Knute Rockne at the time of the building of Notre Dame Stadium (1930).

Rick Massa, one of the heroic cops, was always an avid Notre Dame fan.  One day he was on campus to apply for a Notre Dame Security/Police job.  He met with Rex Rakow, ND’s Chief of Police.  Rakow told Rick that they usually hired from within but went outside to hire Cappy Gagnon.  He said, “You should talk to Cappy.  He might be able to help you.”  

Rick called and we exchanged names of several L.A. mutual friends.  I told him that any time he was in the area, he would be my end zone guest for an ND football game.  For the next several years, Rick would arrange for a lot of his speaking engagements and training for South Bend SWAT to be after Notre Dame football weekends.  Rick would fly to Chicago.  Rent a car.  Drive to ND.  Visit the Grotto.  Work next to me in the end zone.  And then drive back to Chicago to go to his speaking engagement. .

He was a wonderful Notre Dame subway alumnus, overcoming the influence of a certain south central Los Angeles private college, which dominates the city where he worked.  I have been in Rick’s take-home SWAT vehicle, which has an ND insignia on it.  I have seen Rick’s SWAT uniform, which has an ND insignia on the back of his helmet.  I have seen the small tattoo on Rick’s leg of the Irish leprechaun.  I have stayed in Rick’s home, where one of his rooms resembles my Notre Dame room (so you KNOW he has some great memorabilia).  He and I each contributed to the other’s large collections.  

As Rick was approaching retirement, he chose a second career common to many talented Italians (who can’t sing) … and became a chef.  And, a good one.  January 14, 2009 — Food Network’s ‘Ultimate Recipe Showdown’ Winner – Retired LAPD Officer Rick Massa.

Retired SWAT Officer Rick Massa adds new weaponry to his arsenal – a whisk and a cheese grater!  From cop to cook, Massa showed the judges not only could he handle an assault rifle in the field, he was a master of the chef’s knife in the kitchen.  Massa’s Cheese Lover’s 5 Cheese Mac & Cheese received top honors in the Comfort Food category of the Food Network’s “Ultimate Recipe Showdown” and will be featured at over 600 T.G.I. Friday restaurants across the nation. 

A 35-year veteran of the LAPD, Massa served in the Department’s elite SWAT unit his last 25 years, taking part in several high profile events, including the North Hollywood shootout.  A self-proclaimed “backyard burger-flipper,” Massa took his love for food to the next level after befriending Matt Bencivenga, chef and partner of Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events.  Given the opportunity to join the Puck catering team in the kitchen, Massa didn’t want to disappoint and took several cooking courses prior to taking him up on his offer.  Once in, he became hooked and later opened his own catering and personal chef service, 1st Cut Cuisine.” 

Handsome Rick Massa on the left and the non-chef author on the right.

Rick won the Food Network’s contest over 15,000 other entrants.  His performance on the show featuring the four finalists also highlighted his outstanding skill in front of the camera.

For several years, Rick treated me and a half dozen friends with an annual dinner of my choosing, over a football weekend.  I rotated the location of those events.  It was in my house the first year.  Rick asked me what kind of stove I had and was amused when I told him I did not know … but, that’s another story.  

For 16 years, I was honored to work more than 100 football games with more than 800 outstanding ambassadors for Notre Dame.  Rick was one of the very best, from a great talent pool of special part-timers.  We even had a unanimous winner of Miss Congeniality from the Miss America Pageant, but we’ll leave her and many other usher stars for another day.  

Rick’s email has “cop 2 cook” in it.  The attached photo has handsome Rick on the left and a non-chef on the right.