SAN DIEGO (CNS/CBS 8) - A young San Diego woman plead not guilty Friday to charges for allegedly taking part in a violent two-city spree of armed holdups and attempted murders along with an ex-firefighter who was shot dead two days later in a Halloween-night gunbattle with police in Barrio Logan.
Cindy Altamirano Garcia, who turned 18 three weeks ago, was arrested at the scene of the shootout that killed her alleged accomplice, 40-year-old Philip Martin Hernandez, according to San Diego police.
Officers investigating Monday's armed robbery and firearm assault series were following a white van occupied by the suspects shortly after 9:30 p.m. Wednesday when the driver pulled over on Harbor Drive, near Cesar Chavez Parkway, SDPD Capt. Terry McManus said.
Hernandez jumped out of the vehicle and allegedly began shooting at the patrol personnel with a rifle, prompting them to return fire. Struck by at least one round, the suspect turned, walked in front of the van, collapsed and died. Garcia then got out of a passenger-side door and was arrested.
No one but Hernandez was wounded in the volley of gunfire, though several of the suspect's shots hit police vehicles, McManus said.
Both suspects were wearing law enforcement-style vests at the time of the shootout, according to McManus. Similarly, during the spate of armed holdups and shootings two days earlier, the perpetrators wore garments with law enforcement insignias and the word "police" emblazoned on them.
During one of the robberies, off-duty San Diego police Officer Les Stewart, 57, was shot from behind at a walk-up ATM in Escondido. He was hospitalized with a graze wound to his scalp and was expected to fully recover.
The daylong criminal rampage began about 2 a.m. Monday, when Hernandez, a former Riverside County firefighter, apparently riddled his own truck with bullets near Mission Bay for unknown reasons, then set it ablaze, according to police.
The next episode in the crime spree occurred roughly a half-hour later, when a man was critically wounded by gunfire on Upas Street in Hillcrest. The victim's condition was so grave that homicide detectives took over the investigation. The motive for the shooting was unknown, McManus said.
About 9 a.m., Hernandez allegedly confronted a man who was unloading some items from the trunk of his car in a parking lot in the 8900 block of Rio San Diego Drive in Mission Valley, pulled a silver pistol on him and stole his wallet. The thief then fled to the west in a full-sized white sedan.
Shortly before 12:30 p.m., Hernandez allegedly robbed Stewart, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, at a credit-union ATM in the 1600 block of South Escondido Boulevard. After stealing the patrolman's wallet and cell phone, the bandit shot him, then fled in a white car.
About an hour later, Hernandez and Garcia approached a man in a parking lot at a shopping center on College Grove Way in the Oak Park district of San Diego, police said.
Hernandez allegedly pointed a silver handgun at the man and demanded that he hand over the keys to his black 2006 Suzuki Aerio hatchback. The victim complied, and the thieves fled in the stolen vehicle.
Around the same time, several 911 callers reported that a white Ford Crown Victoria was ablaze -- apparently torched by the robbers -- in the lot where the carjacking had taken place.
The stolen vehicle was found in the 100 block of Jefferson Avenue in Chula Vista shortly after 7 p.m., according to police. It also had been set on fire.
With the help of witnesses, investigators identified Garcia and Hernandez as the alleged perpetrators of the violent crimes on Wednesday evening and determined that they likely were traveling in a white van, McManus told news crews.
Later in the night, officers spotted the cargo vehicle heading eastbound in the 1400 block of National Avenue in the East Village area of downtown San Diego, called for backup and began tailing it.
Near the Coronado Bridge, Hernandez pulled over. The patrol personnel stopped a number of car lengths away for safety purposes and came under fire "immediately" from what appeared to be a high-powered rifle, the captain said. Three of the officers shot back at the assailant.
In addition to the long-barreled gun, investigators documenting the scene of the shootout recovered a pistol that Hernandez apparently had been carrying.
Garcia was booked into Las Colinas women's jail in Santee on suspicion of carjacking and will likely face additional charges, according to police. She was being held on $75,000 bail pending arraignment, scheduled for Monday afternoon.
The two suspects had been "companions" for some time and had lived together, McManus said. He said the exact nature of their relationship remained unclear.
The motivation for the violent crimes also was murky, the captain told reporters during an afternoon news conference outside downtown SDPD headquarters.
"It's difficult to answer at this point what set this off," he said, adding that Hernandez "clearly ... was in some sort of crisis."
In August, police in Blythe obtained an arrest warrant for Hernandez on suspicion of four felony counts of having sexual intercourse with a minor, said John Hall, spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.
The alleged victim in that case, a teenage girl, told detectives Hernandez had befriended her at a park in National City, then "manipulated" her into an intimate relationship by promising her money, Hall said.
In April, the girl and the suspect began living together in an apartment, where they allegedly had sex about 10 times in a one-month period. She eventually moved out and reported the purported crimes, telling police
Hernandez had turned overly controlling and possessive, McManus said.
It was unclear if Garcia was the alleged victim in that case, though she reportedly grew up in National City and lived for a time with Hernandez in Blythe, according to McManus.
Hernandez had been scheduled to be arraigned on the molestation charges on Monday but failed to appear in court, according to Hall.
The wounded officer remained hospitalized in stable condition Thursday afternoon. The victim of the Hillcrest shooting was still in critical condition in a trauma center. His identity has not been released.
During a news conference outside downtown SDPD headquarters, San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne praised his agency's officers, city arson investigators and the Escondido and Chula Vista police departments for their intensive efforts on the case.
"They have worked tirelessly for the last 72 hours to bring these two suspects to justice," he said.