By STEFANIE DAZIO Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Police across Southern California were seeking a lone gunman Tuesday who is wanted in connection with at least three — but possibly as many as six — robberies at 7-Eleven stores where two people were killed and three were wounded.
Over five hours on Monday — July 11, or 7/11, the day when the national 7-Eleven brand celebrates its anniversary — the violence wreaked havoc on convenience stores and prompted the parent company to urge employees to close their locations overnight in the Los Angeles area for safety.
It wasn’t immediately clear to investigators what prompted the violence in the cities of Ontario, Upland, Riverside, Santa Ana, Brea and La Habra.
“I think the only person to answer that would be the suspect,” said Officer Ryan Railsback, a spokesperson for the Riverside Police Department.
Police identified the Santa Ana victim as Matthew Rule, 24. The Brea victim, 40-year-old Matthew Hirsch, was identified by his father, Jim Hirsch, KCBS reported.
The Riverside victim remained in grave condition on Tuesday morning, police said, while the victims from the La Habra shooting were in stable condition.
While police in La Habra, Brea and Santa Ana said they believe they are seeking the same suspect, officials in Ontario, Upland and Riverside have not yet made that determination though they said they were aware of the other crimes at 7-Eleven stores. Authorities did not immediately release additional details.
Authorities in Brea and Upland shared images of a masked man wearing what appeared to be the same black sweatshirt with a hood over his head. The sweatshirt had white lettering with green leaves on the front.
“It could potentially be the same person but we’re not confirming that at this time,” Upland Sgt. Jake Kirk said.
7-Eleven Inc. issued a statement saying it was gathering information and working with police. Monday was the company’s 95th anniversary and stores gave out free Slurpee drinks. “Our hearts are with the victims and their loved ones,” the statement said.
“Right now, our focus is on Franchisee, associate and customer safety. With that in mind, we have encouraged stores in the Los Angeles area to close (Monday night),” 7-Eleven Inc. said in a statement to KTLA.
Railsback said the date was no accident.
“There’s no way it can be a coincidence of it being 7-Eleven, July 11,” he said.
The first robbery happened around midnight Monday morning in Ontario, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.
The masked man brandished a handgun at the store’s employee and demanded money, according to Ontario Cpl. Emily Hernandez. He did not fire any shots and the clerk was not injured. It was not immediately clear to investigators what, if anything, was stolen.
The second robbery happened about 45 minutes later in Upland, less than 5 miles (8 kilometers) away from the Ontario store.
The suspect approached the store clerk with a few items, “some drinks and things,” and brandished a semi-automatic handgun, Kirk said. The man stole the items and about $400 to $500 in cash and fled. No shots were fired.
About an hour after the Upland robbery and 25 miles (40 kilometers) away in Riverside, a gunman brandished a gun and robbed the 7-Eleven clerk, then turned the weapon on a customer, opened fire and fled, Railsback said. Police believe the clerk handed over cash from the register.
“It doesn’t appear to be any reason that the suspect shot the customer,” Railsback said of the gravely wounded victim. “It sounds like the clerk gave him whatever he asked for.”
Railsback said criminals typically know that robberies at convenience stores rarely yield large amounts of money, especially during the overnight hours.
“If you go hit a liquor store or a 7-Eleven or a fast food place, you’re not going to get a lot of cash out of it,” he said. “It’s kind of odd that they would do this.”
Another shooting occurred around 3:20 a.m., about 24 miles (39 kilometers) away, in Santa Ana, authorities said.
Officers responding there reported gunfire and found a man dead in the 7-Eleven parking lot with a gunshot wound to his upper torso, according to Santa Ana Sgt. Maria Lopez.
“At this moment, we don’t believe he was an employee,” Lopez said of the victim. “We don’t really know yet what he was doing there in a parking lot, if he was a potential customer or just walking by.”
Surveillance video shows the suspect dropping items — believed to be the victim’s belongings — as he fled, Lopez said.
About 40 minutes later, a 7-Eleven employee in Brea was shot and killed, Brea Police Capt. Phil Rodriguez said.
Jim Hirsch told KCBS that his son, known as Matt, had been working an overnight shift alone.
“I am so angry at this,” Jim Hirsch told the TV station “I never thought all the commotion in the world right now would affect me but it’s under my roof.”
Less than an hour after Matthew Hirsch was shot, officers in neighboring La Habra were sent to a reported robbery at a 7-Eleven. They discovered two gunshot victims around 4:55 a.m., according to Sgt. Sumner Bohee. Both victims are expected to survive.
News Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.