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Norco ’80

The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History

List Price: $26.00

June 11, 2019 | Hardcover | 6.0 x 9.0, 408 Pages | ISBN 9781640092129
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“[An] alarming account of a bank heist that rocked the country in 1980 and reflected ‘the peculiar zeitgeist of that decade’ in all its cockeyed drama . . . For a first-time writer, Houlahan sure knows how to dramatize a scene. His cinematic treatment of the robbery itself reads like wildfire, the fatal shootout with the police ends in colorful chaos, and the huge manhunt through San Bernardino National Forest conducted by ‘Hunt & Kill Teams’ is a nail-biter.”

—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Norco ’80 tells the story of how five heavily armed young men—led by an apocalyptic born-again Christian—attempted a bank robbery that turned into one of the most violent criminal events in U.S. history, forever changing the face of American law enforcement. Part action thriller and part courtroom drama, Norco ’80 transports the reader back to the Southern California of the 1970s, an era of predatory evangelical gurus, doomsday predictions, megachurches, and soaring crime rates, with the threat of nuclear obliteration looming over it all.

In this riveting true story, a group of landscapers transformed into a murderous gang of bank robbers armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons. Their desperate getaway turned the surrounding towns into war zones. When it was over, three were dead and close to twenty wounded; a police helicopter was forced down from the sky, and thirty-two police vehicles were destroyed by thousands of rounds of ammo. The resulting trial shook the community to the core, raising many issues that continue to plague society today: from the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder within law enforcement to religious extremism and the militarization of local police forces.

About Peter Houlahan

PETER HOULAHAN is a freelance writer contributing to a wide range of publications. In his career as an emergency medical technician, he has written a number of articles related to his profession, including the impact of PTSD on first responders. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. A native Southern Californian, Houlahan now lives in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Norco ’80 is his first book.


Praise for Norco ’80

One of Omnivoracious‘s Best Nonfiction Books of the Month
CrimeReads, One of the Month’s Best True Crime Books

Norco ’80 somehow makes meticulous research and devotion to the truth fuse with suspense and excitement until the reader is right there, a witness to this guns-blazing account of a crime that changed American law enforcement’s readiness for violence in the extreme.” —Joseph Wambaugh, bestselling author of The Onion Field

Norco ’80 reads like a pre-apocalyptic nightmare, and it’s all true. Houlahan’s writing is intimate and stark, and the pacing relentless, as it tells the story of a group of young men who robbed a bank to prepare for the end of the world and succeeded in bringing fire and brimstone to one unfortunate small town and the police sworn to protect it. The reader will feel like a witness to these events as they unfold. Be warned—you will not get anything done until this book is done with you.” —James Renner, author of True Crime Addict

“There is no doubt that Norco ’80 is poised to become a true crime classic. It’s a marvel of pacing and information—at times racing ahead like a speeding bullet and others slowing down to provide a perfect panorama of a hairsbreadth moment. Houlahan has left nothing unexamined in his obsessively detailed account of this heist, from the emotional to the logistical to the spiritual. Trust me, you’re going to want to read every word.” —Ivy Pochoda, author of Wonder Valley

“As the astonishing mayhem chronicled in this book unfolds, you’ll find yourself wondering, ‘How much worse can this situation get?’ Answer: a lot. Turning the pages, I kept flashing back to the desperate, duck-for-cover urgency of Black Hawk Down. Meticulously reported and artfully written, Norco ’80 is an utterly absorbing, unforgettable, and haunting study of how a series of bad decisions can snowball into something truly disastrous.” ––Dave Howard, author of Chasing Phil

“Simply put, Norco ’80 is one of the best true crime accounts ever written. Harrowing, incisive, and important. But also? A goddamned thrill ride. This is a book you’ll read and then talk about for weeks.” —Tod Goldberg, author of Gangsterland

