They’ve lived through one of California's rare municipal bankruptcies, endured deep cuts to the police force and years of high violent crime rates, and still, Wednesday’s deadly shootout between three bank robbers and a squadron of officers left Stockton residents stunned.
Martha Velazquez, who works at the MetroPCS store next to the Bank of the West branch on Thornton Road that was robbed at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon, 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."
The robbers led police on a wild hour-long 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.
"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.
Debbie Hernandez of Stockton Cultural Heritage said she listened to the chase and multiple shootouts on a police scanner.
“I didn’t know where they were going next. I was telling everyone to stay off the streets,” said Hernandez. ”They were constantly shooting at officers. Every couple of minutes an officer would say they were being fired at on the radio. We have had some really crazy stuff in Stockton, but this tops anything in the past.”
The incident began just after 2 p.m. when three armed men – two members and an associate of the Norteños, which officials described as one of the city's most active and dangerous gangs – entered the Bank of the West and aimed their guns at tellers’ heads.
A security guard managed to alert authorities to a robbery in progress before he was tied up. Within a minute, the first officer was on scene. Moments later, the men emerged with three female hostages as human shields and used one of women's vehicles – a Ford Explorer – to flee.
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.
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 chase concluded at Thornton Road and Otto Drive, not far from where it began. Police shot out the SUV’s tires and mortally wounded two of the gunmen. Holt-Singh was also killed, but police say it's still unclear when she was shot and by whom. The other two hostages had been wounded and ejected from the vehicle earlier in the chase.
The surviving suspect, 19-year-old Jaime Ramos, was arrested and booked on suspicion of murder, robbery, kidnapping and attempted murder. He’s being held without bail and scheduled to be arraigned Monday.
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