Hours before a shootout that stopped a multistate crime spree, police say, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde burst into one more home and held their last captives as Florida law enforcement officers pursued them.
The duo kept the residents — a Pensacola couple and their 2-year-old daughter — inside with them at gunpoint Thursday night, and, after explaining their situation, used the homeowners’ phones to call relatives to say goodbye, the residents say.
Both saw the end coming, one of those residents says.
“They were under no illusion,” Ian Gunnell told CNN affiliate WIAT on Friday. “They were in a bad place and they knew things were going to go bad.”
Sometime after taking over the Gunnells’ home, Blake Edward Fitzgerald and his girlfriend, Brittany Nicole Harper, stole the family’s vehicle and drove east into the next county, where police caught up with them early Friday, leading to standoff in which officers shot and killed Fitzgerald and took an injured Harper into custody, authorities said.
Authorities say Fitzgerald, 30, and Harper, 30, both of Missouri, went on a crime run that included kidnappings and robberies in Alabama, Georgia and Florida over at least five days.
The pair were characterized by media and law enforcement as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, after the infamous Depression-era outlaws. The U.S. Marshals Service had offered a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to their arrests.
End of the road in Florida
Police said they began catching up to Fitzgerald and Harper on Thursday night, when someone reported a robbery in Pensacola, a coastal city in Florida’s panhandle.
Witnesses reported a description of the vehicle the robbers were in, and after police saw the vehicle, a chase was on, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said.
The vehicle was found abandoned Thursday night in a Pensacola neighborhood. It was at about that time, the Gunnells say, that Fitzgerald and Harper entered their home with a gun.
After some tense moments, everyone settled down, Ian Gunnell told WIAT.
“They were telling us why they were here,” he said. “They were on the run, in trouble, needed somewhere to stay right now.”
Harper talked to the Gunnells’ 2-year-old daughter, said Ian’s wife, April.
“[She] kept saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK. I know you’re frightened,'” April Gunnell told WIAT.
Fitzgerald and Harper left in the Gunnells’ truck, and the family called police. Authorities saw the truck on Interstate 10 at about 12:35 a.m. Friday, and Escambia County sheriff’s deputies chased the truck into neighboring Santa Rosa County, Morgan said.
Fitzgerald and Harper left the truck and tried to enter a home; Escambia County deputies shot and killed Fitzgerald outside and arrested Harper, Morgan said.
Morgan said his deputies “returned fire.” State Attorney Bill Eddins, in a news conference Friday, declined to say whether Fitzgerald fired or pointed a weapon, but said a preliminary examination of the evidence indicated the shooting was justified.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will investigate the shooting, as is standard procedure, Eddins said.
Harper was being treated Friday at a hospital with unspecified injuries. Eddins said police were in the process of arresting her on preliminary charges of home invasion robbery, false imprisonment and grand theft auto.
Hotel kidnapping, vehicle thefts
Authorities say one of the spree’s earliest incidents happened on the morning of January 31 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Fitzgerald and Harper entered a Microtell Inn, where they told a clerk they were stranded and asked to get coffee and use a computer, said the Mircrotel’s manager, Rikesh Patel.
The pair eventually robbed the clerk at gunpoint, and then forced him into his own vehicle, which they stole and drove to Hoover, Alabama, police said.
In Hoover that morning, with the clerk still with them, Fitzgerald allegedly pointed a gun at a woman in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant and demanded the keys to her vehicle, Hoover police Capt. Gregg Rector said. But the woman refused and got the attention of someone else, so Fitzgerald and Harper drove away again in the clerk’s vehicle, with the clerk still inside, Rector said.
They eventually dropped the clerk off in a neighborhood in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, about 60 miles from Tuscaloosa, said Vestavia Hills police Lt. Kevin York.
Then, York said, Fitzgerald parked the vehicle and walked to a home, where he put a gun to a man’s head and forced the man’s wife into the couple’s Ford Edge. Fitzgerald drove the Edge with the woman inside, and picked up Harper, York said.
Fitzgerald and Harper dropped the woman off in her bathrobe behind a medical center unharmed, York said.
“Thankfully, no innocent member of the public has been physically harmed by this modern-day Bonnie and Clyde,” said U.S. Marshal Martin Keely in a press release Thursday.