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July 17, 2014

Prosecutor: California bank robbers intended to take hostages

STOCKTON, Calif. — Misty Holt-Singh had just popped into the bank, leaving her 12-year-old daughter in the car, when the horror began. An hour later, the mother of two lay dead after a bank robbery and planned hostage taking spun into a chaotic police chase and furious gunbattle during which two holdup men were also killed, authorities said.

Holt-Singh was found dead at the end of a shootout in which one of the robbers who took her hostage used her as a human shield, according to police.

Whose bullets killed Holt-Singh remained unclear Thursday, a day after the burst of violence in this Northern California city, but police said the responsibility rests with the three bank robbers. The suspects intended to take hostages and came into the bank wearing hooded sweatshirts and sunglasses and with their guns drawn, San Joaquin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Ronald Freitas said Thursday. They took down a security guard, took over the bank and went to the vault to get the money, he said.

"In my over two decades of law enforcement, I have never seen or experienced this type of total disregard for human life nor the intensity of the situation that our officers were faced with," Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said.

"It is very rare for bank robbers to take hostages. It is very rare for them to so heavily arm themselves and prepare to kill and then to actively and continually to try to kill our police officers."

In the aftermath, 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 drama began Wednesday afternoon when the gunmen held up a Bank of the West branch in Stockton and took Holt-Singh and two other women hostage as they made their getaway. It was unclear what led them to take hostages.

During the hour-long chase through this city about 80 miles east of San Francisco, two of the hostages, both 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 hail of gunfire.

The sole surviving suspect was identified Thursday 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. Stockton was scheduled to be arraigned on Monday, Freitas said.

Police said that they recovered at least three handguns and an assault rifle and that the gunmen had ammunition strapped to their bodies.

"The firing never stopped," Jones said.

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.

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.

On the website for the dentist's office where she worked as a treatment coordinator, Holt-Singh said: "I enjoy watching my kids play softball and swimming. In my free time I love to coach my kids in softball, snowboarding, and traveling to different countries."

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.

Witness Jose Maldonado, who said he saw the robbers taking the women out of the bank, said the men had rifles slung over their shoulders and 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.

During the holdup, the robbers also tied up a security guard. The amount taken was not disclosed.

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