New York

Driver Who “Wanted To Kill” Times Square Pedestrians Charged With Murder

While prosecutors throw the book at Richard Rojas, advocates want other incidents to be taken seriously, too

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The Bronx man who plowed through pedestrians in Times Square yesterday — killing one and injuring twenty others — has been charged with murder after saying he “wanted to kill them,” prosecutors said.

Richard Rojas, 26, was charged with second-degree murder, twenty counts of attempted murder, and one count of aggravated vehicular homicide at his arraignment today, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Just before noon on Thursday, Rojas jumped the curb in a 2009 Honda Accord at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, striking pedestrians as he drove three blocks down crowded sidewalks, according to police.

“I wanted to kill them,” Rojas, a Navy veteran, said after the crash, according to his criminal complaint.

Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Portage, Michigan, was struck and killed. She’d been walking with her 13-year-old sister, who was also injured in the crash. Nineteen people were hospitalized, five in critical condition, some with head injuries and one with a collapsed lung and broken pelvis, officials said.

Rojas told police that he was under the influence of marijuana and PCP, according to the complaint. He was arrested on DWI charges in 2008 and 2015; this month, he was arrested after pulling a knife on someone inside his home in the Bronx, according to news reports.

The crash received widespread attention, even reaching the attention of President Donald Trump, who was briefed on the issue.

The incident comes as the city continues to struggle to protect pedestrians.

Steve Vaccaro, a leading lawyer and advocate of cyclists and pedestrians, said the crash video is “the most shocking” he’s ever seen. The severe charges facing Rojas were appropriate, he added, but not representative of the city’s treatment of other crashes involving the deaths of pedestrians or cyclists, and especially of the crashes that don’t result in death and are much more common.

“The danger is in people seizing upon this as an outlier and saying this needs to be punished this harshly without recognizing that other drivers, who only make it half a block on the sidewalk, and only take out one or a handful of victims instead of twenty, are also deserving of strict and meaningful consequences,” said Vaccaro.

He cited the cases of Sian Green, a British tourist whose foot was severed in 2013 when a cabbie who had been arguing with a cyclist jumped the curb and struck her (her leg was later amputated below the knee), and Denim McLean, a toddler who was hit along with eleven other pedestrians as they sat at a bus shelter in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, also in 2013. No criminal charges were filed in either case.

On April 5 of this year, Kelly Hurley was killed while riding her bike in the East Village after a driver in a truck made an illegal left turn into the bicycle lane. Hurley had the right of way. The driver walked away, free of any charges.

And just under two weeks ago, Xin Kang Wang, a 74-year-old cyclist, was knocked into traffic in Union Square when a passenger opened the door in the bicycle lane; he died on Sunday. The driver, a 32-year-old man from New Jersey, was ticketed but no arrests were made.

In 2014, the city passed the local ordinance Section 19-190 of the New York City Administrative Code, or the Right of Way Law, which spells out civil and criminal consequences for drivers who do not yield to pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way.

Arrests under the law are negligible; of 38 fatalities last year identified by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives as caused by drivers violating the Right of Way law, a third resulted in no charges, as reported by the Voice last month.

“The Rojas incident is criminal and everyone can agree it should be punished,” said Vaccaro. “But the driver in the same crowded Times Square who is going to stick their front bumper into a crosswalk full of people and keep pushing — maybe pushing at two miles per hour — but they’re bullying their way through a crowd of people, the problem is that the city doesn’t see that that driver also needs to be treated in a matter, proportionally, like Rojas.”

He added that the bollards Rojas’s vehicle eventually crashed into, installed as part of the Times Square pedestrianization project, likely saved many more lives.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program was launched in 2013 to address chronic issues surrounding pedestrian and cycling deaths and injuries at the hands of reckless drivers.

Since then, the city has made improvements at some of the most dangerous intersections across the five boroughs.

Traffic deaths dropped to record lows in the first two years of the mayor’s term, but by 2016, they’d inched back up.

And half of all pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the city since 2015 have occurred in locations designated as priorities for safety redesigns by the city, according to Transportation Alternatives.

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