Beverly White, David Gregory
Emotions ran high Wednesday on the Cal State Fullerton campus as SWAT teams scouring the university for a gunman wanted in connected with an armed robbery in Moreno Valley. Hundreds of students were ordered to stay in their classrooms for several hours. Student Megan Belvedere says she "never thought this would ever happen to me." Beverly White reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Dec. 12, 2012.
Students and faculty were allowed to leave a California university just before midnight Wednesday, hours after California State University, Fullerton was put on a modified lockdown prompted by two men fleeing onto the campus, wanted in connection with an armed robbery that sparked two separate high-speed pursuits.
Three men were taken into custody earlier Wednesday following separate car chases apparently started after a violent heist at a Southern California pawn shop. At least one man remained at large late Wednesday.
At 11 p.m., the university tweeted this notice: "Police are beginning to clear building occupants. Please remain in place until directed by Police or audio announcement."
Shortly before midnight, the university tweeted this: "Cal State Fullerton Important Message. All buildings are now clear and occupants are free to leave."
The complicated situation developed after five men wearing ski masks robbed at pawn shop in Moreno Valley at about 3 p.m., shooting an employee of the store. California Highway Patrol officers responded to a call describing the suspect vehicle and pursued it to Fullerton.
At 3:47 p.m., the pursuit ended after the car exited the Orange (57) Freeway and stopped after it was involved in a minor collision in front of the university campus, Fullerton police Sgt. Jeff Stuart said during a quickly called news conference about 5
Nearly 10,000 students were at the university preparing for next week's finals when two men fled onto campus, where one was immediately taken into custody. The other man fled into Mihaylo Hall, a 200,000-square-foot building, Stuart said.
The three other man fled southbound from campus. One was taken into custody, and another carjacked a vehicle and led authorities on a high-speed chase that ended with his arrest in Watts. The third man from that group remained at large, Stuart said.
SWAT team members were searching the area, he said. A perimeter had been set up to search for the suspect who had fled into the city streets of Fullerton, where it began to rain about 6 p.m.
"We had a large number of students were able to flee the building where the suspect ran into. They've been evacuated from the campus. Those students and staff members that are still on campus are in what's called a shelter in place," Stuart said. "Our goal is to go around and rescue those individuals . as we do our search. This is going to be an all-night operation."
He later added, "It's a huge campus, so it's a very daunting task."
Three buildings on campus were on modified lockdown, where students were told to shelter in place, Stuart said. A student in one of the locked-down buildings said he witnessed officers checking every classroom.
"A cop came running through and he said, 'They have guns, they have guns,'" said another witness, Shant Fermanian. "So all these people started rushing so me and my cousin, we looked up, and we just got out of there as soon we can. We had no idea what was going on."
Fermanian said he saw a man, who was later taken into custody, run around a nearby building but did not see any weapons.
Christine Accetta, locked down in McCarthy Hall, tweeted a photo about 6:30 p.m., pictured below, of a barricade students created inside a classroom. Four hours later, Accetta tweeted: "We have been released!"
"They're just trying ... to keep us safe," Mireles said, who said she was in College Park. "They're being really helpful. The cops have come through and told us to stay calm."
She said the blinds had been closed in the classroom she was in, and chairs had been placed in front of the door.
"The lights are off. We're kind of just all huddled together right now," Mireles said.
While she talked on air to NBC4, a loudspeaker announcement told her to evacuate the building.
The five men allegedly robbed a pawn shop in Moreno Valley in the 24500 block of Sunnymead Boulevard (map) around 3 p.m. Authorities there said the men wore ski masks and used handguns.
An employee at the store was shot; he was in stable condition, according to Riverside County Sheriff's Department Deputy Albert Martinez. He said it remains unclear what, if anything, was stolen from the store.
After the sheriff's department put out a description of the getaway vehicle in Moreno Valley, CHP officers spotted the car and a pursuit began.
Just after the pursuit ended in Fullerton, one of the men car-jacked another vehicle, prompting a second chase, which wound through freeways and surface streets. The driver blew through several stop signs and red lights in residential areas of Compton.
The man abandoned his stolen car in Watts and ran through a crowded area before surrendering -- spread eagle, as shown at right -- on a baseball field at Imperial Courts Recreation Center at 2250 E. 114th St. (map).
The recreation center is surrounded by Imperial Courts, a nearly 500-unit public housing project, and was hosting a toy drive held by the Los Angeles Police Department.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was among those in attendance and immediately began chasing the man as he headed toward the baseball diamond, away from dozens of police officers gathered at the park.
That driver was taken into custody.
NBC4's Vikki Vargas contributed to this report.
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