By Scott Smith
FRESNO, Calif. — Police were investigating whether the same men who robbed a bank, took hostages and led a deadly chase and shootout carried out other recent bank heists in the same part of Northern California, including one earlier this year at the very same branch.
There were striking similarities between a late-January robbery at the Bank of the West and the one this week that left a hostage and two robbers dead, police said. In both cases, armed robbers made their getaway by stealing a bank employee's car.
"Investigators have been looking at that January case really hard," Officer Joe Silva said Saturday, though no one was injured or taken hostage in the earlier robbery.
Also Saturday, police said they are searching for the driver of a dark-colored Buick sedan seen on video dropping off the suspects before the Wednesday robbery. The car was found with no license plates abandoned in a neighborhood about a 10-minute drive from the bank.
Police said the driver dropped off three men, armed with three handguns and an AK-47, at a Bank of the West in Stockton. 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.
Relatives, friends and hundreds of community members mourned Holt-Singh, a 41-year-old wife and mother of two, at a candlelight vigil outside a Stockton hotel on Saturday night. Earlier in the day, about two dozen people marched from Holt-Singh's church to the bank.
"I think the best thing said about her is that she was such a positive person, that she was always loving and giving," Rev. Kimberly Montenegro, pastor of Holy Cross Methodist Church, told KGO-TV. "What I think is important is that our response also be loving and giving. That we not let the anger that we're feeling and the frustration boil up and destroy this city even more."
An autopsy may determine who shot Holt-Singh. 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."
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.
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.
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."
A candlelight vigil was planned in downtown Stockton on Saturday night for the Holt-Singh family and the two survivors.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press