A car, allegedly driven by a 26-year-old former Navy veteran from the Bronx, crashed onto a sidewalk in Times Square in New York, injuring at least 23 people, and killing a Michigan teenager on vacation.
The suspect was identified as Richard Rojas by Fox News and The New York Post. New York’s mayor said Rojas is a military veteran and U.S. citizen with an arrest history. He was charged with murder and attempted murder charges on May 19.
The moment of the crash was captured in several graphic videos. You can watch them later in the story, but be aware that they are disturbing. Also disturbing: The chilling photos that emerged of Rojas jumping and looking crazed at the scene before he was restrained by Good Samaritans, including a Planet Hollywood bouncer.
“You were supposed to shoot me! I wanted to kill them,” Rojas, 26, allegedly told police, according to The New York Post. The motive: He may have been trying to commit “suicide by cop.”
Rojas, whose car allegedly jumped a sidewalk and killed 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, was interested in Scientology, and police don’t think he was motivated by terrorism. However, ABC 7 is reporting that he told police “he thought the end of the world was coming.”
The suspect “tested positive for PCP and told police that God made him do it,” CNN reported, adding that he expected officers to shoot him. However, authorities have not confirmed that account, and other news stations reported he may have been on synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as K2.
Early reports indicate the car crash was not terrorism-related, although obviously that was the initial concern because ISIS inspired terrorists have recently used vehicles as a modus operandi for attacks throughout Europe.
The NYPD said within an hour after the crash that the incident is not terrorism but is possibly related to drunk driving. However, NBC News has now reported that Rojas blew a zero on a blood-alcohol test after the crash. The attention then shifted to drugs and mental health.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Witnesses Described ‘Clumps of People’ Lying Injured in the Sidewalk
The concerns about terrorism appeared to dissipate pretty quickly. However, Times Square was on lockdown after the incident, reports CBS. Rojas was captured at the scene after jumping and appearing enraged in the street.
Witnesses described a scene or horror.
A witness told Fox News, “We saw people laying on the sidewalk…with crowds of people laying around them. You could see clumps of people down the sidewalk with people all around them trying to help them.”
The New York Fire Department referred to the incident as a “motor vehicle accident in Times Square.” According to Fox News, “several police sources told Fox News the incident appeared to be an accident. The NYPD press office had not yet confirmed that.” However, although not considered terrorism related, the suspect was scheduled to be arraigned on May 19 after being hit with a string of criminal charges for murder and attempted murder.
According to the CBS New York, the driver “has two prior DWIs.” He also had a recent arrest for menacing.
However, NBC’s report that he later tested zero on the alcohol test led authorities to consider whether Rojas was on drugs instead. ABC7 says specific drug tests are pending.
Heavy has obtained a police report from 2012 in Florida that shows Rojas was accused of assaulting a cab driver and threatening to kill “all police,” although the case was dropped. You can read the police report here.
2. The Teenage Tourist Who Died Was on Vacation With Her Family & Her Father Allegedly Threatened to Kill Rojas
The victim who died was identified as Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist in New York with her family. She is from Michigan and had posted photos to social media in the past of trips to New York.
Alyssa worked as a car hop for a Sonic Drive-in back home in Michigan, and she was on a family trip to Manhattan when she was killed. The teen’s sister was among the injured. You can read more about Elsman’s life here.
The New York Post is reporting, through police sources, that Thomas Elsman, Alyssa’s father, “went to the police precinct where the suspect was being held … and threatened to kill him” after driving to New York from Michigan following the tragedy. He was taken to a hospital to calm down, reported The Post.
A GoFundMe site has been set up to help Alyssa’s family.
Elsman had posted a photo from Times Square in 2016 on social media.
Four others were listed in critical condition after the crash but were expected to survive.
The scene was bloody. A witness told Reuters that “one person was covered with a bloodstained blanket after the collision.” The car crashed into a pole before stopping, reported Reuters.
According to CNN, the crash occurred about a mile from Trump Tower. CNN reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio headed to the scene. The other victims have not yet been identified.
3. A Planet Hollywood Bouncer Helped Detain the Suspect After the Car Sped the Wrong Way Down a Busy Street
Citizens at the scene rushed to stop the suspect when he emerged from his car and began running around the street. One of the critical people to intervene was Ken Bradix, a security guard at Planet Hollywood nearby.
“I turned around, I saw a car driving down 7th Avenue on the sidewalk and it was smoking,” Bradix said to Fox 5 New York. “[The driver] was screaming — no particular words — but he was screaming and flailing his arms in all kinds of directions.”
According to the television station, “Bradix ran to the middle of the street and he and a traffic agent tackled Rojas to the ground while cops raced over to cuff him. He said Rojas seemed like he was on something.”
Bradix told the AP that Rojas “began screaming, no particular words but just utter screaming. He was swinging his arms at the same time. There was something wrong with him.” According to BBC, the suspect allegedly later told police he had heard voices.
Moments before, the car was speeding the wrong way down Seventh Avenue toward the busy tourist venue, reports The New York Post.
Photos showed the car “upended” on the sidewalk and injured people scattered on the pavement – eerily reminiscent of images that emerged from London after a car incident there.
According to Fox News, “the vehicle was traveling against traffic and trying to enter a pedestrian section of Times Square.” The area was “heavily populated with tourists,” reports Fox.
Reuters reported that at least 10 people were injured when the car rammed into a crowd of pedestrians. That number then grew to 23 injured, with one fatality.
“Social media posts from the scene showed a crashed red sedan on the sidewalk,” the Daily Beast reported.
According to Reuters, the vehicle was speeding when it collided into the crowd of pedestrians in Times Square. “A speeding vehicle struck pedestrians on a sidewalk in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday, according to an announcement at nearby Reuters news agency headquarters,” reported Reuters. Those injured were being treated at the scene, reported the news agency.
4. Videos & Photos Showed the Dramatic Scene
As has been seen in other attacks, videos and photos of the incident’s aftermath circulated on social media. These were especially chilling. Videos showed the actual moment the car struck people (warning, they are graphic), and the suspect was photographed jumping in the street and appearing crazed.
Here’s another view:
NBC News reported that there was a massive police response to the scene. “Emergency response in New York City’s Times Square due to incident involving a car reportedly hitting pedestrians,” the network tweeted.
The incident occurred around noon in New York (Eastern Standard Time), a time frame when Times Square is particularly busy.
5. Terrorists Have Used Vehicles to Ram Into Crowds, Which Heightened Unfounded Concerns in New York
ISIS-fueled terrorists have used vehicles – generally large trucks – for terrorist attacks in European countries ranging from France to Germany. Most recently, a man rammed a car into a crowd of people near UK Parliament on Westminster Bridge. New York police have beefed up patrols in the past around Times Square because of concerns about its high value nature as a target to terrorists.
However, although police have not firmly specified a motive, the earliest accounts don’t appear to point toward terrorism. In this case, the suspect is a U.S. citizen, according to the mayor, who served in the U.S. military in Florida, Illinois and South Carolina.