LOS ANGELES — A transient charged with ramming his car through a weekend crowd on the Venice Beach boardwalk chatted cheerfully with regulars at a Southern California job center and gave no indication of a problem hours before the deadly drive, acquaintances said.
Suspect Nathan Campbell told the manager of the Malibu Community Labor Exchange that he had purchased a car in Colorado and was living in it, but friends said he had a line on a job and planned to stay awhile, the Los Angeles Daily News reported Wednesday.
Mark Hewitt, a homeless man who hung out at the center, said Campbell had at least one job in recent weeks and was promised more work.
Hewitt said Campbell, who struggled with alcohol abuse in the past, seemed sober and in a good mood on Saturday — before the boardwalk rampage that left one person dead and 16 injured.
“He asked me if I wanted to go to Venice with him to do laundry,” Hewitt said. “But I told him I didn’t need to go. When he left, I felt like everything was fine. I was shocked when I heard. Maybe if I’d have gone, he wouldn’t have done this.”
Video taken Saturday showed a dark-colored 2008 Dodge Avenger mowing down vendors and tourists along the popular boardwalk. Italian newlywed Alice Gruppioni, 32, was killed.
Campbell, 38, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to one count of murder, 16 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 17 counts of hit-and-run. He could face life in prison if convicted and remains jailed on $1.48 million bail.
Prosecutors contend that Campbell deliberately maneuvered around a barrier and drove though the crowds. His attorney Philip Dube called it “a horrible accident.”
Campbell has a history of run-ins with the law in several states in including a conviction for driving with alcohol, although Dube told reporters there was no indication that drugs or alcohol were involved in the weekend incident.
Hours earlier, Campbell was at the day-labor center 15 miles away in Malibu.
Campbell had worked regularly last year, doing day-labor construction, moving and landscaping jobs in the wealthy coastal enclave, said Oscar Mondragon, director of the nonprofit job exchange.
“This guy was calm, really helpful. We had no complaints about him, and in our eyes he was a good worker,” he said. “It’s out of character in my eyes.”
Campbell said he was living in a car that he had bought in a Denver suburb earlier this summer.
“He was so proud that he saved money to buy the car,” Mondragon said. “He came over and told me ‘Look, Oscar! I got a car!’”
Campbell has ties to Colorado. In 2010 he began working as a cook and intake administrator at a residential sober-living facility in Denver and he worked there until February 2012 when he quit, the Daily News reported.
In March 2012, he was evicted from his apartment in Denver for not paying $655 in rent, records show.
He went to California and was a regular at the Malibu job center for several months.
He got jobs but had trouble keeping steady work and had begun drinking again, said an acquaintance, Raymond Figueroa.
“When he was drunk, you couldn’t even understand him, he would be incoherent,” Figueroa said. “He was always very remorseful later.”
Campbell went back to Colorado in December and returned to work at the rehab facility.
“He had saved up a bunch of money and was going to school” a certificate program related to his rehabilitation work, Figueroa said. “He told me awhile back that he was only a week away from finishing.”
But he left the job in June and by early the next month he was back in California.
“I just can’t believe it. Maybe he snapped or he was under the influence,” Figueroa said. “My heart goes out to the people that were hurt. I just don’t understand it.”
Campbell had a history of petty crime convictions.
He was sentenced to five days in jail after pleading guilty to shoplifting at a Denver supermarket in February 2009. Five months later, he was accused of trespassing at an outdoor mall in Denver and sentenced to 10 days in jail, but instead served time in a sheriff’s work program.
Records also show in had a 2002 conviction in Santa Monica for trespassing after starting a fire on private land and a month later he was convicted of being drunk in public and resisting arrest. He also was convicted of reckless driving with alcohol in Florida in 2008, the Daily News reported.