ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. -- The chase and shootout in northwest Florida that ended early Friday with the death of Blake Fitzgerald and the arrest of Brittany Nicole Harper -- the duo suspected in a weeklong, multi-state series of robberies and abductions -- was touched off by a Pensacola shoe story robbery, officials said Friday.
The hours-long manhunt that stretched between two counties culminated when the armed Fitzgerald attempted to enter an occupied home Thursday in Milton, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said at a press conference Friday.
Fitzgerald, 30, was killed amid an exchange of gunfire, and Harper, 30, suffered injuries to her leg and ankle, a State Attorney Bill Eddins said. She was being treated at a local hospital and has been charged with home invasion robbery, false imprisonment and grand theft auto, and her involvement in other possible crimes is being investigated.
Authorities have linked Fitzgerald and Harper to a series of crimes in Alabama and Georgia, saying the offenses fit a similar pattern: People were robbed, kidnapped and let go unharmed, usually after a vehicle was stolen. Calling them a "modern-day Bonnie and Clyde," the U.S. Marshals announced Thursday that they were offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to their arrest.
Police received a call just before 8 p.m. Thursday that a Famous Footwear store in Pensacola had been robbed at gunpoint, Morgan said. Witnesses told police that a white male and a white female entered the store and began shopping. Then, the man approached the sales clerk, pointed a gun at him and demanded money as the woman continued to shop for shoes and socks, Morgan said.
Officials spotted the suspect's car nearly two hours later at a toll plaza near Pensacola Beach, Morgan said, before they drove on Interstate 10 back toward Pensacola. Officers gave pursuit as the car drove over a three-mile bridge, but officers lost sight of them when they pulled of the highway at 9:52 p.m. and entered into city streets.
At 10:16 p.m., Morgan said the suspects ditched the car in a driveway and fled on foot. Police searched homes in the area and interviewed witnesses who gave them suspect descriptions and their travel direction.
Just before 12:30 a.m. Friday, residents of another Pensacola home reported they had been held hostage by two suspects before the duo fled in the family's red truck. Officials spotted the stolen truck driving eastbound on Interstate 10, crossing a bridge into neighboring Santa Rosa County, Morgan said.
At 12:41 a.m., Morgan said, the truck exited the highway into a neighborhood in Santa Rosa county. Police blocked off the entire area and set up a perimeter before they encountered the suspects, who were still in the truck. The duo, Morgan said, wouldn't exit the vehicle and refused to surrender, and a standoff followed for about 15 minutes. Then, Morgan said, the pair got out of the car and tried to enter an occupied home.
Officials with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office opened fire and Fitzgerald was killed, Morgan said. Six deputies with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office are on administrative leave while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates the shooting, per standard procedure, Morgan said.
Eddins said Fitzgerald was armed, but wouldn't comment on a reporter's question asking whether he pointed a gun at officers.
"You have an individual it's clear has committed several violent crimes, has a weapon and is going into a house in the middle of the night - from my perspective, that pretty well answers the question," Eddins said.
Eddins said police couldn't determine any connection between the couple and the home they attempted to enter in Santa Rosa County. "He was running from the law ... he had nowhere to go," Eddins said.
Morgan cautioned against "glamorizing" the couple's alleged actions.
"You hate anytime that we glamorize crime," Morgan said. "I can tell you in law enforcement that only encourages people to be copycats - there's nothing glamorous about death. There's nothing glamorous about taking hostages. Unfortunately, some people are going to read that and see that as such."
"Let's all remember, Bonnie and Clyde were a couple of thugs too," he said.
Before the alleged crime spree, police in Joplin, Missouri, had wanted to interview the two about a Jan. 22 burglary, in which which guns were stolen from a home. The couple is also suspected in two Florida robberies in Walnut Hill and Destin on Wednesday, U.S. Marshals spokesman Martin Keely said.
Fitzgerald and Harper have been charged with robbing and abducting a hotel clerk in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and taking his car to the Birmingham area. 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 along Interstate 75 in south Georgia, taking money from the safe and cigarettes 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 told Dease he did not plan on going back to prison.
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 the prosecutors had sufficient evidence for a conviction - and was sentenced in 2014 to a suspended seven-year prison term.
Fitzgerald also was sentenced in southwestern Missouri's Jasper County 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.