Three men suspected of robbing a cabdriver led sheriff’s deputies on a 50-mile car chase Tuesday, from Vista to south San Diego, ending when the suspects’ car smashed into a fireplug shortly after 4 a.m. at Southwest High School.
Two suspects fled the car while the third apparently shot and killed himself, said Sheriff’s Homicide Lt. John Tenwolde. One of the men was captured on the school’s grounds.
“No shots were fired by law enforcement officers,” said Tenwolde, who said an “assault-type” weapon and a handgun were found in the car.
Tenwolde refused to release the name of the man who was captured and booked into County Jail on suspicion of auto theft and robbery because he said it could jeopardize investigations into other crimes.
Police said the man is a suspect in as many as 10 armed holdups in the past six weeks, including the Aug. 5 shooting of off-duty Huntington Beach policeman Robert Barr at a motel on Kearny Mesa Road.
“Basically, we are looking at these people in connection with other robberies,” said San Diego Police Homicide Lt. Paul Ybarrondo. “But that’s just speculation at this point.”
Tenwolde, who is a homicide investigator, said that if the medical examiner’s autopsy--expected to be performed mid-morning today--confirms that the death was suicide, the entire investigation will be turned over to robbery investigators.
Tenwolde said the chase happened this way:
Deputies were told at 3:26 a.m. that a cabdriver had been robbed at gunpoint in the 300 block of West Vista Way in Vista. At 3:31, a car with a license plate matching a partial description given by the cabdriver was spotted at the intersection of Pala Vista Drive and South Santa Fe Avenue.
After deputies tried to approach the car, it sped off to Oceanside, taking California 78 to Interstate 5, then going south on I-5 and Interstate 805 at speeds sometimes more than 100 m.p.h., said Tenwolde.
He said the car got back onto I-5 and exited at Coronado Avenue. It sped south on Hollister Street until it veered onto the school’s lawn and plowed into the fireplug. The school is about 2 miles north of the border.
There, said Tenwolde, two of the men hopped out of the car and fled to the school, where one of them was caught. The other is still at large.
The third occupant, who was in the back seat, apparently had shot himself, he said.
Joseph Macagno, who lives a few houses down from the school, was having coffee when he heard the chase.
“I heard a bang and a lot of noise,” he said. “I went out to see what the devil it was, and I heard several--four, five, six--gunshots; I didn’t keep track of them.”
Macagno, who said he didn’t see the shots fired, said he heard them before the car crashed.
Tuesday night, the medical examiner’s office said the dead man’s name was being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
“He’s a John Doe, apparently in his 20s or early 30s,” said information on a release prepared by Deputy Coroner Dan Matticks.
“The official cause of death is pending an autopsy,” the release said, “but it appears he does have a gunshot wound to the head.”
Tenwolde said the car had been stolen from the Point Loma area.
Escondido police say the men appear to be the ones who held up two businesses there just before the Vista cabbie was robbed.
About 3 a.m. Tuesday, two separate armed robbers held up two businesses within 50 feet of each other--the Best Western Motel in the 1700 block of Nutmeg Street and the Donut Star in the 1000 block of W. El Norte Parkway--at the same time.
“One hit one, and one hit the other,” said Escondido Sgt. Ken Burkett, a robbery detective, who said the bandits were probably the same ones responsible for two Thursday robberies.
During one of those robberies, said Burkett, a witness spotted a “small, white car,” getting away, a description that matched the car that was chased.
“It sounds very similar--the car description is the same,” he said. A witness to a previous holdup described the weapon as an Uzi or automatic pistol--another similarity, Burkett said.