A handgun with its hammer pulled back.
Example of a handgun. This gun was not involved in the case. Photo from Pixabay.

An innocent elderly woman and her adult son narrowly escaped death as they fought off two purse snatchers in a Riverside strip mall parking lot when one of the attackers pulled out a gun and fired at the victims’ heads.

Two suspects have been charged with armed robbery and other crimes, and they are slated to make an initial joint court appearance Friday at the Riverside Hall of Justice.

“It’s disheartening to think these two criminals felt empowered to come into our city in broad daylight to steal a purse and almost murder two of our community members,” Riverside police Chief Larry Gonzalez said Tuesday. “Our hope is for these suspects to feel the full weight of the justice system through actual consequences that matter.”

Lanika Shantel Williams, 32, of Los Angeles and Jermaine Lavelle Wheeler, 34, of Moreno Valley were arrested Monday after the alleged holdup at the Canyon Crest Towne Center, near Canyon Crest Drive and Central Avenue.

Along with armed robbery, both defendants are charged with two counts of assault with a firearm, and one count each of illegal possession of a gun, identity theft and carrying a loaded firearm in public without a permit.

Both are being held in lieu of $1 million bail — Williams at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside, and Wheeler at the Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta.

According to Officer Ryan Railsback, Williams and Wheeler were cruising the parking lot of the mall in a BMW X5 about 4:15 p.m. Monday when they allegedly pulled alongside the senior and her adult son, neither of whom were publicly identified, walking to their vehicle.

Railsback alleged that Williams got out of the car and ordered the elderly woman to hand over her purse.

“Williams pulled the purse from the victim, who then tried to fight off Williams,” the police spokesman alleged. “The victim’s son also tried pulling the purse from Williams’ grasp, when she produced a black revolver and fired one shot at their heads, narrowly missing both victims.”

The woman, who was described as elderly but whose age was not provided, let go of her purse, and Williams jumped back into the vehicle, at which point allegedly stomped the accelerator, and the defendants sped away, Railsback alleged.

The parking lot has a network of security surveillance cameras, and investigators obtained images of the BMW and its occupants, which they used to develop leads. Riverside County Gang Impact Team personnel assisted with tracking the pair down to a residence in the area of Indian Street and Alessandro Boulevard in Moreno Valley, Railsback said.

He said they were spotted at 6 p.m. sitting in the same vehicle, where Williams was taken into custody without incident. Wheeler tried to run but was quickly apprehended, according to Railsback.

The purse and gun were seized from the BMW, he said.

Court records show Wheeler has a prior misdemeanor conviction for battery. No information was available on Williams.

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