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Two dead after shootings and wild police chase in Mojave Desert

A police chase that began near a bloody crime scene in Ridgecrest ends with two people dead, including the gunman, and three injured.

October 25, 2013|By Kate Mather, Richard Winton and Ruben Vives
  • Helicopters and police vehicles block U.S. 395 in Central California south of Ridgecrest where officers killed a gunman after an hourlong chase. Two wounded people were found in the trunk of the fleeing car.
Helicopters and police vehicles block U.S. 395 in Central California south… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The man called Ridgecrest police early Friday morning with a warning: He planned to "wreak havoc" on the Central California community.

Less than three hours later, the caller — already suspected of killing one person and wounding another — lived up to his word. He led authorities on a high-speed, 35-mile chase on a Mojave Desert highway, shooting at authorities and other vehicles and forcing drivers off the road. At some point, the gunman's trunk popped open, revealing a man and woman inside. When the driver later opened fire on the two hostages in the trunk, officers shot and killed him.

Ridgecrest — which spent part of the morning locked down — was "very shook up," Mayor Dan Clark said.

"This is a small town," Clark said. "And things like this just don't happen here."

The bloody chain of events began about 5:15 a.m. at a home in the 500 block of West Atkins Avenue, where Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Ridgecrest police responded to a report of a shooting. Officers found a man with gunshot wounds and a woman dead — only the second homicide of the year in the town.

It was then that the gunman, whom Youngblood identified late Friday as Sergio Munoz, 39, called. The man said he wanted to "kill the officers, but they had too many guns," Youngblood said. Instead, Munoz said he had a package for police and was "going to wreak havoc."

About two hours later, a deputy spotted the man's Dodge sedan leaving town, authorities said. The deputy attempted to pull the vehicle over, but Munoz refused and the pursuit began.

As he drove south on U.S. 395, Munoz fired a shotgun and handgun an estimated 10 to 12 times at oncoming traffic and forced several vehicles off the roadway, Youngblood said. At one point, the vehicle pulled over and the trunk opened. Officers saw a man and woman inside, who then appeared to pull the trunk lid closed, the sheriff said.

Youngblood said the presence of people in the trunk "changed the entire dynamic" of the chase.

Several miles later — north of California 58 — Munoz pulled over again and began shooting through the back seat of the sedan into the trunk, Youngblood said. Seven officers from the Sheriff's Department, the Ridgecrest Police Department and the California Highway Patrol opened fire, killing the gunman, the sheriff said.

The people inside the trunk suffered gunshot wounds, but it wasn't clear at what point they were hit, sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said. Both were flown to a hospital. The extent of their injuries was not immediately disclosed, but Pruitt said they had undergone surgery and would "most likely" survive.

The man found at the Atkins Avenue home suffered moderate injuries and was also expected to survive, Pruitt said. Late Friday, neighbors peered through a broken window at the home. A white door was splattered with blood, which also covered the floor.

Authorities had not released the name of the victims as of Friday evening. Media reports indicated that Munoz worked at the Searles Valley Minerals plant in nearby Trona. Arzell Hale, a spokesman for the company, declined to comment on the matter because it was "under a law enforcement investigation."

Youngblood said there was a "relationship amongst the players" but did not elaborate.

The sheriff said such an incident was "very unusual" for Ridgecrest, a town of just over 27,000 in northeastern Kern County.

"This type of thing is very alarming," Youngblood said.

Clark said he was thankful officers were able to stop the violence. The mayor said he was teaching a high school conflict-resolution class when his school — and all others in the city — went into lockdown.

"All we knew is we had a gunman roaming the community," he said.

Hours after the pursuit ended, U.S. 395 remained closed as investigators combed several crime scenes. South of the Highway 58 junction — known as the "four corners" to residents — a gas station employee said many northbound truckers and other drivers were stranded.

The employee, who declined to give her name, said she was stunned to hear about the shooting.

"These kind of things don't happen here in the middle of nowhere," she said.

A woman who said she was a friend of the victims at the Ridgecrest home and knew the gunman said that he recently lost his job and had a couple of run-ins with police.

"They're both friends of his," she said of the victims in Ridgecrest. "The guy had some problems recently, but I don't know why he did this."

kate.mather@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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