STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — Robbers fleeing a California bank took three women hostage and threw two of them from their getaway vehicle, as they fired repeatedly at police during a high-speed chase. Police shot out their tires but the shooting continued, fatally wounding two suspects and the last hostage.
The violence in this central California city erupted Wednesday afternoon when officers responded to a report of a robbery at a Bank of the West branch and spotted three men taking three female hostages from the bank at gunpoint, Stockton police officer Joe Silva said.
The suspects with their hostages in tow fled in an SUV stolen from a bank worker and led officers on 45 minute chase.
During the pursuit, police said two of the hostages, both bank employees, were thrown from the SUV. One was taken to a hospital with a gunshot wound; the other suffered a grazing bullet wound.
The pursuit continued as the suspects fired with AK-47 style rifles from the SUV. Fourteen police cars and many homes along the robbers’ path were peppered with bullets, Police Chief Eric Jones told a news conference late Wednesday.
“It was such a chaotic … fluid situation, really one of the most dangerous, tense situations that a police officer could go through,” Jones said.
“There was a lot on the line and the officers responded appropriately,” he said.
When the SUV’s tires were shot and the vehicle came to a stop at an intersection, officers exchanged gunfire with at least one of the assailants.
“The firing never stopped,” Jones said, noting that the suspects had ammunition strapped to their bodies. “They were trying to kill (the officers), no doubt.”
When it was all over, the third hostage was found dead in the SUV and one of the robbers was also dead. The police chief said the hostage was a bank customer, and that she appears to have been used by the suspects as a human shield during the shootout.
Police said the other two suspects were taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds, and one of them later died.
The surviving suspect was conscious, Jones said.
Witnesses said the shootout that brought the episode to a close looked like a war.
“It sounded like five minutes of straight gunfire,” witness Sam York told KCRA-TV. “It seemed like it wasn’t real.”
Jose Maldonado, who said he saw the robbers taking the women out of the bank, said the men had rifles that looked like AK-47s slung over their shoulders and they didn’t seem to care that there were police all around.
“They were not afraid. They weren’t going to take no for an answer. These poor women, they were screaming, they were so distraught, so scared,” Maldonado said.
Jones said the robbers also tied up a bank security guard.
The bank said in a statement that it would not provide information about the victims.
“This is a tragic incident and we are focused on supporting our customers and employees,” the statement said.
Associated Press reporters Lisa Leff and Daisy Nguyen contributed to this report from San Francisco.