A Times Square motorist accused of steering his car onto one of the busiest pavements in the US and mowing down pedestrians has been charged with murder and 20 counts of attempted murder.
Richard Rojas, who was reportedly high on synthetic marijuana K2, was also charged with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Rojas was arrested on Thursday afternoon after he drove his car for three blocks in Times Square, hitting nearly two dozen people before steel security barriers finally stopped him.
Michigan tourist 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman was killed and her 13-year-old sister was among the 22 injured, four of them critically.
The Associated Press reports Rojas had served in the US Navy but was discharged following disciplinary problems. After his arrest, he told police he was “hearing voices” and expected to die, two law enforcement officials said.
Synthetic marijuana is also known as K2 or Spice. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, users can experience “anxiety and agitation, nausea and vomiting, high blood pressure, shaking and seizures, hallucinations and paranoia, and they may act violently.”
After the wreck he emerged from his vehicle running, yelling and jumping before being subdued by police and bystanders.
“He began screaming, no particular words but just utter screaming. He was swinging his arms at the same time, said Ken Bradix, a security supervisor at a nearby Planet Hollywood restaurant who tackled Rojas.
Rojas initially tested negative for alcohol, but more detailed drug tests are pending.
The carnage happened in a part of the city that has long been considered a possible terrorist target because of its large crowds, a concern that became elevated after the September 11 attacks and compounded by recent attacks in England, France and Germany in which vehicles plowed through crowds of pedestrians.
Rojas’ motivation was unclear, but Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was “no indication that this was an act of terrorism.”
A week ago Rojas was arrested and charged with pointing a knife at a notary, whom he accused of stealing his identity. He pleaded guilty to a harassment violation. In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, one of the law enforcement officials said.
Rojas was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in 2008 and 2015, police Commissioner James O’Neill said, causing him to lose his license for 90 days.
A neighbourhood friend in the Bronx, Harrison Ramos, said Rojas wasn’t the same when he came back from the Navy in 2014. “He’s been going through a real tough time,” he said.
Rojas enlisted in 2011 and was an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice. In 2012 he served aboard the USS Carney, a destroyer.
Navy records show that in 2013 he spent two months at a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
Rojas spent his final months in the Navy at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, before being discharged in 2014 as the result of a special court martial, a Navy official said.
“People just got stunned,” said Bruno Carvalho, a student at SUNY Albany who witnessed the Times Square attack. “I don’t think there was actually time for screaming.”
The apartment building where Rojas lives was cordoned off by police on Thursday.