Investigators say they can't explain what triggered a former firefighter to go on a violent rampage that ultimately ended when the man was shot and killed in a shootout with police.
Philip Hernandez, 40, of Escondido, was shot and killed on Halloween night in an officer-involved shooting at the intersection of Cesar Chavez Parkway and Harbor Drive. His companion, Cindy Garcia, 18, of National City, was taken into custody.
Hernandez and Garcia were wanted in a series of violent crimes that included two shootings, three robberies and the burning of three vehicles.
One of the crimes was the “execution style” shooting of an off-duty San Diego police officer outside a North County credit union according to officials.
Around 11 p.m. Wednesday, investigators trailed a white Ford utility van Hernandez had just purchased on Craigslist to the area near 16th and National.
After a short pursuit, the van came to a stop in the 1900-block of Harbor Drive.
Hernandez got out of the van and sparked a shootout with police according to SDPD Capt. Terry McManus.
“He was armed with what we believe was a rifle and he began to shoot at San Diego police officers,” McManus said.
The three officers returned fire. Soon after, Hernandez collapsed near the van. Medics were called however Hernandez was pronounced dead at the scene. No one else was injured.
San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne described Hernandez and Garcia as “two very dangerous suspects” who were the targets of a special task force of officers over the last 72 hours.
“In the end it came to three police officers who were assaulted and attacked by the suspect who had larger weapons then they did,” said Chief Lansdowne.
In and Out of Jail
NBC 7 San Diego has learned Hernandez had been employed as a Firefighter II by Riverside Fire Dept from July 2002 to July 2012 when he resigned.
He had a criminal record dating back to at least 2005 here in San Diego County. Hernandez was convicted of driving under the influence, with a collision that caused an injury in San Diego in 2005. He spent five days in custody, and served five years probation for that offense.
In August, the Riverside County District Attorney filed four felony charges of illegal sex with a minor against Hernandez.
The complaint does not identify the victim, but evidence suggests it was Cindy Garcia. Police confirm Garcia was 17 at the time and was living with Hernandez in Blythe.
When Hernandez missed a court hearing in Riverside in August, a judge issued an arrest warrant. Two weeks ago, Hernandez was arrested here in San Diego on that warrant.
Hernandez posted $20,000 bond and was released from jail the next day.
He was due back in court on Monday, the same day he and Garcia started their alleged crime spree.
McManus refused to speculate on a possible motive for Hernandez or to discuss his background.
“It’s difficult at this point to discuss what set this off,” said McManus. “We don’t know definitively what was going on in his mind to start this activity Monday morning at about 2 a.m. with the torching of his own vehicle and through this night.”
Expertise in Fires
Hernandez' career as a firefighter and his expertise in fire may be key evidence in the case since the suspects are believed to have torched several vehicles in their attempt to evade police.
Investigators say a truck with bullet holes and gun casings that was torched (left) in Mission Bay just after 2 a.m. Monday belonged to Hernandez.
He and Garcia are believed to have been involved in a shooting in Hillcrest shooting at 2:30 that same morning near Upas and Richmond Streets that left a man in critical condition according to investigators.
Evidence collected at Upas Street matched evidence collected at two other crime scenes McManus said.
Then, just after noon, law enforcement officers were called to the San Diego County Credit Union on South Escondido Boulevard.
Veteran SDPD Officer Les Stewart was using the ATM when a man approached him, took his cash and wallet and then shot him in the back of the head according to the Escondido Police Department.
Stewart was seriously injured and is still recovering at Palomar Hospital.
After the media coverage of Officer Stewart's injury, a carjacking victim came forward and said he had been attacked around 9 a.m. Monday in Mission Valley by a man matching the suspect's description.
The suspect demanded the victim's money and wallet at gunpoint and then fled in a white Crown Victoria.
That vehicle was discovered on fire in a Sam's Club parking lot at 6300 College Grove Way in Oak Park.
After that, officers say the suspects carjacked someone driving a black Suzuki hatchback. The driver told police he was approached by a man and a woman wearing black clothing with the word "Police" in white lettering on the front of their clothes.
The man pointed a handgun at the victim and demanded his black Suzuki officials said.
That car was found hours later parked and burning in a Chula Vista cul-de-sac.
Garcia will be arraigned at 1:15 p.m. Monday on felony robbery charges stemming from the carjacking in Oak Park.
McManus said investigators are looking into whether Garcia will be charged with more than the robbery.
A law enforcement source told us Hernandez and his girlfriend first met in April, in National City, and then moved to Riverside County.
The special task force included officers from San Diego, Chula Vista and Escondido police departments as well as members of the Metro Arson Strike Team.