STOCKTON, Calif. - Cars and houses were riddled with bullets during a high-speed chase and hostages were thrown from a fleeing SUV after a bank robbery Wednesday that led to the deaths of a hostage and two robbers, police said.
The violence began at 2 p.m. when officers responded to a call of a robbery at a Bank of the West branch in north Stockton. Arriving officers spotted three men taking three female hostages from the bank at gunpoint. The robbers stole a bank employee's SUV and led officers on the pursuit, Stockton police Officer Joe Silva said.
During the chase that lasted 45 minutes along highways and city streets, two of the hostages who are bank employees were thrown from the SUV, police said. One was taken to a hospital with a gunshot wound; the other suffered a grazing bullet wound.
The pursuit continued as the suspects fired with AK-47 style rifles from the SUV. Fourteen police cars and an unknown number of homes along the robbers' path were peppered with gunshots, Police Chief Eric Jones told a news conference late Wednesday.
"It was such a chaotic ... fluid situation, really one of the most dangerous, tense situations that a police officer could go through," Jones said.
"There was a lot on the line and the officers responded appropriately," he said.
When the SUV became disabled at a street intersection, officers exchanged gunfire with at least one of the assailants.
"The firing never stopped," Jones said, noting that the suspects had ammunition strapped to their bodies. "They were trying to kill (the officers), no doubt."
When it was all over, the third hostage was found dead in the SUV and one of the robbers was also dead. The police chief said the hostage was a bank customer, and that she appears to have been used by the suspects as a shield during the shootout.
Police said the other two suspects were taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds, and one of them later died.
The surviving suspect was conscious, Jones said.
Witnesses said the shootout that brought the episode to a close looked like a war.
"It sounded like five minutes of straight gunfire," witness Sam York told KCRA-TV. "It seemed like it wasn't real."
Jose Maldonado, who said he saw the robbers taking the women out of the bank, said the men had rifles that looked like AK-47s slung over their shoulders and they 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.
Jones said the robbers also tied up a bank security guard.
The bank said in a statement that it would not provide information about the victims.
"This is a tragic incident and we are focused on supporting our customers and employees," the statement said.
Associated Press reporters Lisa Leff and Daisy Nguyen contributed to this report from San Francisco.