Three bank robbers took three screaming women hostage as they made their getaway and waged a ferocious, high-speed gunbattle with police that left three people dead and cars and homes riddled with bullets, authorities said.
Two of the robbers were killed along with a hostage who police said had been used as a human shield.
During the hour-long chase through the streets, two of the hostages jumped or were thrown from the stolen SUV, one of them while it may have been going more than 50 mph. At least one suffered a gunshot wound. Both were expected to survive.
The chase and shootout began Wednesday afternoon when the heavily armed men held up a Bank of the West branch in Stockton, a city about 80 miles east of San Francisco, and took two bank employees and a customer hostage. It ended in a hail of gunfire after police shot out the tires of the getaway vehicle.
It was not clear whether the hostage who died — the bank customer — was shot by police or by the robbers.
“What we've got to remember is what and who started this very deadly incident. It's three armed and very violent suspects,” Stockton police spokesman Joe Silva said.
The sole surviving suspect was identified as Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton. Police said the other robbers, ages 27 and 30, were gang members, also from Stockton.
Police said that they recovered at least three handguns and an assault rifle and that the gunmen had ammunition strapped to their bodies.
“It was such a chaotic … fluid situation, really one of the most dangerous, tense situations that a police officer could go through,” Police Chief Eric Jones said. He added: “There was a lot on the line and the officers responded appropriately.”
Fourteen police cars and many homes along the chase route were peppered with bullets, Jones said.
“The firing never stopped,” Jones said. “They were trying to kill (the officers), no doubt.”
Witnesses said the shootout that brought the episode to a close looked like a war.
“It sounded like five minutes of straight gunfire,” Sam York told KCRA-TV. “It seemed like it wasn't real.”
At one point during the pursuit, the SUV — taken from a bank employee — stopped around a corner and turned to face the direction officers were coming from, in what would have been an ambush, police said.
One of the gunmen was leaning out, taking aim with a rifle, police said. An officer shot at the gunman, and the SUV took off again.
When the SUV's tires were shot and the vehicle came to a stop, officers exchanged fire with at least one of the robbers, police said.
When it was all over, the last hostage was found dead in the SUV along with one of the gunmen, police said. A second gunmen died later at a hospital.
Jose Maldonado, who said he saw the robbers taking the women out of the bank, said the men had rifles slung over their shoulders and didn't seem to care that there were police all around.
“They were not afraid. They weren't going to take no for an answer. These poor women, they were screaming, they were so distraught, so scared,” Maldonado said.
During the holdup, the robbers also tied up a bank security guard.