Three masked and hooded gunmen who robbed a North Myrtle Beach bank Wednesday morning were in custody by nightfall after a high speed car chase riddled with gunfire and a nine-hour manhunt through the woods.
One suspect was captured around 1:30 p.m., another about 6:30 p.m., and the third one about 9 p.m. Before the suspects were captured, police had reminded residents near Water Tower Road to lock their doors, draw their shades and to not let anyone inside as the hunt continued.
“They do have an assault rifle and they are armed and very dangerous,” North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling said earlier in the day.
Helicopters from the State Law Enforcement Division swirled overhead as officers from multiple local law enforcement agencies and K9s combed a wooded area near Bombing Range Road for hours Wednesday. The search didn’t disrupt nearby schools, but kept many residents away from their homes as officers looked for the suspects.
J. Phillip Webster, North Myrtle Beach Police Chief, said multiple agencies aided in the search of a nearly 200-acre wooded area between Water Tower Road and Long Road. the search through what they described as “tough terrain” proved challenging for officers, but he said they refused to give up the hunt until all three suspects were in custody.
Police say the suspects -- described as black males, one in gray pants, two in khaki pants, but all dressed in dark hoodies, wearing masks and brandishing firearms -- entered the South State Bank at 606 Main St. demanding money around 11 a.m.
The suspects fired shots into the ceiling, but no one inside the bank was injured during the robbery, Dowling said.
The suspects fled in a vehicle headed south on U.S. 17 and were pursued by North Myrtle Beach police. The getaway car continued through the Barefoot Resort community with suspects firing at officers and at random motorists during the car chase, Dowling said.
No one was injured and officers did not return fire, he said.
The suspects’ vehicle was brought to a halt by spike strips near Water Tower Road, Dowling said. The suspects then fled into a nearby wooded area, leading to road closures and a heightened sense of security in the surrounding community.
Dale Dobson, who lives in Conway, said he had just turned off of S.C. 905 onto S.C. 22 towards S.C. 90 when he saw “patrol car after patrol car racing by” shortly after 11 a.m.
After turning onto S.C. 90, he said he noticed police officers were blocking every road.
At Water Tower Road, Dobson said, officers were stationed at squad cars with assault rifles at the ready.
Dobson has family on Water Tower Road where a manhunt through the woods was just beginning around noon. He called his relatives to tell them what was going on.
“They’ve got the shotguns out just in case anything happens or in case the criminals try to break into the home,” he said, standing outside of South State Bank where the incident began.
“I know a lot of times police are given a bad rap, but what I saw today was all good on the part of the police in trying to protect the public and resolve what’s happened here at the bank,” Dobson said.
Joe Falcone, a resident at Barefoot Resort, heard sirens and gunfire when he pulled into his driveway and ran to Water Tower Road. He saw what he thought was the bank robber’s car and police with guns drawn. “I heard the gunfire and I was concerned for people who might be at home in the neighborhood,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen” in this neighborhood. “I hope they catch them.”
Inside Barefoot Resort, motorists stopped to tell police that they were caught in the gunfire from the suspects.
Cindy Collins said her friend’s sport utility vehicle was damaged by a bullet that hit her hood as the suspects sped by in a silver car.
In my view they shot up the vehicles in order to create a distraction so that police would have to stop and help those people and they could get away. That tactic did not work for them so now they’re in the woods ... and ultimately they will be in jail.
Pat Dowling, North Myrtle Beach spokesman
Melvin Fields, who lives inside Barefoot Resort, said that he was driving his Humvee down Club Course Drive towards Dye Estates when he heard gunfire.
“I started hearing the pop, pop, pop because all of my windows were down,” he said.
Fields said he saw a car speeding towards him and a man shooting directly at him.
“The car was going at a high speed just firing directly at me. They fired three shots… They were still firing as they went down the road,” he said. “I think they were shooting at people randomly to get away.”
Fields said he dropped down into his seat.
“It’s scary. It’s not something you really want to be in,” he said.
Dowling said he thought the suspects shot at other cars to get away. No one was injured in the shooting.
“They were shooting at police and other cars. In my view they shot up the vehicles in order to create a distraction so that police would have to stop and help those people and they could get away,” Dowling said Wednesday afternoon.
“They’ve been changing locations in the woods as you can tell by the helicopters overhead as they receive tips from residents who are facing the woods,” Dowling said at a command post near the search area around 5 p.m.
Officers were keeping some residents from returning to their homes near the search area Wednesday afternoon.
About 15 Strawberry Road residents waited in the parking lot of the Griffin’s IGA off S.C. 90 for hours waiting for officers to give them clearance to go to their homes.
Julie Phillips was worried about caring for her dogs and horses.
“I understand where they are coming from; I don’t want anybody to jump out and grab me. I’m eager to get home. I just want to make sure my animals are OK. If they will just let us go home, I promise I’ll lock my door,” she said Wednesday afternoon.
Jesse Adderton also was among those residents eager to go home.
“Waiting, waiting, waiting,” Adderton said about 5:30 p.m. “It’s hot. It’s 80 degrees. All the police down there, I would feel safe at home."
North Myrtle Beach, Ocean Drive Elementary and other North Myrtle Beach schools were under a heightened sense of security Wednesday, but doors to the schools are always locked. Everyone was under the same supervised procedure that the district usually uses, Teal Harding, Horry County Schools spokeswoman, said earlier in the day.
There were no disruptions to school dismissals, Harding said.
Vicki Underwood, principal of Riverside Elementary, said the school was operating as usual but had ceased all outside activities earlier in the day.
Students are safe, she added. “We just want to be safe.”
Staff reporters Audrey Hudson, Emily Weaver, Elizabeth Townsend, Claire Byun and Janet Blackmon Morgan contributed to this report.