STOCKTON, Calif. — Police radio recordings reveal tense moments, cross-talk, and unanswered questions about law enforcement’s response to a bank robbery and high-speed chase in Stockton last month that ended with the death of a hostage and two suspects.
2 Investigates combed through hours of police radio recordings from Stockton Police, California Highway Patrol, and San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department to get a better understanding of the law enforcement response on July 16. The recordings raised questions about exactly what officers knew, and when, about how many hostages were in danger during the robbery, the chase, and the subsequent gun fight with police.
Last week, Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones revealed that hostage Misty Holt-Singh, 41, died from police gunfire. The results of a preliminary ballistics report show that Stockton police fired the bullet or bullets that killed her. Singh was hit 10 times, according to authorities.
Police have said the surviving suspect, Jaime Ramos, 19, used Holt-Singh as a human shield. But they could not initially tell whether she had been killed in the gunfight, or whether she died from police gunfire or shots fired by the suspects. They also did not originally know when she was killed.
Police radio dispatch recordings offer a first-hand account of officers’ communications that day. The robbers entered the bank around 2 p.m., according to authorities, beginning the series of deadly events. Stockton Police say 71 officers rushed to the scene during the high-speed chase and shoot-out.
Two of those officers were the first to respond to Bank of the West on Thornton Road, after getting word of a robbery. When they arrived three gunmen were leaving the building with a hostage.
According to eyewitnesses, once the robbers saw the two police officers outside, they went back into the bank to take two more hostages, including Holt-Singh.
Police Chief Jones said the situation quickly escalated before hostage negotiators could step in.
“Hostage negotiators and tactical teams, all those things started to go in place,” he said, “and before they could be in place, of course, they [the suspects] went mobile.”
The suspects led police on a chase that spanned 55 miles around the city, firing their assault weapons at officers along the way. Jones said as long as there is in active shooting situation in progress, police negotiations cannot begin.
Gunfire can be heard on the police radio as suspects and officers exchanged gunfire. Around 2:52 p.m., an officer can be heard on the radio saying, "There's a guy shooting out the back window with a rifle. He's shooting at us with a rifle."
And again around 3:02 p.m., another officer warns that the suspects are armed: "To any unit up front back off, give him room, he's got an AK-47 out the back window.”
But it’s unclear whether the officers involved were aware of how many hostages were still being held by the suspects. One of the two hostages inside the SUV at that time was Holt-Singh.
Officers can be heard on the radio saying, “Left passenger's a hostage. She's got her hands up.”
“I don't know if it's been confirmed but it did look like a hostage in the rear.”
A few minutes later, around 3:15 p.m., the other hostage was thrown out of the getaway vehicle.
“Dropped a hostage on the ground… Stop and get the hostage, get the hostage, take care of the hostage," officers say over the radio.
Jones says the officers were communicating with each other throughout the situation to determine what they were seeing. But when 2 Investigates asked him if officers should have known exactly how many hostages were still in danger, because they were taken outside the bank in full view of police, he said the answer wasn’t that clear.
Jones: “There was certainly dialogue going on and communication to best determine how many hostages or potential hostages there were in the car.”
Reporter: “But didn't the officers who were outside the bank see them take the hostages?”
Jones: “They did. But the amount -- They didn't know if anyone was already in the car. They just showed up and saw what they saw.”
About 61 minutes into the police response an officer shot out one of the tires on the suspects’ SUV. What follows on the police dispatch recordings is 30 seconds of radio silence. Then officers can be heard yelling “Get down! Get down!”
When police and the SUV were at a standstill, and the chase appeared to be over, the suspects began shooting first, according to Jones. Whether officers were aware that Holt-Singh was inside the vehicle was still unclear at that point.
“All that's still being vetted out by the investigation. We certainly know the majority of the officers were aware, but again, so many other dynamics were in play,” Jones said.
“In law enforcement, officers don't wait for commands to fire. The training is, if there's a threat, they're prepared to stop the threat. There were not specific commands to begin fire.”
Jones explained that the situation was more like a roving active shooter, rather than high-speed chase. He said that in that type of situation that main objective “is to locate and stop the threat as quickly as possible.”
When asked if that objective changes, or is amended, when there is a civilian or a hostage involved, Jones replied, “It's exactly as I described.”
Two of the suspects, identified by police as Alex Gregory Martinez, 27, and Gilbert Renteria Jr., 30, also died from injuries sustained in the gun battle. Investigators say they have linked Martinez to a robbery on Jan. 31 at the same bank branch through surveillance video, witness statements and comparable circumstances.
The surviving third suspect, Jaime Ramos, appeared in court in Stockton on Monday to face 35 charges, including murder, attempted murder on a police officer, and kidnapping. The 45-page complaint accuses him of committing murder, “willfully, deliberately and with premeditation.”
He is scheduled to appear in San Joaquin County Superior court again in September for further arraignment.