STOCKTON — It was a police chase of unprecedented proportions, even for this violence-plagued city.
For more than an hour Wednesday afternoon, a growing cavalcade of Stockton police officers pursued a single sport-utility vehicle throughout the streets and highways of northern San Joaquin County, undeterred by what authorities described as a barrage of gunfire from as many as four firearms held by the suspects.
The stakes were high. Inside the Ford Explorer were three, then two, then a final hostage held against her will by three suspected bank robbers. According to the police account, dozens of officers and untold bystanders stood at risk as stray rounds pierced homes, parked cars and patrol cruisers. The danger only seemed to grow with every minute.
About 67 of them passed before the gunfire ceased and the sirens were silenced, revealing among the worst possible outcomes: The final hostage was dead, along with two fatally injured captors.
It is not yet clear when the woman, identified by family and friends in social media as Misty Holt-Singh, was fatally injured or by whom. Nonetheless, Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said Thursday that his department was “deeply saddened” by the outcome of an episode that had greatly tested his force.
“The fact that these three violent gunmen put our community at such jeopardy is deplorable. The fact that they attempted to kill our officers and put the hostages and community at harm is beyond comprehension,” Jones said in a Thursday morning news conference. “The gunmen had not the slightest intent of a peaceful resolution as they continued to cause … mayhem and havoc.”
The fallout from Wednesday’s violence continued to reverberate. A stoic police chief defended his officers’ actions in a situation that was far from textbook. Off-duty officers were called in, overtime was accruing and backup from neighboring agencies was enlisted after more than two dozen officers involved in the shootings were placed on paid administrative leave. Families and friends mourned. And a community so long besieged by street violence tried to fathom the latest Stockton tragedy.
“You’re not safe anywhere,” concluded Jennifer Rader, who has lived in the city with her daughter for most of the last 20 years. “If you’re not safe going to the bank, you’re not safe anywhere.”
Police identified the sole surviving suspect as Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton. Ramos is an associate of known Norteño gang members and was a rear passenger in the fleeing SUV, Jones said. He also is the suspect who was seen using the hostage as a human shield in the final shootout with police, the chief said. Efforts by The Sacramento Bee to reach his family were unsuccessful, and he declined media requests for interviews Thursday.
His two alleged co-conspirators have not been identified. Jones said the driver was a 30-year-old validated Norteño gang member with a history of drugs and gun violence. The other rear passenger was a 27-year-old Norteño with prior arrests for narcotics and domestic violence. He is believed to have been the primary shooter, his weapon of choice an AK-47 assault rifle, Jones said.
The suspects also were armed with two .45-caliber handguns and a 9 mm handgun. Strapped to their bodies were “massive amounts” of ammunition, according to the chief.
Speaking to nearly two dozen reporters, he described the suspects’ actions as “beyond comprehension,” stunning even longtime police veterans.
“In two decades of law enforcement, I’ve never seen it,” Jones said in a later interview with The Bee. “To be so brazen – you could go 30 lifetimes and never see it, it’s that rare.”
He described a tense, stressful and evolving situation following reports of a robbery at the Bank of the West on Thornton Road just after 2 p.m. The robbers tied up a security guard before leaving the bank with three hostages, Jones said. Two were employees and the third a customer. Jones said he could not comment on how the victims were chosen.
Police say they were alerted to the robbery at 2:11 p.m. The first Stockton police officer arrived one minute later. At 2:16 p.m., the suspects and their three hostages were seen fleeing in a sport-utility vehicle belonging to a bank employee.
The ensuing pursuit covered a large swath of San Joaquin County, from Stockton north to Lodi, then Acampo, and back down to Stockton. Police say speeds neared 60 miles an hour at times. At other moments, the driver slowed or stopped the vehicle as another suspect aimed and fired at pursuing officers, a tactic Jones likened to an “ambush.”
Just blocks from the bank, one of the employees was pushed or jumped from the Explorer. Pursuing officers stopped to render aid; she had suffered a gunshot wound. She is expected to survive.
