Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 | 3:30 p.m.
RIDGECREST, Calif. — Sergio Munoz was known around this small desert city to acquaintances as a personable dad and to police for his long rap sheet.
In recent weeks, he began losing the moorings of a stable life — his job, then his family. Kicked out of the house, he had been staying at a friend's place, using and dealing heroin.
Life fully unraveled when Munoz, with two hostages in his trunk, led officers on a wild chase Friday after killing a woman and injuring his crash-pad friend. He shot the friend after he had refused to join what Munoz planned would be a final rampage against police and "snitches."
Munoz knew the authorities well enough that after the initial, pre-dawn slaying he called one patrol officer's cellphone and announced that he wanted to kill all police in town. Because he would be outgunned at the station he would instead "wreak havoc" elsewhere, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said at a news conference Friday.
Munoz kept his word, first firing at drivers in Ridgecrest, according to police, then taking shots at pursuing officers and passing motorists during a chase along 30 miles of highway that runs through the shrub-dotted desert about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. He ran traffic off the road, firing at least 10 times at passing vehicles with a shotgun and a handgun, though no one was hurt.
In the end, Munoz pulled over on U.S. 395, turned in his seat and began shooting into the trunk — which had popped open earlier in the pursuit to reveal a man and woman inside.
As many as seven officers opened fire and killed him. The hostages were flown to a hospital in critical condition, but were expected to survive. Their names have not been released and police have not said anything about their relationship to Munoz.
In the neighborhood where the first shooting happened, people said Munoz was an affable man who would stop to chat, revealing no signs of inner turmoil.
"He didn't show any anger," said Edgar Martinez, who would see Munoz at a nearby gym and said he cleaned his house several years ago.
Others described him as respectful and humble.
But recently, his life began to crumble.
First, he became unemployed. According to his Facebook page, Munoz worked at Searles Valley Minerals, a company that makes products such as borax and soda ash by extracting a salty mix from beneath a desert lake bed. It was not clear whether he lost his job at Searles, or another business, and officials at Searles were unreachable Saturday.
Last Sunday, Munoz, 39, was arrested again — police found ammunition and a syringe at the house where the slaying would happen five days later. Munoz is a felon with convictions dating back to 1994, when he was sentenced to more than two years in prison for receiving stolen property. In May, he was arrested for possessing ammunition as a felon, but the felony charge was dismissed.
After making bail on the latest arrest, Munoz returned to the house where he first started staying about two weeks ago.
A neighbor heard Munoz bemoaning his life, saying he was losing everything due to drugs.
"He was a cool guy," said the neighbor, Derrick Holland. "He was just losing his mind."
Munoz's estranged wife, Sandra Leiva, said that they separated because she finally had enough of his bad choices.
"Tough love and drugs, that's what brought him down," Leiva said.
On Saturday morning, Munoz's 15-year-old daughter, Viviana, reflected on her father's life in a Facebook post.
"Your such a great dad when you were not on drugs...I remember how you used always try and teach us how to dance all crazy with your chicken legs haha," she wrote. "You were a good father and person, you just made a sad choice."
She promised to watch over her two younger brothers, now that their dad was gone.
Ridgecrest is a city of about 27,000 people adjacent to the vast Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. It sits near U.S. 395, which runs through the western Mojave, below the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.
"It's a small town, pretty much everybody knows everybody," said Ridgecrest police Sgt. Jed McLaughlin, who himself had arrested Munoz about 10 years ago.
The violence that ended with Munoz's roadside death began Friday around 5:30 a.m. when Munoz rolled up the driveway to the house where he had been staying with his friend, Thaddeus Meier, and Meier's longtime girlfriend.
"We're going to reduce all of the snitches in town," Munoz told Meier after rousing him with a knock on the front door, according to Meier's sister, Dawn, recounting what her brother said from the hospital.
When her brother declined, Munoz shot him at least twice, then shot and killed Meier's girlfriend. Her identity has not been released.
Dawn Meier said she saw Munoz using heroin and dealing the drug out of the house. She had been staying there with her brother until about a week ago, when her boyfriend insisted that she move out with her 7-month-old son due to all the drug-related foot traffic.
She said her brother called Munoz "a very, very good friend of mine" but that she is a good judge of character and thought him unpredictable, "just by the vibes I got."