Police shut down the Beverly Center for hours Friday after a narcotics suspect led officers on a high-speed, bullet-punctuated auto chase from Simi Valley to West Hollywood and crashed into a wall in the mall garage before disappearing into the parking labyrinth on foot.
Officers sealed off La Cienega, San Vicente and Beverly boulevards, bringing traffic to a halt and creating a jam that lasted well into the afternoon commute. As word got around inside the mall, owners began closing doors and shoppers headed out, leaving the vast shopping center largely deserted.
"It's kind of creepy," said Brandy Benjamin, 24, a shopper who stayed behind. "But I guess it's in the normal course of L.A. events."
The loss of business on a Friday -- usually a busy shopping day -- could cost Beverly Center merchants as much as 24% of their weekly sales and 30% of their profits, said retail consultant Burt P. Flickinger III of the Strategic Resource Group in New York. He said a mall the size of the center sold about $1 million in merchandise a day.
The stores remained closed as officers, using blueprints of the garage and search dogs, searched for Gregory Venter, 29. He was eventually found in a parking area beneath Macy's, treated for minor injuries suffered in the crash and arrested.
Several shoppers said they didn't become aware of what was going on until friends, watching television coverage, called their cellphones.
Claire Patzis, 24, who was working alone at Jessie USA, a women's clothing store, said security personnel left up to her the decision on whether to close, and she decided to call it a day.
"I don't think my boss is losing out on too much business today anyway," Patzis said.
Lt. Greg Riegert of the Simi Valley Police Department said the chain of events began shortly before noon when Officer Ritchie Lew saw Venter sitting in a parked station wagon with his brother, Mark, 23, and a friend, Bret Lemke, 25, in that city.
Knowing that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for Gregory Venter, a narcotics suspect, Lew ordered the driver, Lemke, to get out, investigators said. They added that Lemke complied but that Gregory Venter slid behind the wheel and drove off, aiming the vehicle at Lew.
Lew, 34, fired several rounds as the station wagon sped away, shattering the rear window, and other Simi Valley officers gave chase, Riegert said.
The pursuit continued across the San Fernando Valley on the Ronald Reagan Freeway and surface streets, police said. They added that Mark Venter jumped from the station wagon as it slowed momentarily near Napa Street and Odessa Avenue, just north of Van Nuys Airport.
His brother kept going, heading south on the San Diego Freeway, sometimes at speeds of 100 mph, officers said. The chase was joined by sheriff's deputies, police from Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, and California Highway Patrol officers.
Police and TV news helicopters monitored the action from overhead as the station wagon wove through traffic, glancing off other vehicles several times.
Getting off the 405 at Sunset Boulevard, Venter headed briefly west into Brentwood before turning east toward the center.
The station wagon turned abruptly into the center's garage, followed by officers in a sport utility vehicle.
Bob Van Horn, 39, of Sacramento, who was at the mall on business, said the maroon vehicle "just flew by" before skidding into a wall. Venter jumped out and ran, eluding the pursuing officers.
Police prevented anyone from entering the mall for several hours as they searched for Venter.
Keshia Billingslea, 24, who works at a cosmetics shop, was left standing on La Cienega, wondering how she was going to get to her job. She said that she called the shop and that people there didn't know what was going on.
"I think they're kind of nervous up there," Billingslea said.
After Venter was found, shoppers were allowed back into the mall, and many stores reopened.
But Van Horn, who couldn't get his car out of the garage during the search, said that for him, it was too late.
He'd already missed his return flight to Sacramento.
Mark Venter and Bret Lemke were questioned, but neither man was arrested, Riegert said.
Times staff writer Roger Vincent contributed to this report.