NEW YORK (AP) - Richard Rojas, the motorist accused of steering his car onto the sidewalk in Times Square and mowing down pedestrians, has been charged with murder and 20 counts of attempted murder, The New York Police Department said. Rojas, 26, of the Bronx, was also charged late Thursday with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. He is to be arraigned Friday.
Rojas was arrested Thursday afternoon after he drove his car for three blocks in Times Square, killing one person and injuring 22 – four critically – before he hit a pole and steel security barriers.
Police identified the woman killed by the car as Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Portage, Michigan. She graduated last year from Portage Central High School.
“If you didn’t know her, you might think she’s reserved or shy,” school principal Eric Alburtus said. “But if you could talk to her for a minute, you’d realize she was engaging. She was bright. She was funny.”
Her 13-year-old sister was among the injured.
Officials say Rojas had served in the U.S. 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.
After the wreck he emerged from his vehicle running, yelling and jumping through Times Square 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.
Rojas initially tested negative for alcohol, but more detailed drug tests were pending, according to two law-enforcement officials who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
The carnage happened in a part of the city that has long been considered a possible terror target because of its large crowds, a concern that became elevated after the Sept. 11 attacks and compounded by recent attacks in England, France and Germany in which vehicles plowed through crowds of pedestrians.
Rojas’s motivation was unclear, but authorities have said they do not believe it was terrorism.
The picture that quickly emerged of Rojas from neighbors and authorities was of a man with problems.
A week ago, he 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, losing his license for 90 days, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.
A neighborhood 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 U.S.S. Carney, a destroyer.
Navy records show that in 2013 he spent two months at a naval prison in Charleston, South Carolina. They don’t indicate why.
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. Details were not immediately available.
Updated Friday, May 19, 2017 at 12:30 pm