By JULIANA BARBASSA
Associated Press Writer
A 10 1/2-hour bank siege ended early Thursday when police tricked the gunman by giving him cigarettes, then rescued his final hostage, who had been dragged back inside after an unsuccessful dash to safety.
The suspect, identified as 47-year-old Jess Martinez, was taken into custody, police said. The woman, the last of eight hostages held inside the bank, was unharmed, authorities said.
«It’s a great conclusion to a very long incident,» said Tulare County Sherriff’s Lt. Keith Douglas. «This is a great ending for everybody involved.»
The suspect asked officers to leave a package of cigarettes at the bank door, Douglas said. When he sent the hostage to retrieve them, SWAT officers grabbed her and pulled her to safety, he said. Another group of officers burst into the bank and grabbed Martinez, who gave up without a struggle, he said.
The siege began around 5 p.m. Wednesday. Police said the suspect entered a Bank of America branch in downtown Exeter and demanded money. He took eight people hostage after employees alerted police, but released three customers within 10 minutes, Douglas said.
Margie Riportella, who with her baby daughter was among those first released, said the man was carrying a briefcase and appeared to be unstable. She said he kept all the hostages in the middle of the room.
«It was totally weird. He was ‘out there,'» Riportella told the Visalia Times-Delta.
Dozens of Tulare County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team members, FBI agents and police officers surrounded the building. They also evacuated most of the downtown area in Exeter, a San Joaquin Valley city of about 10,000 residents 150 miles (241 kilometers) north of Los Angeles.
After about three hours, the suspect released another hostage – a female bank employee. Another was released around 10:15 p.m. Then, after midnight, the remaining three hostages, all female bank employees, tried to run out the front door. Two escaped, but the last woman was grabbed and pulled back inside, police said.
At one point, the man asked for a car, authorities said.
During negotiations, some of the hostages were able to call family members, authorities said. The hostages were «very visually upset but very relieved,» Douglas said.
By JULIANA BARBASSA