STOCKTON, Calif. – Misty Holt-Singh planned to be gone for just a few minutes when she stepped into her local bank. Instead, she became the victim of three robbers who had gone there, too, planning to take both money and hostages.
As her 12-year-old daughter sat waiting in the car, Holt-Singh and a pair of bank employees were forced into a stolen SUV at gunpoint just as police converged on the parking lot. What followed was a chaotic, hour-long chase through this Northern California city that ended with a furious gun battle. When it was over, the 41-year-old mother of two was dead in the back of the vehicle.
Police said that a suspect, the only one of the three to survive, used her as a human shield as the bullets flew back and forth. An autopsy may determine whether the one that killed Holt-Singh was fired by officers or the robbers.
Most police departments discourage shooting at getaway cars during chases. But the taking of hostages and hail of bullets coming from the suspect's vehicle forced Stockton police to make the split-second decision to use their own weapons while knowing they might harm an innocent civilian.
"When you have a hostage in there it changes the ballgame altogether because you can't risk the life of a hostage to stop the bad guy," said Timothy Clemente, a retired SWAT expert for the FBI.
But, he added, "if these guys are driving down the highway and they're spraying AK-47 fire and a lot of innocents are put in danger by that fire, then maybe my return fire is absolutely needed to cease their action."
Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said Thursday that any and all responsibility lies with three hometown robbers.
"The fact that these three violent gunmen put our community at such jeopardy is deplorable," Jones said. "The gunmen had not the slightest intent of a peaceful resolution as they continued to cause mayhem and havoc. Every minute the incident continued, the stakes rose intensely for our officers and for our entire community."
In the drama that unfolded Wednesday afternoon, the suspects entered the Bank of the West branch wearing hooded sweatshirts and sunglasses and with guns drawn, San Joaquin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Ronald Freitas said. They tied up a security guard, took over the bank and went to the vault to get money, he said.
On the way out they abducted Holt-Singh and two women who work at the bank as they made their getaway. It's not clear whether the employees were targeted before the holdup.
During the hour-long chase, the two bank employees jumped or were thrown from the stolen SUV, one of them while it may have been going more than 50 mph. At least one suffered a gunshot wound. Both were expected to survive.
Police managed to shoot out the tires of the vehicle, and the getaway attempt ended in a flood of gunfire.
In the aftermath of the shootout, police and FBI agents sorted through hundreds of bullet holes in 14 police vehicles, citizens' cars, homes and businesses along the route of the chase.
The sole surviving suspect was identified as Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton, who wasn't injured. Police said the other robbers, ages 27 and 30, were gang members, also from Stockton. Ramos was scheduled to be arraigned on Monday, and Freitas said prosecutors anticipate charging him with murder and special circumstances including kidnapping, robbery and burglary that could make him eligible for the death penalty.
Police said that they recovered at least three handguns and an assault rifle and that the gunmen had ammunition strapped to their bodies.
The police chief said 20 officers who fired their weapons were put on administrative leave pending an investigation — standard procedure after a shooting. He said he believes the officers acted appropriately.
"Our officers were in constant danger but continued to pursue because they had a duty to not allow the suspects to get away due to the risks to the hostages but also the fear that additional hostages could be taken or killed or additional businesses or homes to be taken over by these very violent assailants," he said.
Stockton, a city of about 300,000, was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and the recession and slid into bankruptcy in 2012. Police officers left for jobs elsewhere, and the city — which has had a longstanding gang problem — saw a spike in violent crime. But the city is close to emerging from bankruptcy.
"Just when you get some momentum in the city, stuff like this happens," Mayor Anthony Silva lamented. "It hits national TV and people are going to say Stockton's ghetto."
The bank branch was locked and empty Thursday. A note in the window said the closing was temporary and due to an emergency. Another note said the branch was set to close for good on Friday and move to another location.
Somebody had placed two bundles of flowers outside the front door with a handwritten note to "Misty." ''Today you were so brave. You died in a haze of bullets, on a lovely afternoon," the unsigned note said. "We all will look after Paul and the kids. You will be sadly missed."
Holt-Singh's Facebook page became a memorial as friends, family and strangers paid tribute to the 41-year-old woman, who had close ties in the community and had been married to Paul Singh for 14 years.
A longtime friend, Andi Burrise, of Stockton, described Holt-Singh as a wonderful woman deeply devoted to her husband and the couple's son and daughter.
"I'm shocked and I'm frustrated by the senselessness of it all," Burrise said.
Associated Press reporters Lisa Leff, Terry Collins, Sudhin Thanawala and Daisy Nguyen contributed to this report from San Francisco, Martha Mendoza from San Jose and Tami Abdollah from Los Angeles. AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York also contributed.