As Stockton police searched for a fourth suspect in a takeover bank robbery last week that left three people dead, officials said Saturday they believe some of the suspects may have targeted the same Bank of the West branch in January.
"Detectives strongly believe that it's going to be the same suspects based on similar MOs," said Joe Silva, a spokesman for the Stockton Police Department.
One hostage and two suspects were killed in Wednesday's incident. Police said there were some similarities with another robbery that occurred at the same bank this year, though there were no hostages taken in the first attempt.
In the most recent robbery, three armed men were dropped off at the branch in the 7800 block of Thornton Road, and pointed their weapons at the tellers' heads, police said. The suspects took three women as hostages, driving off in a Ford Explorer owned by one of the captives.
During the Jan. 31 heist, at least two suspects were dropped off, "came in, armed, and then took the money and went out and stole an employee's car" as their getaway vehicle after taking the keys, Silva said.
"In that case, they did not take a hostage," Silva said. Detectives also are looking to see whether the suspects were involved in other nearby bank robberies.
Two of the suspects in the most recent heist, Gilbert Renteria Jr., 30, and Alex Gregory Martinez, 27, both of Stockton, were fatally wounded in a gun battle with police. The third suspect, Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton, was detained. He survived after using one of the hostages, Misty Jean Holt-Singh, 42, a married mother of two, as a human shield, according to police.
Police on Saturday continued hunting for a fourth suspect, believed to have driven the dark sedan that dropped off the robbers at the bank, based on surveillance video.
After releasing the image of the car to the media, officers received tips about an abandoned Buick sedan a few miles away, on the 3200 block of West Creek Drive.
The two dead suspects were documented members of the Norteno gang, and the surviving suspect is an alleged associate. "We're trying to determine if this was done to benefit the gang or if this was just done on their own," Silva said.
The robbery began about 2 p.m. A security guard was able to alert police to the robbery in progress at 2:11 before being tied up. A minute later, the first officer arrived and saw a suspect approach the bank door pointing a gun at a hostage's head, police Chief Eric Jones said.
Five minutes later, with a hostage negotiator on the way, the suspects left the bank, shielded by a bank manager, another employee and Holt-Singh. They left in the manager's Explorer.
A few blocks away, one of the hostages was shot and either jumped or was pushed from the SUV.
During the wild hourlong chase, 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. Hundreds of shots were exchanged, with bullets riddling homes, civilian vehicles and 14 police cars.
The suspects lost police for a time and set up an ambush, putting one suspect at the rear. A police commander in an unmarked vehicle drove in from a different road, opening fire and foiling the trap, Jones said.
At 3:16 p.m., a second wounded hostage fell from the vehicle, police said. Two minutes later, officers shot out the SUV's tires and it came to a stop, and suspects and police exchanged gunfire in a prolonged battle.
When the shooting from the SUV stopped, a police SWAT team found two gunmen and Singh fatally wounded. The assault rifle, three other guns and many magazines were recovered.
Authorities are trying to determine who shot Singh and when she died.
On Friday, a lawyer for Singh's family, Michael Platt, said the way in which Singh died needs to be examined further. He said he would seek police records of the incident.
Singh is survived by her husband, Paul, 45; their son, Paul Jr., 19, and daughter Mia, 12. Mia had been waiting in the car while her mother went inside the bank.
The robbery happened two days before the bank branch had been scheduled to close permanently, Silva said.