Two people are dead and three people, two of them hostages, were injured following a gunblazing high-speed chase through the Kern County desert at daybreak Friday.
The suspect was identified late Friday as Sergio Alberto Munoz, 39, of Ridgecrest. He was a heroin dealer who had wanted to enact revenge on people he considered snitches, the sister of one of the first two early-morning shooting victims said.
When Munoz went to his friend Thaddeus Meier with the idea, his sister Dawn Meier told The Associated Press, her brother declined. Munoz then opened fire, badly wounding Thaddeus Meier and killing his girlfriend, identified late Friday by the Kern County coroner’s office as Brittany Matheny, 22.
Ridgecrest Police Investigations Sgt. Jed McLaughlin said Munoz had been arrested on Sunday on drug charges at the location where Friday’s shooting began and had been taken to a Kern County Sheriff’s Office cell in Ridgecrest. It wasn’t immediately clear why Munoz was back on the street Friday.
McLaughlin said Munoz was a convicted felon. He was known to Ridgecrest police, and had committed prior traffic, drug and property crimes.
About two hours after the shootings, Munoz led officers from three law enforcement agencies on a chase down Highway 395 while shooting from his black Dodge Dart at authorities and oncoming traffic and driving at times in the oncoming lanes. When he stopped at one point, the trunk popped open and authorities saw that he had hostages in the car.
After speeding off again, Munoz pulled over a second time and fired through the car’s back seat into the trunk.
At that point Munoz was killed by officers. It was about 8:15 a.m.
The man and woman in Munoz’s trunk suffered gunshot wounds and were airlifted to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster. They were not identified and were said to be in critical condition.
One school in Ridgecrest was put on lockdown and Highway 395 remained closed Friday night between highways 58 at Kramer Junction and 14 outside of Ridgecrest, according to the CHP.
“It’s a huge, huge area,” Doug Elliott, a CHP public safety dispatcher at the Bishops Communications Center, told The Californian on Friday night. “More than 10 miles. I don’t know how long the crime scene is but as the guy was heading southbound from Ridgecrest he was shooting at motorists, he was shooting at pedestrians. So that’s all crime scene.”
Lights were sent to the highway as darkness fell and the investigation continued.
The incident began about 5:15 a.m. in Ridgecrest when police got a call about an assault with a deadly weapon in the 500 block of West Atkins Avenue. Authorities found a woman and man had been shot at a residence. Brittany Matheny later died; Thaddeus Meier suffered multiple gunshot wounds, according to Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
Dawn Meier told the AP that Munoz had been staying at her brother’s house for about two weeks.
She said Thaddeus Meier had been using black tar heroin with Munoz.
She had moved out of the house a week ago to join her boyfriend, Derrick Holland, after he insisted she get her 7-month-old son away from the drug-related traffic.
Sunday afternoon’s arrest of Munoz was on suspicion of felony possession of ammunition and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, the Ridgecrest police department’s McLaughlin said.
On Thursday, Holland heard Munoz complaining in the yard about how his life was falling apart and he was losing everything due to drugs.
Police said Munoz had lost his job recently.
Munoz showed up Friday morning and told Thaddeus Meier, "We’re going to reduce all of the snitches in town."
After the shooting was discovered by police, Meier was first taken to Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, then subsequently transferred to an out-of-town hospital via ambulance, McLaughlin said. His condition wasn’t known but Dawn Meier told the AP that he was recovering.
In 1994, Munoz was sentenced to more than two years in prison for receiving stolen property, the AP reported.
In May, he was arrested on suspicion of possessing ammunition as a felon, but the felony charge was dismissed.
Tresia Hunter, 57, who lives in a mobile home park adjacent to a duplex where the first shooting occurred, was getting ready to leave for a hospital appointment when she said she heard three gunshots that weren’t in rapid succession.
“It was a loud gunshot, then two to three minutes passed before the next one,” Hunter said. “It took another four minutes before the last one.”
Youngblood said that after that shooting, Munoz called a Ridgecrest police officer’s cellphone and said he wanted to come to the station and “kill all the officers but they had too many guns.”
Munoz wanted to deliver a package to police but instead said he would “wreak havoc” elsewhere, Youngblood said.
Police believe the “package” was the hostages, Youngblood said.
At about 7:15 a.m., Munoz was spotted by a sheriff’s deputy on China Lake Boulevard. The deputy waited for backup but the officers were unable to stop Munoz, and a chase ensued.
Youngblood said at his midday press conference that during the chase south on Highway 395, Munoz — in possession of a handgun and a shotgun — fired as many as a dozen shots. He also forced several vehicles off the road.
When Munoz pulled over at one point and opened the trunk of his vehicle, Youngblood said deputies saw a man and woman inside the trunk, a finding that “changed the entire dynamic” of the pursuit.
“This is a worst case scenario for police officers, when you have a pursuit and you learn during the pursuit that there are victims in the trunk of the vehicle,” the sheriff said.
Munoz closed the trunk and sped off, and the chase continued south on Highway 395 until about eight miles north of Highway 58. Munoz again pulled over, Youngblood said, and fired through the car’s back seat into the trunk.
At that point, Youngblood said, seven officers from Ridgecrest Police Department, California Highway Patrol and Kern County Sheriff’s Office opened fire, killing Munoz. No officers were injured.
It wasn’t clear Friday night when the people inside the trunk had been shot.
“We believe they are going to survive,” Youngblood said.
McLaughlin of the Ridgecrest police said the two people rescued from the trunk of the car remain in critical condition at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster after their evacuation from the scene by helicopter.
There were reports that Munoz was using Facebook during the pursuit, but it wasn’t immediately clear what the postings were, Youngblood said. Investigators recovered the shotgun and a handgun.
As the day progressed, at least two law enforcement helicopters and a CHP fixed-wing aircraft landed near the Highway 395 crime scene amid numerous law enforcement vehicles.
Ken Dunlap of Ridgecrest said Munoz worked at an auto service.
“He changed my mom's tires. I'm sure my mom is like ‘what the hell’ right now,” said Dunlap, who, by coincidence, was baby-sitting for his sister next door to a house in the 1000 block of West Willow Avenue where, he said, Munoz would sometimes stay on weekends to help with remodeling.
“What he did was horrible, but he seemed like a regular guy,” Dunlap said. “Something bad must have happened to make him do this.”
Dunlap’s sister Robin said she had known Munoz eight or nine years ago.
“He always seemed like a really nice guy,” she said. “He looks really scary, because he has tattoos on his neck and his head. But he was a nice respectful guy when I knew him," said Dunlap.
Ernie Bell, assistant superintendent of Human Resources for the Sierra Sands Unified School District in Ridgecrest, said Munoz and pursuing law enforcement officers drove by Gateway Elementary School just before 7 a.m. Friday.
A district office employee at the school heard gunfire and reported it. The school was immediately locked down, according to the district’s emergency plan.
Students were not on campus at the time but started arriving shortly afterward and were hustled inside to safety, Bell said.
The lockdown was lifted about 8:15 a.m., he said, after law enforcement gave the district word that the incident had ended.
Ridgecrest Mayor Dan Clark called the day’s events shocking and completely out of character for this city of 28,000.
“We have one of the safest communities in California, one of the few that doesn’t even have gangs,” Clark said.
He said he’s proud of the collaborative effort by law enforcement to rescue the hostages.
The city is adjacent to the vast Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which sprawls over more than 1,700 square miles of desert. U.S. 395 runs through the western Mojave, below the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.
Douglas reported from Ridgecrest and Kotowski and Levin from Bakersfield.