A weeklong search for a Missouri couple wanted in a series of robberies and abductions across the South ended with one suspect dead and the other wounded Friday, after authorities say they chased the pair across the highway and through a rural neighborhood and exchanged gunfire with them in Florida’s Panhandle.
Blake Fitzgerald died and Brittany Nicole Harper was at a hospital under armed guard with a wounded leg, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said at a news conference. She faces charges including home invasion, robbery, false imprisonment and grand theft auto, but no court appearances are scheduled, Morgan said.
IThe sheriff said the chase began shortly after reports of an armed robbery at a Famous Footwear store in Pensacola at 7:56 p.m. Thursday. Witness said the man held a gun on the clerk while the woman shopped, according to Morgan.
Authorities began chasing the couple, following them to nearby Pensacola Beach, before zigging and zagging though Pensacola and even going onto Interstate 10 a couple of times, Morgan said. At one point, authorities lost sight of the pair for a couple of hours, Morgan said. During that time, they held a Pensacola family hostage and eventually fled in the family’s red pickup truck, he said.
It was 12:16 a.m. Friday when the vehicle was spotted on I-10, Morgan said. Deputies followed the truck as it exited and went down a rural road.
Morgan said his deputies had a standoff with the couple for about 15 minutes before Fitzgerald got out of the truck and appeared to be heading into a home that was occupied near the small town of Milton. Gunfire erupted, and authorities say Fitzgerald was killed.
In online video posted by Pensacola station WEAR-TV, a volley of gunshots can be heard amid flashing police lights. Dozens of police and sheriff’s deputies blocked the rural road.
Authorities had linked Fitzgerald and Harper to a series of crimes in Alabama and Georgia, saying the offenses fit a similar pattern: People are robbed, kidnapped and let go unharmed, usually after a vehicle is stolen.
Morgan and Escambia County State Attorney Bill Ebbins provided no further details about the hostage situation in Pensacola.
The sheriff said he’s found no ties to the area for Fitzgerald and Harper but that he heard they were heading to Panama City to get married.
Authorities said the couple had been on the run since January. Police in Joplin, Missouri, had wanted to interview the two about a Jan. 22 break-in in which guns were stolen from a home. The couple also is suspected in two Florida robberies– in Walnut Hill and Destin – on Wednesday, U.S. Marshals spokesman Martin Keely said.
Calling the couple a “modern-day Bonnie and Clyde,” the U.S. Marshals said Thursday that they were offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to their arrest.
Fitzgerald and Harper had been accuses of robbing and abducting a hotel clerk in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and taking his car to the Birmingham area. Officials say the clerk was let go in the upscale suburb of Vestavia Hills, where a woman was briefly abducted by two people who stole her family’s Ford Edge SUV.
On Monday night, a gunman held up a young clerk at a Murphy Express station in south Georgia, taking money from the safe before forcing the clerk into an SUV where his female accomplice waited, authorities said. The couple drove about 15 miles before releasing the clerk unharmed, Perry police Lt. Ken Ezell said.
The hotel clerk who was abducted in Alabama, Kyle Dease, told Al.com that he spoke with his captors during the nearly two hours he was held on the drive from Tuscaloosa to metro Birmingham. Dease said they told him they hoped to make it to Florida to get married and start a new life together. The man also said he didn’t want to go back to prison, Dease said.
Missouri records show that in 2013, Fitzgerald and an accomplice were charged with burglarizing a Joplin woman at knifepoint in her home and making off with her purse, jewelry, electronics and a car. Fitzgerald entered an Alford plea – not admitting guilt but acknowledging prosecutors had sufficient evidence for a conviction – and was sentenced to a suspended seven-year prison term.
Fitzgerald also was sentenced in southwestern Missouri to a simultaneous 120-day term in a drunken-driving case. Last July, Fitzgerald pleaded guilty in a Missouri assault case and was sentenced to a suspended five-year prison term.