Even in a city long plagued by violent crime, the bank robbery Wednesday left veteran police officers stunned.
The robbers led police on a wild hourlong chase, holding hostages from the bank as human shields. Periodically, police say, the robbers would slow down, waiting for pursuing officers to come into view before opening fire with an AK-47-style assault rifle and other weapons.
The pursuit ended in a minute-long gun battle that left two suspects and one hostage dead. Police said a third suspect survived uninjured because he used the hostage, Misty Holt-Singh, to shield himself from officers' bullets.
Singh had gone into the Bank of the West branch in Stockton just as the robbery was occurring Wednesday afternoon, leaving her 12-year-old daughter in the car because she planned to be there only a few minutes.
"In my two decades in law enforcement, I have never seen or experienced this type of total disregard for human life nor the intensity of the situation," Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said Thursday.
Hundreds of rounds were fired by the suspects, with at least 20 officers firing back, some unloading multiple magazines. The suspects had extra magazines taped and strapped to their bodies, police said, allowing them to keep up the barrage for more than an hour.
"The assailants were shooting the entire time," Jones said.
The violence left the city reeling. Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and has suffered from serious crime, especially gang violence. Police said the suspects are members of the Norteños, which officials described as one of the city's most active and dangerous gangs. Stockton police spokesman Joe Silva said the gang is being investigated for several other recent bank robberies.
At the Bank of the West branch, which was set to close permanently Friday, a memorial grew Thursday. Near the front door, people placed bouquets of flowers, including a pot of roses. Next to the flowers, someone left an unsigned handwritten note that said: "Dear Misty, today you were so brave. You died in a haze of bullets on a lovely afternoon. We are so proud of you."
"You will be missed. It was a pleasure to know such a strong, lovely, fun, loving lady! Heaven has the pleasure now."
Aundrea Castellon, who went to the bank Thursday to use the ATM, said she has lived in Stockton her whole life and said the robbery and gun battle were especially troubling.
"It's scarier than what you usually hear about. I live right around the corner. I was in this bank two days ago. I have dealt with the tellers here."
Lydia Nichols, a beautician at a nearby salon, said she walks by the bank daily from her nearby apartment.
"It's horrible. Crime is really bad. It's even scary to walk around the neighborhood," said Nichols, who has lived in Stockton since 1982.
The robbery occurred just after 2 p.m. when the three men walked in and pointed their weapons at the tellers' heads. A bank security guard alerted police to a robbery in progress at 2:11 p.m. before he was tied up. A minute later, the first officer arrived, in time to see one of the men approach the bank door with a gun pointed to a hostage's head.
Five minutes later, with a hostage negotiator en route, the men emerged, shielded by three female hostages, and drove off in a Ford Explorer belonging to one of the women.
Within blocks, the bloodshed began. Police said one of the hostages was shot and either jumped or was pushed from the SUV. She is expected to survive.
The men headed north into Acampo, then Lodi before turning back toward Stockton.
For a time, Jones said, the men lost the police and set up an ambush. Officials say that one suspect positioned himself at the rear of the SUV with an assault rifle. But a Stockton police commander in an unmarked vehicle arriving from another road saw him and opened fire, foiling the attack, Jones said.
At 3:16 p.m., more than an hour after it started, a second wounded hostage fell out of the vehicle. She, too, is expected to survive, police said.
Two minutes later, officers shot out the SUV's tires and it came to a stop — about two miles from where the chase began. After a prolonged gun battle, the shooting from the SUV stopped.
A police SWAT team, shielded by an armored vehicle, slowly approached the SUV and found two of the gunmen and Singh mortally wounded. Police took Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton into custody on suspicion of murder, kidnapping, robbery and attempted murder. He is being held without bail in the San Joaquin County jail.
The shooting added to what is becoming an increasingly violent year in a city that made huge gains against crime in 2013. Homicides are climbing again after numbering 32 in 2013, Silva said. As of the end of June there were 21 homicides in 2014 compared with 12 at the same point in 2013.
Martha Velazquez, who works at the MetroPCS store next to the bank, said she was driving when the robbers went by, pursued by the police. She said she heard about 50 gunshots.
"It's shocking. This is like something out of a movie," Velazquez said. "It's never been this extreme."
City Councilman Michael Tubbs said: "We need to heal the community."
McGreevy reported from Stockton, Serna and Winton reported from Los Angeles.