Even in the land of police chases, it was a wild ride.
A pair of bank robbery suspects Wednesday led cops on a bizarre, dangerous pursuit, hurling fistfuls of stolen cash from their car in a failed getaway bid that sent hundreds of people scrambling into the path of oncoming police cars as they lunged after the flying bills.
Although it was almost certainly a self-serving gambit meant to slow their pursuers, the robbery suspects' decision to share the loot in such brazen fashion made them instant heroes to many in the impoverished South L.A. neighborhoods where the chase came to an end.
"It's our neighborhood stimulus package!" laughed Diane Dorsey, who watched the bedlam unfold from her front yard at the corner of Kansas and Vernon avenues.
"Kids were smiling like it was Christmas," added a neighbor, who gave only his first name, Desean.
More than a few compared the suspects to a certain folk outlaw known for robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Los Angeles Police spokesman Cmdr. Andy Smith tried to knock down such talk. "Robin Hood is not how I would describe these guys," he said. "It's just the worst side of human nature."
The made-for-Hollywood chase began 40 miles to the north in Santa Clarita, when four armed men held up a Bank of America branch shortly after 10 a.m. and fled in a black Volvo SUV that had been reported stolen hours earlier, police said. Deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department quickly located the suspects and began to pursue them. Shortly after the chase began, two of the men bailed from the vehicle in an attempt to escape on foot but were taken into custody, said Capt. Mike Parker, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department.
The two remaining suspects continued on, jumping from freeways to streets and back again as they wound their way through the San Gabriel Valley and Pasadena and onward toward the skyline of downtown Los Angeles.
People trying to outrun police commonly gravitate to neighborhoods familiar to them, and the driver Wednesday appeared to act no differently. Leaving downtown, he looped west to MacArthur Park, then past the USC campus until arriving in South L.A., where the Volvo had been stolen.
Up to this point, the chase had followed the script of countless others before it in Los Angeles, where police pursuits pass as televised entertainment captured in real time by ubiquitous news helicopters.
But then, as the men sped through congested residential neighborhoods with more than a dozen Sheriff's Department vehicles in pursuit and a police helicopter tracking them overhead, the windows in the back seat of the SUV went down. A hand grasping a wad of bills emerged and let go, sending the money fluttering to the pavement.
As he continued tossing the mix of hundreds, fifties, twenties and lower denominations in intermittent bursts, people in the area left their televisions and took to the curbs. The suspect waited until the car reached corners with large gatherings of people before sending more plumes of bills out the window, seemingly to maximize the number of people who would scramble into the street. Sheriff's deputies were forced to slow and swerve to avoid hitting people.
"It's a true blessing if no one was seriously hurt," Parker said.
The cash grab unfolded in a neighborhood beset by joblessness. A Times analysis of census data shows about half of people age 16 and older are either unemployed or not in the labor force.
With each block, the crowds grew larger. Consisting mostly of young men, many cheered and raised their arms exuberantly as the SUV sped by. In the end, however, the ploy led to the suspects' undoing.
With so many people following their escapade, the streets became congested with cars and pedestrians. As they tried to navigate along a clogged street, the SUV became trapped behind a truck. Sheriff's deputies lept from their vehicles with guns drawn, swarmed the Volvo and yanked the suspects out. The identities of the suspects have not been released, and police declined to say how much money had been stolen from the bank.
Hundreds of onlookers descended on the scene, surrounding the police vehicles into which the suspects had been placed. With police badly outmanned and the crowd growing agitated, it appeared for several tense minutes that officers would need to use force to keep people at bay. The atmosphere lightened, however, after scores of LAPD officers arrived to help dissipate the crowd.
No serious injuries were reported, although an officer's foot was reportedly run over by the suspect's vehicle and a man on a bicycle claimed he was hit by a police car during the pursuit, police said.
Several people recounted with a sense of bewilderment the day's odd events.
Gary Cabral, 25, was waiting for a bus when the SUV rolled past. "I saw money flying in the air, and I was like, 'Let's go get it!'" Cabral said.
He and others made a dash for the cash. Gabral managed to grab five notes — all of them $1 bills. He divided the meager take among his two nephews.
Anthony Solano watched a crowd on 46th Street as the suspect tossed cash at them. "You know how piranhas feed, how they attack?" Solano said. "Yeah, that's what it was like."
Police urged people to turn in cash they scooped up, warning that it is a crime to keep it and that they would use video footage to try to identify people.
Times staff writers Sam Allen, Matt Stevens, Ruben Vives, Jason Song and Doug Smith contributed to this report.