At 3:16 p.m., the second hostage fell from the car. She, too, is expected to survive.
About two minutes later, the Explorer came to a stop in the area of Thornton Road and Otto in north Stockton. Police say the suspects again opened fire on officers, who returned fire. It was at that point that suspect Ramos allegedly used Holt-Singh as a shield, Jones said.
By then, 14 police cars and numerous uninvolved vehicles and homes along the pursuit route had been pockmarked with gunfire, Jones said. Several patrol cruisers and even a police armored vehicle were disabled by the barrage of bullets. He said he believes the suspects intended to kill police officers and that bullets missed them “within inches in some cases.”
“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 taken over by these very violent assailants,” Jones said.
He addressed criticism that his officers’ actions might have contributed to the hostage’s death by saying officers had to make “split-second” decisions when trying to weigh the safety of the hostages against the safety of themselves and the surrounding community.
“It is my opinion our staff did everything they could based on that ongoing, flexible, fluid incident,” Jones said.
In social media and in Stockton’s neighborhoods, it appeared Thursday that many residents supported their Police Department. Though expressing sadness over Holt-Singh’s death, many residents also conveyed relief that the outcome had not been worse.
“For the safety of the community, they did the right thing. The police did their job,” said Michael Provenzio, 49.
Provenzio lives in a north Stockton neighborhood not far from one leg of the pursuit. He and friend Richard Linan waited among the news trucks outside police headquarters Thursday. Born and raised in Stockton, Provenzio said his family has been touched by violence in a profound way: His own son was killed in a 2010 drive-by shooting.
Of the gunmen, he said, “To do what they did to those girls – that’s outrageous.”
Michelle Covey, 31, and her sister Stephanie Mattesich, 34, were standing outside their mother’s home at the corner of Stanfield Drive and Thornton Road as investigators cleaned up the scene where the pursuit ended. Both recalled a time when the city felt much safer.
“We could walk out at night and not worry about a thing,” Covey said.
Mattesich said she thinks police are doing what they can, given the resources they have.
“It’s sad to us,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t think they have enough (officers) to help.”
Even in this crime-plagued city – routinely ranked among California’s worst when it comes to violent crime – news of the pursuit seemed a troubling new low for Stockton.
“What possesses you to rob a bank at 2 p.m., in the daytime? That’s crazy,” said Rader, the longtime resident, as her voice rose with emotion.
Like many in this city, Rader searches for answers to the crime that has long troubled their home.
“They need to put more jobs in Stockton and they wouldn’t have this crime,” she said. “I moved to Oakland for three years and I didn’t have this many problems.”
“We’re ready to move back to Manteca,” said Juan Talavera, who has lived in Stockton four months with his seven children, ages 5 to 16. “We don’t let our kids go out. You’ve always got to be watching people. You can’t even walk through the park nowadays.”
He said he has one word for how that makes him feel: “Scared.”
Meanwhile, many in the Stockton community began to mourn Holt-Singh, a wife, mother and graduate of Stockton’s Franklin High. According to messages on Facebook, she worked at the Stockton dental offices of Dr. Lester Low. Employees were working there Thursday, but declined to be interviewed. They provided a statement from Low, which also was posted on his Facebook page:
“Misty Singh was a wonderful and awesome employee, but more than that she was a friend and treasured member of our office family. She ... was so full of life: always positive and caring,” Low wrote. “One of her favorite conversations here was how ‘amazing’ her family was, her friends, and her work. We will truly miss her. Please join us as we pray for the Singh family and mourn her loss, but celebrate all that Misty’s amazing life represented and all the people she touched around her.”
Flowers and a handwritten note had been left outside the front door of the now-shuttered Bank of the West (the closure was scheduled before Wednesday’s incident).
“Today you were so brave. You died in a haze of bullets on a lovely afternoon,” an unknown writer penned. “We are so proud of you. You will be missed.”
Call The Bee’s Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @Kim_Minugh. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.