Authorities have arrested a 22-year-old driver on suspicion of attempted murder for allegedly plowing his vehicle into Los Angeles County sheriff’s academy recruits on a training run, injuring more than two dozen people.
Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez was arrested Wednesday for investigation of attempted murder on a peace officer, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement Thursday.
While Gutierrez has not been formally charged with a crime, prosecutors can only file a charge of attempted murder if they believe he intended to kill the runners, a criminal defense lawyer said.
Authorities have said that a man driving an SUV early Wednesday veered onto the wrong side of the road in suburban Whittier, crashing into recruits on a morning run. Five of them were critically injured.
The scene after the crash was chaotic, and authorities said it looked like an airplane wreck. Deputies got help from a nearby county fire station and immediately transported some of the most badly injured directly to hospitals.
Authorities said a field sobriety test performed on the driver was negative.
Gutierrez is being held without bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Friday, online jail records show. It’s not immediately known whether he has an attorney who can speak on his behalf.
There were about 75 recruits from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and several local police agencies running in formation in the street just before 6:30 a.m. when the crash occurred. They were wearing white T-shirts and green shorts, and accompanied by two black-and-white radio cars and eight road guards donning reflective vests as a safety precaution, sheriff’s authorities said.
Drill instructors, who are sworn deputy sheriffs, were also running with the group, but were not injured, said Sheriff’s Capt. Patrick Macdonald.
“It is unprecedented that something like this would happen, when a vehicle would actually travel southbound and then cross oncoming traffic to the extreme east side to hit recruits,” Macdonald said.
Some recruits said they heard the vehicle accelerating and it was going about 30 to 40 miles per hour, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Wednesday. He said no skid marks were on the road.
Two recruits remained in critical condition Thursday afternoon, according to the sheriff’s department.
Sheriff’s authorities have not yet presented their case against Gutierrez to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for prosecution and said they expect to do so on Friday.
Ambrosio E. Rodriguez, a defense attorney who previously worked as a prosecutor in nearby Riverside County, explained that in order to file an attempted murder charge, prosecutors would need to prove Gutierrez had an intent to kill.
“There is a high bar to prove it, to show this guy was trying to kill these cadets,” he said. Rodriguez, who is not directly involved in the case, said evidence obtained from the vehicle could be critical, adding that a key question is whether the driver applied the brakes as the vehicle moved toward the recruits.
“If he is slamming on the brakes and realizes he is doing something wrong, it is very different than if he is pressing on the gas,” he said.