Times Square crash: Driver charged with murder after allegedly killing one and wounding 22

Richard Rojas is suspected of being high on PCP and marijuana during the deadly rampage

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The Independent US

The man suspected of killing one person and injuring 22 more by driving his car through Times Square in New York has been charged with murder.

Richard Rojas, a 26-year-old New York native, allegedly ploughed his red Honda sedan through the popular tourist destination on a sunny Thursday morning.

The US Navy veteran, who police say was driving under the influence, is accused of making a sharp U-turn on busy 7th Avenue and proceeded three blocks against the flow of traffic.

Witnesses described people running in terror from the speeding vehicle, while others lay injured in the street.

“Bodies were flying, he was running over people, it was like nothing I’d ever seen,” witness Julie Fallo told Gothamist. “Everyone thought it was a terrorist attack and ran into buildings screaming.”

The car eventually came to a halt after Mr Rojas crashed into a pole on 45th street, near Broadway. Witnesses say the car was billowing smoke, and appeared heavily damaged.

Approximately halfway through his rampage, police say Mr Rojas struck and injured Alyssa and Ava Elsman. The teenage sisters were visiting from Portage, Michigan.

Eighteen-year-old Alyssa died on Thursday from her injuries.

Postings on the teenager’s Facebook page show she had recently started a new relationship. Portage Central High School principal Eric Alburtus described his student as “smart, funny and engaging”.

“She will be deeply missed by the staff and students here,” Mr Alburtus said.

Twenty-one others were injured in the incident, according to the latest NYPD count. NYC Health + Hospitals Bellevue treated four patients in critical condition, and two in serious condition, on Thursday night. All six are expected to survive.

Mr Rojas has been charged with one count of murder, 20 counts of attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, according to the NYPD. Officers have interviewed Mr Rojas’ mother, with whom he lived in the Bronx, and are obtaining a search warrant for their apartment.

Mr Rojas passed a breathalyser test shortly after the crash, but tested positive for PCP and marijuana, police sources have told multiple outlets. Mr Rojas has been arrested twice in the last decade for drunk driving.

In 2013, while in the Navy, Mr Rojas also pleaded guilty to drunk driving, failure to pay a just debt, drunk and disorderly conduct, and communicating a threat. He was sentenced to three months confinement.

Eyewitnesses told reporters Mr Rojas appeared agitated after the crash, leaving his vehicle shirtless and making rambling statements.

Police said he claimed to be hearing voices, wanted to die, and said he "did it for God”. Others said he appeared “emotionally disturbed”.

Mr Rojas’ friend, Harrison Ramos, told the Associated Press that he had “not been the same” since returning from the Navy. Mr Ramos said his friend had taken to posting ”crazy stuff” online, which has since been taken down.

Mr Rojas had been arrested just one week before the incident for allegedly pulling a knife on an acquaintance. During another arrest, he had threatened to kill police officers. 

“That’s my friend,” Mr Ramos said. “I’m concerned for him. It hurts.”

NYPD officials said they do not believe the Times Square incident was terror-related. Officers searched the car for bombs and increased security at other popular landmarks on Thursday as a precautionary measure.

The city had installed steel safety barriers on sidewalks around the tourist hub months before, to protect from just this kind of event.

“Even when incidents occur, it should not shake people’s fundamental knowledge that they are safe in Times Square,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said.