Driver charged with murder in Times Square crash

Updated 12:06 AM EDT, Sat May 20, 2017
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Story highlights

Richard Rojas told traffic agent, "I wanted to kill them all," according to complaint

Rojas is charged with murder, attempted murder and aggravated vehicular homicide

One 18-year-old was killed and 20 people injured after car rampage on NY sidewalk

(CNN) —  

Moments after barreling his car through the crowded sidewalks in Manhattan’s Times Square, Richard Rojas told a traffic agent, “I wanted to kill them all,” according to a criminal complaint.

A troubled man with a history of drunken driving, Rojas bolted from his maroon Honda Accord after his deadly midday rampage on Thursday that left one person dead and 20 others injured.

Rojas moved unsteadily, his eyes were glassy and his speech slurred after his car crashed to a fiery stop, the complaint said.

“I smoked,” Rojas allegedly told an officer after . He later told another officer, “I smoked marijuana. I laced the marijuana with PCP,” according to the complaint.

One day after allegedly making a U-turn and steering the car onto packed sidewalks for a three-block stretch, the 26-year-old suspect was arraigned on murder and other charges Friday. He did not enter a plea, and his lawyer later declined comment.

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

Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old resident of Portage, Michigan, who was visiting the city, was killed. Authorities reported another 22 people were injured, but police revised the total to 20 on Friday.

Rojas, a Bronx resident who had served in the Navy, tested positive for PCP and told police that God made him do it, a law enforcement source told CNN.

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

A history of mental health issues

Investigators are looking into the suspect’s state of mind and psychological history in an attempt to determine a motive, the NYPD chief of Manhattan South Detectives William Aubry said.

“We’re now hearing from family members [that Rojas] has had demonstrated mental health issues going back to childhood that … went unaddressed even during the time he was in the U.S. military,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC Radio Friday.

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

In addition to the murder charge, Rojas also faces 20 counts of attempted murder, one count of aggravated vehicular homicide and a count of attempted murder in the second degree, according to the criminal complaint.

Three victims were in critical condition Friday, including a 38-year-old Canadian woman whom Aubry described “very critical.”

The injured included Elsman’s 13-year-old sister, Ava, according to Michelle Karpinski of Portage Public Schools.

Alyssa Elsman, 18, was was killed when a speeding car plowed into pedestrians in Times Square.
PHOTO: Portage Public School
Alyssa Elsman, 18, was was killed when a speeding car plowed into pedestrians in Times Square.

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.”

PHOTO: Google Earth/CNN

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 in Florida– pleaded guilty to drunken driving, failure to pay a just debt, drunk and disorderly conduct and communicating a threat.

As he was arrested at the Mayport Naval Base, Rojas told officers, “My life is over,” and threatened to kill police and military police, according to CNN affiliate WJXT. A military judge sentenced him to three months confinement.

Last Friday, Rojas was charged with menacing in the second degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the Bronx after he threatened a person with a knife, according to a criminal complaint. He accused the person of trying to steal his identity.

He pleaded guilty at arraignment to second-degree harassment, a violation, and was given a conditional discharge, said Bronx district attorney spokeswoman Melanie Dostis.

There is no indication that the incident in Times Square, which unfolded just before noon, was an act of terrorism, de Blasio and other officials said.

Harrowing scene in popular tourist area

Before striking pedestrians, the 2009 Honda Accord was “out of control,” an emergency management official said.

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.

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.”

Witness: Driver was screaming and flailing his arms

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.”

 A wrecked car sits in the intersection of 45th and Broadway in Times Square.
PHOTO: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A wrecked car sits in the intersection of 45th and Broadway in Times Square.

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. Bradix tackled Rojas to the ground.

“The person just got out of the car,” Brandix told HLN. “He ran across the street, flailing his arms and screaming. No words but just screaming.”

Brandix and others have since been hailed as heroes for helping to restrain the driver.

CNN’s Rob Frehse, Shimon Prokupecz, Eric Levenson, Jason Hanna, Lawrence Crook III, Sonia Moghe, Barbara Starr, Linh Tran, Brynn Gingras, Alison Kosik, Brian Vitagliano, Anne Woolsey, Ellie Kaufman and Evan Simko-Bednarski contributed to this report.