WHITTIER, California (KABC) — Authorities arrested a 22-year-old driver they say deliberately drove into a group of law enforcement recruits heading for a training drive in Whittier.
Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez was arrested Wednesday and has been charged with the attempted murder of a peace officer(s), according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Additional charges are currently pending, authorities said.
A Sheriff’s Department detective told Eyewitness News that the act is believed to have been committed intentionally after more interviews, videos and physical evidence were collected.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva previously said the crash was an accident, but authorities say this was based on preliminary information as authorities were investigating. Further evidence gathered led them to believe that the suspect deliberately hit the group.
The incident occurred early Wednesday morning in the South Whittier area near Mills Avenue and Trumball Street. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said a class of about 75 recruits was on the run as part of a training exercise when the 22-year-old driver crashed into the group.
The impact left the 25 recruits with injuries ranging from head trauma to limb loss. During the final check-up, the patient remains on a ventilator in the hospital. A total of five recruits are currently in critical condition, four are being treated for “moderate” injuries and 16 have minor injuries.
Surveillance of the incident, recorded from a nearby backyard, shows the group of recruits running in tight formation along the side of the road, escorted by two cruisers at the rear of the columns.
The SUV drives on the left side of the road and doesn’t seem to slow or swerve as it heads straight for the jogging group.
Video shows SUV driving into recruits
According to Villanueva, there were even indications that the driver may have accelerated shortly before the collision.
“Some of the recruits say they heard the car accelerate, they estimate about 30 to 40 miles per hour,” the sheriff said. “You see how little reaction time someone allows.”
There was no indication that there were obstacles or other vehicles on the road that would trigger the driver’s behavior. The Honda SUV also crashed into a light pole and knocked it down after hitting the recruits.
“There was a light pole on the east side of the street and all that was passed to me was, ‘Thank God for that light pole,’ because the vehicle ended up hitting it and stopping rather than potentially hitting more recruits,” he said. LASD Captain Pat MacDonald, who heads the department’s training office.
Villanueva said the recruits come from a variety of agencies, including the Bell, Glendale, Pasadena, El Segundo and UCLA police departments. The rest belonged to the sheriff’s department.
The driver suffered minor injuries, according to the fire service. Villanueva said the driver was given a field sobriety test shortly after the crash and “blew a 0.0”.
The test does not rule out drugs, but Villanueva said the official cause of the incident remains unknown.
The five critically injured patients were sent to various hospitals in the area, including UCI Medical Center, St. Francis Medical Center, LAC+USC Medical Center and PIH Health Whittier Hospital.
“Fortunately, every class, usually we have EMTs. I think this class even had an RN who was a recruit, so they could do first aid on the spot with the equipment they had,” Villanueva said. “They went there, ran to the fire station and knocked on the door because it was literally only half a block away. That was lucky too, so things that worked in our favor happened.”
WATCH: Sheriff says injuries range from broken bones to limb loss
Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who will succeed Villanueva as Los Angeles County Sheriff, released a statement saying: “I am heartbroken and pray for the recruits injured this morning after being hit by a vehicle in Whittier. I want to offer my unconditional support to the sheriff and police chiefs of LA County agencies, their departments and the families of those injured during this difficult time.”
Earlier on Wednesday, as the scene unfolded, AIR7 HD captured more than a dozen sheriff’s units, along with several fire trucks and ambulances on the scene. First responders were seen treating the recruits in the middle of the street and loading several others into ambulances.
A man who lives nearby said he woke up after hearing the crash and ran outside.
“I came out to see people on the floor… it was really crazy,” said the witness, who asked only to be identified as Joseph. “Everyone was in a bit of a panic, there were cables on fire and the car was smoking… it was a really graphic scene.”
Joseph said he and several other neighbors rushed to help some of the recruits by giving them water and towels.
“The car was completely destroyed, like the whole front was done,” he said. “The light pole was on the ground… it was like three or four of us neighbors came out because this has happened before. We’ve lived here for 10 years. It’s happened before, like when a car crashes into a gate, but this was like… no one ever imagined this would happen.
WATCH: Witness recalls seeing some recruits with leg injuries and blood on their faces
Joseph described the mass scene as “surreal” and said he saw several patients with serious injuries.
“There were so many people. Everyone was in different conditions, some were unconscious, some were still conscious, some with very serious injuries to their legs. There were people bleeding from their faces. The sheriff’s academy… like they’re running the all the time so you kind of feel connected to them,” Joseph said. “So it was really crazy to wake up to.”
Authorities said the traffic portion of the investigation is being handled by the California Highway Patrol.
Gutierrez, who is from Diamond Bar, is reportedly cooperating with authorities. He is currently being held on $2 million bail.
The sheriff’s department said investigators plan to present the case to the LA County District Attorney’s Office on Friday.
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