FRESNO, California — While police in the Northern California city of Stockton searched Saturday for an accomplice in a bank robbery that led to a police chase and deadly shootout, investigators said they suspect the same men carried out other area bank heists, including one earlier this year at the same branch that was hit this week.
Officer Joe Silva of the Stockton Police Department said there are striking similarities between a late-January robbery at the Bank of the West and the one Wednesday that left a hostage and two robbers dead. In both cases, Silva said, armed robbers made their getaway by stealing a bank employee's car.
"Investigators have been looking at that January case really hard," said Silva, adding that nobody was injured or taken hostage in the earlier robbery carried out by two or more men with handguns.
In Wednesday afternoon's robbery, police say three men, armed with three handguns and an AK-47, were dropped off at a Bank of the West branch by an unknown driver. They took three women as hostages, including a customer and two employees, police said.
They fled in a bank employee's SUV, forcing her to drive, before shooting her and pushing her from the vehicle, Silva said. A second employee was later thrown or jumped from the SUV at 50 mph amid an hour-long pursuit and running gun battle with police, he said. Both women survived.
Silva said several patrol cars and up to a dozen homes were struck by gunfire.
The shootout ended with two of the three robbers killed in a dramatic gunfight with hundreds of bullets fired. The surviving suspect, 19-year-old Jaime Ramos, was arrested after using a hostage, bank customer Misty Holt-Singh, as a human shield.
An autopsy may determine who shot Holt-Singh, a 41-year-old wife and mother of two. She had left her 12-year-old daughter in the car when she went into the bank.
"She stopped at the bank to get some cash to get a haircut," said family friend and attorney Michael Platt. "She happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Police have recovered a dark-colored Buick sedan seen on video dropping off the suspects. The car had no license plates and was found abandoned in a neighborhood about a 10-minute drive from the bank. The driver is the subject of an active search, Silva said.
More than 40 Stockton police officers in the shootout were put on paid administrative leave, but Silva said they will start returning to work Sunday.
San Joaquin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Ron Freitas said that Ramos, the surviving suspect, could face at least 33 charges, including murder counts that make him eligible for a death sentence. Due in a Stockton courtroom Monday for the first time in this case, Ramos is being held without bail, and it's not clear if he has an attorney.
Shortly after the incident, investigators interviewed the two surviving women and followed up with them Friday, said Freitas, who declined to name them. One underwent surgery, he said, and the second was taken to a head-trauma center for care.
"We'll be learning a lot more about what happened in the bank and then what happened during the chase," Freitas said. "Literally, information is still coming in as we speak."
Relatives of the two slain bank robbers have said that they believe police acted appropriately by engaging their sons in a gun battle. The two dead men are 27-year-old Alex Gregory Martinez and 30-year-old Gilbert Renteria Jr.
Renteria's mother, Debra Renteria, said her family was grieving for Holt-Singh's family and anyone traumatized by the shootout. She said her son was essentially a good person who made a terrible decision that ended his life.
Martinez's father, Gregory Jon Martinez, said he believed police used appropriate force, adding his condolences for the dead hostage. "We believe that given the circumstances the department behaved in a manner that was appropriate," Gregory Jon Martinez said.
Holt-Singh's husband, Paul, and the couple's two children spoke publicly Friday about their wife and mother. Paul Singh called it a nightmare. "It's something I would never want to happen to anybody," he said.
The couple's 12-year-old daughter, Mia, recalled how her mother was playful, always inserting herself in pictures and endlessly chewing on ice. A dedicated mother, Holt-Singh attended her daughter's softball games and never forgot to bring orange juice.
"I love you, Mom," Mia said before bursting into tears and turning to her father for comfort.
A candlelight vigil was planned in downtown Stockton on Saturday night for the Holt-Singh family and the two survivors.
Associated Press writer Lisa Leff contributed.