“Gripping . . . Houlahan, who based his account of the robbery and its aftermath on interviews with the civilians, officers and robbers involved, proves to be a master at pacing—he writes with a narrative urgency that perfectly captures the quick and chaotic nature of the robbery. His prose incorporates the vernacular of the officers and criminals; it’s hard-boiled, shot through with profanity, but never forced. It reads like a crime novel in the best way possible. But what’s truly remarkable about the book is the depth Houlahan brings to the story . . . With his first book, Houlahan proves himself to be an astonishingly gifted writer, breathing urgent life into a true story that still resonates today. Norco ’80 is a fascinating true-crime account that seems likely to be one of the best nonfiction books of the year.” —Michael Schaub, NPR

“[An] alarming account of a bank heist that rocked the country in 1980 and reflected ‘the peculiar zeitgeist of that decade’ in all its cockeyed drama . . . For a first-time writer, Houlahan sure knows how to dramatize a scene. His cinematic treatment of the robbery itself reads like wildfire, the fatal shootout with the police ends in colorful chaos, and the huge manhunt through San Bernardino National Forest conducted by ‘Hunt & Kill Teams’ is a nail-biter.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Norco ’80 is enthrallingly detailed, down to the pencils thrown by opposing counsel in the criminal trial that followed ‘the most spectacular bank robbery in American history.’ Despite the depth and breadth recounted by journalist and EMT Peter Houlahan, the urge this book generates in readers to explore further this devastating true crime is impossible to suppress . . . Houlahan has admirably mined and winnowed the boundless material . . . He has compellingly translated a high-octane story to the page without losing traction, leaving the reader satisfied yet craving more.” —Lauren O’Brien, Shelf Awareness (starred review)

Norco ’80 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.” —David M. Olsen, The Coachella Review

“Like American Heiress in the summer of 2016, this looks like the true crime book that will launch a hundred conversations.” —CrimeReads, One of the Most Anticipated Crime Books of Summer

“[A] deeply researched, thrillingly paced tale.” —Peter Larsen, Southern California News Group

“Thrilling account of a violent California bank robbery . . . Houlahan’s debut is remarkable for the exhaustive . . . level of detail he brings to every stage of the story, transforming a pulpy true-crime narrative into a reflection of social transformations and class conflict as the countercultural 1970s faded into the Reagan era . . . An impressively well-rendered true-crime saga.” —Kirkus Review

Norco ’80 is one hell-raising ride through 1970s Southern California with an apocalyptic prophet and the prosecutors bent on turning the tables on the policemen involved in the most violent bank heist ever committed on American soil. From the minute you meet the charismatic George Smith and his flunky friend Christopher Harven, you’ll be hanging on for dear life, waiting for the next catastrophe to take your breath away with each heartbreaking turn of the page. It’s part law and part order, and it’s outstanding!” —Kristin Bates, McLean & Eakin Booksellers (Petoskey, MI)

“On May 9, 1980, what we usually happens only in action-thriller movies came to life in Orange Country, California. I don’t usually read true crime, but Houlahan’s writing pulled me in. While reading this meticulously researched and documented account, I could almost smell the gunpowder, hear the cacophony of gunfire making my ears ring, and see the dust clear as the largest crime scene in American history came into view. Documented here is how an attempted bank robbery and its subsequent trial would forever change a town, its people, and law enforcement nationwide. The crime and court case may have been an unbelievable firestorm catastrophe, but this book is pitch-perfect.” —Shannon Alden, Literati Bookstore (Ann Arbor, MI)

“In 1980 in California, a group of religiously inspired survivalists set out to rob a bank. With assault rifles and homemade explosives, they significantly outgunned the law enforcement officers they encountered. Peter Houlahan approaches the tale fully armed with facts culled from interviews, police reports, and court documents. He deploys them in steady bursts that hold the reader steady in a literary bullet time while the fast motion mayhem plays out. Norco ’80 is a riveting true crime adventure that also explains one of the predicates for the militarization of modern police departments.” —Keith Mosman, Powell’s Bookstore (Portland, OR)

“If you’re one of those people who don’t read true crime, this book will change your mind about the genre. Loved it!” —Tom Beans, Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe (Bend, OR)

Norco ’80 is a wild ride! The action plays out like a heist film, but the author also shows immense empathy for the wide range of characters—from the robbers to the first responders to the passersby. If you want to have a ton of fun while learning about an event that shaped the way our country responds to crime.” —Hadley Turner, Towne Book Center & Cafe (Collegeville, PA)

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