By Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) - Heavily armed bank robbers who took hostages and engaged police in a running gun battle during a high-speed chase across three Northern California communities were bent on killing officers, a police chief said on Thursday.
The incident that began with a robbery at a Bank of the West branch in Stockton on Wednesday afternoon ended with two of the suspects and one of their three female hostages dead, Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said.
He said it was "amazing" that none of his officers were hit by gunfire.
"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," Jones said at a Thursday morning news conference.
"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 to actively and continually try to kill our police officers," he said.
The lone surviving suspect, identified by authorities as Jaime Ramos, 19, of Stockton was arrested after police disabled the getaway car following an hour-long car chase through Stockton and the nearby communities of Lodi and Acampo.
Ramos faces murder, kidnapping and robbery charges, Jones said.
During the chase, Jones said, the three gunmen fired almost continually at officers, striking 14 patrol cars as well as a number of nearby homes. He said the gunmen had a "massive" amount of ammunition with them, including magazines taped or strapped to their bodies, and that police recovered an AK-47-type assault weapon and three handguns from the scene.
Two of the hostages jumped or were thrown from the suspects' car during the pursuit. Jones said it was not yet clear when the third hostage died or whether she was killed by the suspects or struck by a round fired by officers.
Jones said more than 20 officers had been placed on paid administrative leave during an investigation of the incident, a standard move following such incidents that would nonetheless strain the police department of Stockton, an agricultural hub some 70 miles east of San Francisco.
The slain suspects were identified males, aged 27 and 30, who were known gang members with prior arrests.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein)