On Wednesday, a 22-year-old man plowed his SUV into a group of 75 cadets who were on a run in Los Angeles County, injuring 25 recruits. Despite investigators saying the driver did this on purpose, he has been released from custody due to an apparent lack of evidence.
A group of law enforcement recruits was on a training run at about 6:30 am, accompanied by safety vehicles, when an SUV, going the wrong way down the street, drove straight into them at about 30-40 mph. Recruits at the scene reported hearing the vehicle accelerate as it veered into the group of runners.
The car ran into a light pole after hitting the runners and was stopped.
“Thank God for that light pole,” said Academy Capt. Pat McDonald, “because the vehicle ultimately hit it and stopped, as opposed to possibly hitting more recruits.”
All recruits that were injured were rushed to various hospitals in the area. Of those who were injured, five left the scene in critical condition and were taken to UC Irvine Medical Center and St. Francis Medical Center.
Injuries include head trauma, broken bones, and a “loss of limb,” according to Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
A nearby resident reported waking up to screams for help from the recruits. They said, “It’s one of those horrifying screams of panic and fear. It had such a horrifying feeling to it.”
At a news conference on Wednesday morning, Sheriff Villanueva described the incident as “very odd” and “horrific.”
“It happened so quickly that just the people that just saw it veer into them, they jumped out of the way, but the people behind had no chance because they never saw it,” Villanueva said. “They didn’t have that sufficient warning. As soon as the accident happened, the chaos that ensued they said it looked like an airplane wreck, there were so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved.”
CHP Assistant Chief Charlie Sampson said, “We had the sheriff’s cadets running in formation going north on Mills Avenue. We had a vehicle going southbound. For reasons we’re still determining and investigating it veered into opposing lanes and struck multiple cadets.”
The driver, identified as 22-year-old Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez, was immediately taken into custody. On Thursday he was booked on suspicion of attempted murder of a peace officer and was being held without bail.
Investigators have “developed probable cause to believe it was intentional,” reported Sheriff Villanueva on Thursday morning.
“They went through an exhaustive interview process with everyone involved, with the video surveillance, the statements from the recruits, the physical evidence they have, and what they got from the suspect himself, and they were able to form the opinion this was a deliberate act,” said Villanueva.
However, on Thursday night Gutierrez was released from custody due to a “lack of evidence.”
In a press release, authorities said, “Due to the extreme complexity of the investigation, which includes ongoing interviews, video surveillance review, and additional evidence needed to be analyzed, homicide investigators have released Mr. Gutierrez from the Sheriff’s Department custody.”
A breathalyzer test was also administered at the scene, and Gutierrez blew a 0.0, indicating no influence of alcohol. However, authorities are continuing to work to determine if he was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash.
Due to a California penal code, authorities are not legally allowed to hold a suspect in custody for more than 48 hours without presenting the case to a prosecutor. Once a case is built, however, they plan to arrest Gutierrez and bring the case to the L.A. County district attorney’s office.
“The evidence is there,” said Sgt. Gerardo Magos, a spokesperson for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. “We just want to make sure it’s properly presented.”
Alexandra Kazarian, an attorney for Gutierrez, told Eyewitness News that she had “no doubt that an in-depth investigation will confirm that Nicholas is a hard-working young man who holds no animosity towards law enforcement, and this was an absolutely tragic accident.”
The recruits were part of the sheriff’s department training bureau’s 22-week training course.
Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Sheila Kelliher made a statement about the incident, saying that it was “hard to see because these young people are getting ready to got put themselves in the line of danger in their career. And who knows that while you’re training to do that, you’re actually in harm’s way.”