NEW YORK (REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST) – The driver who rammed into a crowd at Times Square on Thursday (May 18), killing a woman and injuring 22 others, has been charged with one count of murder, 20 counts of attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, according to the New York Police Department.
Richard Rojas, the 26-year-old suspect, was taken into custody after he allegedly mounted the sidewalk on 7th Avenue in Manhattan, plowing through pedestrians at high speeds, creating a chaotic and terrifying scene amid the afternoon lunch rush at one of the busiest intersections in the world.
He claimed after his arrest that he had "heard voices", according to law enforcement sources.
Rojas, a US navy veteran who was arrested twice previously for drunk driving, also said after being arrested: "You were supposed to shoot me! I wanted to kill them."
Preliminary tests show Rojas, a US citizen and resident of the Bronx, was under the influence of the mood-altering drug PHP, law enforcement sources told the New York Times and CNN.
Witnesses said the motorist mounted the sidewalk in a burgundy Honda sedan and sped along for more than three city blocks, knocking people over before the car struck a pole and came to rest at 45th Street and Broadway in Midtown Manhattan.
Immediately after the crash, Rojas reportedly tried to flee on foot. A bouncer at Planet Hollywood managed to tackle him to the ground, the Associated Press reported. The bouncer, Ken Bradix, has worked at Planet Hollywood for 17 years and was walking toward the restaurant when the he saw the car careening down the sidewalk and the driver subsequently running away from the scene.
Rojas was taken to Bellevue Hospital rather than to the city’s central booking facility after being detained at a police precinct on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
There was no indication that the incident was an act of terrorism, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference at the scene.
Initial reports of the incident brought to mind vehicle attacks on pedestrians in recent months in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Sweden.
Security camera footage showed the car slam into pedestrians who moments earlier were ambling along, some carrying shopping bags and others pushing baby strollers. The incident took place close to noon ET (12am Friday Singapore time) on a bright, sunny day.
“People were being hit and rolling off the car,” said Josh Duboff, who works at the nearby Thomson Reuters headquarters. He leaped out of the way to avoid being struck.
Shoes were scattered on the sidewalk. A woman’s body lay covered with a bloodstained blanket. A police officer kept vigil nearby, sadly shaking his head. The dead woman was named by police as Alyssa Elsman, 18, who was on vacation with her family from Michigan.
Relatives, friends and community members in Portage, Michigan, mourned the loss of Elsman. “We’re all kind of a mess,” Eric Alburtus, principal of Portage Central High School, from which Elsman graduated last year, told the Detroit Free Press.
Elsman was a kind, compassionate student known around the school for selling muffins she baked in a cooking class, Alburtus said.
“Alyssa was wonderful young lady,” he said. “When you first got to know her, you would perceive that she was shy or quiet. The more you got to know her, the more you would realise she was funny, and thoughtful, and compassionate to other people.”
According to her Facebook page, Elsman was working at a Sonic Drive-In. She also had a boyfriend.
“She was sweet and really laid back,” said Stacey Vogl, the mother of Elsman’s boyfriend, Trevor West, told the New York Daily News. “She was the one person that brought my son joy.”
Relatives told the New York Daily News she was studying at a community college near her home outside of Kalamazoo. She was visiting New York City with her mother and city and they were scheduled to return to Michigan later on Thursday.
Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them tourists from around the world, pass daily through Times Square, the heart of the Broadway theater district. The bustling streets are heavily patrolled by police, some on horseback. Many, but not all, sidewalks are lined with barricades and planters for fear of vehicle attacks.
Broadway shows were scheduled to go ahead as planned on Thursday evening in the many theaters in the area, organisers said.
Navy records show that Rojas enlisted in September 2011 and was based in Illinois and Florida, working as an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice.
He was arrested a year later at a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, where officials said he attacked a cab driver, shouted “my life is over” and threatened to kill police, according to court records.
Rojas was charged with misdemeanor battery and resisting an officer without violence, but it was unclear how the case was resolved. Navy records show he spent two months in a military prison in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2013, but did not say why. He left the Navy in May 2014.
Authorities cordoned off an area from 41st to 47th streets and from Sixth to Eighth avenues for several hours after Thursday’s incident, effectively shutting down one of the busiest parts of one of the busiest cities in the world.
The crash occurred outside the headquarters of the Reuters news agency, 3 Times Square.
Building foreman Rodney Muir said he heard what sounded like a big bang and crunching metal. He said he looked out and saw what appeared to be a body in the street. One of the injured, Cheryl Howard, had blood dripping down her right arm and a bruise above her left eye. She and her daughter were shopping when the car sped towards them.
“I’m so freaked out!” Howard’s daughter said. “They mowed everyone down.”
Times Square was evacuated in May 2010 when a car bomb that failed to explode was found in an SUV. Faisal Shahzad, a naturalised American and Taliban-trained militant, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Six months ago the city completed a US$55 million, nearly six-year renovation of Times Square that turned roadways into pedestrian zones. It aimed to improve congestion and safety, but not all sidewalks were fitted with safety bollards.