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Update: Suspect in deadly Venice Beach boardwalk hit-and-run in custody

August 4th, 2013 2:00 pm by Associated Press

Update: Suspect  in deadly Venice Beach boardwalk hit-and-run in custody

Police and fire officials assist an injured pedestrian at the scene where a car drove through a packed afternoon crowd along the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles on Saturday. (AP Photo/Venice311.org, Alex Thompson)

LOS ANGELES — The driver parked outside a hotel and surveyed the leisurely summer scene at the Venice Beach boardwalk: Hundreds of people were sitting at cafes, walking along the seashore or shopping at vendors selling jewelry or art.

Then, according to surveillance video, the man got into a large black car, steered around a vehicle barrier and accelerated mercilessly through the crowd, hitting one person after another as bystanders tried desperately to get out of the way.

Saturday’s hit-and-run killed an Italian woman on her honeymoon and hurt 11 others who only a moment earlier had been enjoying an afternoon near the beach at the height of vacation season.

A couple of hours later, authorities arrested a man on suspicion of murder after he walked into a police station in neighboring Santa Monica and said he was involved.

Nathan Louis Campbell, 38, of Los Angeles, remained jailed Sunday on $1 million bail.

Police declined to discuss a motive but Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese said there was no indication that the attack was a terrorist act or that anyone else was involved.

By the time it was over, the driver had covered about a quarter of a mile along the boardwalk before fleeing. The entire incident was over in minutes.

Mustafa Balci, 44, and his wife Yesim Balci, 48, were sitting in lawn chairs at their booth on Saturday, as they had daily for the past three years when they saw a large black sedan roaring directly toward them from a side street.

Three people were knocked to the ground and within seconds the car was at their booth. It swerved left, sideswiping a picnic table holding their wares — the traditional Turkish blue glassware of the eye to ward off the evil eye, and wall hangings of Jesus and Virgin Mary tapestries.

The car hit three customers looking at the items, and slammed into Mustafa Balci’s knees pushing him backward, breaking a table, smashing a mirror and scattering everything. Yesim Balci was flung 8 feet, tumbling backward and landing facedown.

“I couldn’t see her when I woke up, I looked up and was like where is she? I yelled, ‘Are you around? Are you alive?’ She yelled back, ‘I’m alive,’” Mustafa Balci said. “I thought both of us would be dead.”

Balci was helped up by strangers who took him over to his wife. He lay down next to her as paramedics responded to the scene. The couple were taken along with three others to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, treated for minor injuries and released. Yesim Balci had her ankle taped up, blood seeping through the back, and bruises all over her body; she could no longer raise her left arm.

On Sunday, the boardwalk featured the typical summer crowd, people on roller blades, beach cruisers, performers and regular vendors. The Balcis were also back at their booth to take stock of their losses.

A broken picnic table was behind them, and a box of their damaged wares in front of them. They estimated that 90 percent of their goods were broken, at a loss of $6,000 for handmade goods whose raw materials were shipped from Turkey. They don’t have any health insurance and aren’t sure how they will make up the losses.

“We’re not here to work or sell anything, we’re here for damage control, to take our stuff and go home and rest,” Mustafa Balci said.

The evening melee injured another vendor next to them who did fortune telling, as well as one of the vendor’s customers, Balci said.

People were “stumbling around, blood dripping down their legs, looking confused not knowing what had happened, people screaming,” said Louisa Hodge, who described “blocks and blocks of people just strewn across the sidewalk.”

The Italian woman was identified as Alice Gruppioni, 32. Her family in Bologna told the Italian news agency LaPresse that she had been on her honeymoon after a July 20 wedding.

Gruppioni worked as a manager for the family business Sira group, which makes radiators. Her father, Valerio Gruppioni, runs the company and was formerly president of the Bologna soccer team, according to LaPresse.

The family declined to speak to The Associated Press on Sunday.

Another person was critically injured. Two others were taken to hospitals in serious condition. Eight suffered less serious injuries, police said.

According to security video and witness accounts, the driver parked next to the Cadillac Hotel and twice walked out to the boardwalk before getting into the Dodge Avenger. He carefully maneuvered between a storefront and metal poles that had been erected to prevent anyone from driving onto the boardwalk.

Then he stepped on the accelerator and plunged into the crowd.

“I heard a big ‘boom, boom,’ like the sound of someone going up and down the curb, it was super loud,” said Alex Hagan, who was working the desk at the hotel.

The driver knocked over two mannequins and an ATM and started hitting people, swerving from side to side and often running straight into victims. Video showed the car struck at least four  vendors. 

Two women who appeared to be in their 60s were also hit. Many people ran after the car, screaming and cursing as it sped away, Hagan said.

Golestan Alipour was bartending at Candle Cafe & Grill when the menacing vehicle drew near.

“The restaurant was full. Everybody ran,” Alipour said.

Witnesses said the car was traveling at about 35 to 40 mph along the boardwalk.

The driver eventually turned up a side street and headed away from the ocean. The car was later found abandoned less than two miles away, police said.

At the scene, detectives searched for evidence across the boardwalk, which is in a part of Los Angeles known for eccentricities. The 1.5-mile ribbon of asphalt — which runs along the sand a few hundred yards from the ocean — is home to galleries, restaurants, tattoo shops, skateboard parks and the famous outdoor weight room known as Muscle Beach. It can draw as many as 150,000 people on summer weekends.

Hodge said she and her friend, Ashley Taylor, had noted the large number of people walking along the seaside.

“It was a really nice day. There were tons of people out. In fact, we were talking about how packed it was, because we were having a hard time getting through all the people,” Hodge said.

The two women stopped to buy ice cream and a couple of hats, which may have saved their lives. They stepped out of a store as emergency crews arrived.

Hodge saw a man and woman lying next to each other, wearing head braces, barely able to move but grasping hands.

Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin said there have been previous problems with motorists accidentally driving onto the boardwalk, especially during the evening, because many entrances aren’t blocked and there are no signs warning them about entering a pedestrian area.

However, four yellow metal poles blocked the roadway used by the hit-and-run driver, who squeezed past the barrier by driving onto a sidewalk, authorities said.

“The frightening part,” Bonin said, was that this part of the boardwalk was “one of the more protected streets.”

The crash was not far from where an elderly driver sped through an open-air farmer’s market in Santa Monica in 2003, killing 10 people and injuring more than 70 others.

Investigators said George Weller, who was 86 at the time, mistakenly stepped on the gas instead of the brake and then panicked. He was doing up to 60 mph when he plowed through the market. Weller was convicted of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and was sentenced to probation.


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