Two robbery suspects were killed yesterday when the target of their jewelry store holdup fired a hail of bullets at them, sending them fleeing in a car that sped wildly through downtown Bethesda, crashing into five vehicles as pedestrians and other motorists screamed and scattered.
It was not immediately clear whether the two suspects were fatally wounded by the shots fired by the owner of the Prestige Jewelry Store or killed in the crash during their desperate getaway attempt, in which two people sustained minor injuries.
"I felt scared; I felt angry; I felt violated," said Vahag Babayan, the 27-year-old owner of the shop, as he described the events leading up to the shooting. "I think I did what I felt was the right thing to do to protect myself, my business and the community," he said, adding that he fired shots at the suspects but doesn't know whether he hit them.
The incident, which began with the 1 p.m. holdup of the small jewelry store in the arcade between Wisconsin and Woodmont avenues, turned into one of the most terrifying events in years in Bethesda's prosperous downtown.
Hours after the incident, the street was littered with smashed cars and broken glass, while witnesses, still stunned, told of the outbreak of gunfire and the squeal of tires that had shattered the quiet of a sunny Saturday afternoon.
"It was a nightmare scene," said a New Yorker who had been taking a taxi to her parents' home. "Here I am coming in from New York -- where there is so much crime -- thinking how nice to be back in Bethesda, and then all of a sudden to be in the middle of this. Unreal."
The two suspects, whom Montgomery County police did not identify last night, were taken to Suburban Hospital after their car crashed at the busy intersection of Wisconsin and Rosedale avenues. They died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The two men, described as being in their thirties, had been shot in the head and chest. Police said they think that the pair died as a result of the gunshot wounds but that it is possible they were fatally injured in the car crash. The bodies will be taken to Baltimore for autopsies.
Babayan, who police said ran after and fired at the suspects, was questioned for hours by police. During questioning, Babayan sat in the back office of the jewlery store with a silver-colored handgun on the desk in front of him and a "Sorry, we're closed" sign pasted to the store's plate-glass windows.
Babayan and his family came to this country from Armenia eight years ago, and he has operated the jewelry store with his brother, David, since September.
Police spokeswoman Ann Evans said that no charges against Babayan are anticipated but that the investigation must be reviewed by the State's Attorney Office.
According to police and witnesses, the incident started when a man entered the jewelry store shortly before 1 p.m.
Mori Tehranchi, owner of a nearby children's store, said he was having coffee in the store with Babayan when the suspect came and asked to see some rings. Tehranchi said the man was shown gold rings but left without making a purchase.
Police said the same man returned about five minutes later. Babayan said he was the only person in the shop when the suspect returned. He said the man had a shirt wrapped around his hand, removing it to reveal a revolver.
"This is a robbery. A holdup. Be quiet," Babayan recalled the man telling him. He said the suspect ordered him to open the jewelry cases and then started taking jewelry, mostly gold chains and bracelets.
Babayan said the man ordered him to go to the bathroom and to stay there. He said he opened the door and waited until the man left his shop. At that point, Babayan said, he got his gun, which he said he has had since January and is registered. Babayan said that before yesterday he had used the gun only in shooting practice and that his store had never been robbed before.
Meanwhile, David Most, who operates a coin and stamp shop, said he was standing behind his cash register when he looked across into the windows of the jewelry store and saw "a stranger behind the counter, shoving the owner." Most said he saw the suspect dump trays of jewelry into a cloth bag.
Most notified police, but before they came, the suspect fled. Babayan, his silver-colored gun in hand, chased after the suspect. Police said Babayan followed the suspect onto Wisconsin Avenue, running north and turning left into an alley that headed back onto Woodmont Avenue.
Police said the jeweler fired one shot and missed. The suspect kept running.
The suspect then entered the driver's side of a blue Honda Accord, which was parked in the 7700 block of Woodmont Avenue and was occupied by another man, police said.
Babayan ran up to the driver's side of the car and began shooting into the car, police said.
He ran back to his store when one of the suspects attempted to pull a gun from his waistband, police said. Most, the coin shop operator, said he asked Babayan whether the men got away and "he said, 'Yes,' " and "I asked if he got them, and he said, 'Yes.' "
According to police, the robber and his accomplice headed north on Woodmont, made a right onto Cheltenham Drive and a left onto northbound Wisconsin, striking one car at Wisconsin and Highland Avenue and then four more cars between Maple and Rosedale avenues.
"It was like ping-pong . . . ricocheting from one car to another," the New York woman said. One car flipped over. But police said no one was seriously injured; two people were treated at Suburban Hospital and released.
When the getaway car finally crashed to a halt in the intersection, one man jumped from the car -- blood streaming down his face -- and screamed for someone to call the police, according to witnesses.
The men were taken by ambulance to the hospital.
At the site of the crash, police found a pair of crutches. One of the suspects, the man who had waited in the car, had one leg, said police spokeswoman Evans. One witness said a man with crutches had entered the jewlery store before the holdup, but police said they had no information to confirm that.
"Not that much happens in this area. It's quiet, real quiet. I still can't believe this," Most said.
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.