"This is one of those things that could have turned out very badly," Bakersfield Police Sgt. Joe Grubbs told Eyewitness News.
The suspect, seen in surveillance photos released Friday by police, met the woman Wednesday evening in the parking lot of the Valley Plaza Mall. Police said he developed a rapport with the woman, who then agreed to drive him to the area of East Planz and Cottonwood.
At some point, the woman reportedly became concerned for her safety and asked the man to get out of the car. He then threatened that he had a gun and forced her to keep driving, police said.
Grubbs said the two stopped at a store, and police released a photo of the suspect from that location.
"There was a stop at a convenience store mid-route," Grubbs said. "She had actually tried to make contact with police." He wouldn't say more about that incident.
Eventually, the victim did find a way to stop the car, and to get to safety.
"On the ruse of needing to use the restroom," Grubbs said. "And got to somebody's house where they helped out and called police."
Grubbs calls this a troubling and unusual case.
"We don't know the motivation of this guy to begin with," Sgt. Grubbs said. "It could have been that he was planning on robbing her, carjacking her -- something like that -- and in mid-stream changed his mind."
The officer said the woman was not injured, and she never actually saw a gun. The suspect was last seen leaving on foot.
Anyone who recognizes the man in the photos is asked to call Detective Ted King at (661) 326-3857.
The suspect was reportedly dropped off at the mall parking lot by someone driving a Toyota Camry. That car is also seen here in photos.
"I think this woman was just trying to be a nice woman, a nice person," Grubbs said. But he warns it's not safe to offer help to someone you don't know.
"We encourage people not to put yourself in that situation to begin with," he said. "Absolutely don't let them in your car and drive them around."