US Navy veteran was ‘hearing voices’ when he drove into Times Square crowd in New York, killing one

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 12:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 2:46pm

A car driven by a US Navy veteran slammed into a crowd in New York’s Times Square on Thursday, killing one person, injuring 22 and causing the city to mobilise anti-terror units out of an “abundance of caution”.

Terrorism was later ruled out as a motive, the driver having told police he had been hearing voices in his head, two law enforcement officials said.

“Based on the information we have at this moment, there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio told reporters at the scene. “This is preliminary information. There’s a lot we’re going to learn in the coming hours.”

Watch: Videos captures moment of impact of Time Square crash

The driver, 26-year-old New York resident Richard Rojas, struck 23 people as he sped along a Broadway sidewalk from 42nd street to 45th street, killing one woman, said New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill. Rojas was taken into custody at the scene.

One of those hit by Rojas did not require treatment.

The dead woman was identified as 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, a tourist from Michigan. Her 13-year-old sister was also struck by the car, but survived, police said.

After the wreck, Rojas emerged from his vehicle running, yelling and jumping before being subdued by police and bystanders in a chaotic scene.

“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.

He had been arrested twice previously for driving under the influence of alcohol, O’Neill said. Two officials said Rojas initially tested negative for alcohol after Thursday’s crash, but ABC News cited unidentified police sources as saying Rojas had apparently been high on synthetic marijuana.

“I saw the car coming in fast, no brake, no nothing,” said Alpha Balde, 57, who was touting sightseeing bus tours near the scene. “There are so many people here and no one had any time to react.”

Balde said he and Bradix stopped Rojas from fleeing the scene and restrained him until police arrived.

Memories of recent attacks by religious extremists involving vehicles careening into crowds fuelled concern among bystanders that today’s incident, which took place near midday in summer-like heat, had placed them in the midst of a terror attack.

“My immediate concern was terrorism,” said Michael Eck, a publicist with Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, New York, who said he exited his hotel near the scene of the carnage as emergency vehicles began to arrive. “We were very relieved to eventually learn that this wasn’t terrorism.”

More than 80 people died when a large truck plowed through a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, France last year. An Islamic State media outlet claimed that the driver was a “soldier” of the group, according to a report in The Telegraph.

On March 22, a knife-wielding assailant driving a sport utility vehicle drove into pedestrians near London’s iconic Houses of Parliament, killing four of them, and stabbed a police officer. UK authorities determined that the incident was “inspired by international terrorism,” according to the newspaper.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters