Driver charged with murder in Times Square crash

(CNN)– A man with a history of drunken driving has been charged with murder after police say he barreled a car through the crowded sidewalks in Manhattan’s Time Square, leaving one person dead and 22 injured.

The deadly rampage on Thursday started after the driver allegedly made a U-turn, then steered the car into the packed sidewalk where it rammed dozens of pedestrians for a three block stretch.

One surveillance video showed the maroon car jump the curb and slam into a group of people, sending bodies tumbling over the hood of the speeding Honda Accord.

Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old resident of Portage, Michigan, who was visiting the city, was killed.

Related: 1 dead, 22 hurt after car hits pedestrians in Times Square

The suspect, Richard Rojas, of the Bronx, tested positive for PCP and told police that God made him do it, a law enforcement source told CNN.

Rojas, 26, who suffered from “psychological issues,” told police he expected officers to shoot him, according to the source.

In addition to the murder charge, Rojas also faces 20 counts of attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, according to a statement from the New York City Police Department. The five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide are for the death of Elsman and four victims who are in critical condition.

They are expected to survive, officials said.

NYC Health + Hospitals Bellevue said it was treating four patients in critical condition and two in serious condition Thursday night. The injured included Elsman’s 13-year-old sister, Ava, according to Michelle Karpinski of Portage Public Schools.

Elsman was a 2016 graduate of Portage Central High School.

“Alyssa was the type of person who seemed very shy and reserved when you first met her, but once you started talking to her you realized she was smart, funny and engaging,” principal Eric Alburtus said in a statement. “She will be deeply missed by the staff and students here.”

Rojas has been arrested twice in New York — in 2015 and 2008 — for drunken driving, New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said. In 2013, Rojas — while in the Navy — pleaded guilty to drunken driving, failure to pay a just debt, drunk and disorderly conduct and communicating a threat. A military judge sentenced him to three months confinement.

There is no indication that the incident in Times Square, which unfolded just before noon, was an act of terrorism, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials said. It is being investigated as an accident, a police official said.

The mayor told WNYC Radio Friday that Rojas had “demonstrated mental health issues going back to childhood” that “went unaddressed even during the time he was in the US military.”

“It appears to be intentional in the sense that he was troubled and lashing out,” de Blasio said of the incident. “At the root of this is an untreated mental health issue going back probably decades.”

The speeding car jumped the sidewalk on the west side of 7th Avenue at 42nd Street and struck several pedestrians before crashing at the northwest corner of 45th Street, police said.

Witnesses described a harrowing scene that started with screeching tires and ended with screams, chaos and a fiery crash at one of the world’s most visited sites.

Elizabeth Long, of Dayton, Ohio, was walking to the Hard Rock Cafe when she saw a maroon car heading toward her on the sidewalk. Hearing screams and fearing that the car would hit her, she ran to a nearby building’s revolving door.

“I wasn’t even all the way in when the car sped by” about 10 feet away, said Long, a 54-year-old who was in town to see a musical.
An injured person lies at the scene.

When Long went outside, she saw at least six people lying on the ground, including a woman lying face-down with blood pouring from her head.

“I’m shaken,” said Long, who wasn’t injured. “Two of the people I saw that were really hurt, people were beside them … we were trying to tell (police) they were hurt.”

“I felt so bad … standing there,” not being able to do anything more to help, she said.

A tourist from Argentina told CNN affiliate WABC that he was shocked to see the car that “was like bowling, hitting people.”

Annette Proehl of Pennsylvania was in Times Square with children on a field trip when she heard the screeching tires of the vehicle and people screaming. She watched the car slam into a steel divider and catch fire, she said.

“It was more of a surreal thing,” she said. “We initially thought they were filming something.”

The car was lodged on a steel bollard — of which there are more than 200 on Times Square sidewalks to stop vehicles from coming through.

The car’s windshield was shattered and flames billowed from the hood.

That’s when Planet Hollywood employee Kenya Brandix spotted the driver fleeing from the car.

“He ran out of the car,” Brandix told CNN affiliate WPIX. “He was screaming at the top of his lungs and he was flailing his arms in all directions.”
Brandix has since been hailed a hero for helping to restrain the driver.

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