Sheriff: Authorities to release driver who hit recruits

West

WHITTIER, Calif. (NewsNation) — Investigators believe the wrong-way crash that plowed through dozens of Los Angeles County sheriff’s academy recruits was intentional.

A suspect was placed in custody Thursday after their SUV veered into the wrong lane, injuring 25 cadets during a training exercise early Wednesday.

Nicholas Gutierrez, 22, is being held on suspicion of attempted murder of a peace officer, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). More charges are pending, and he is being held on $2 million bail, the department said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said authorities plan on provisionally releasing Gutierrez pending further investigation. While Sheriff Villanueva believes the incident was a “deliberate act,” he worries about the prosecution side of the case.

“We operate under prosecutor George Gascón. We definitely have grave concerns about his ability to prosecute. We are actually going to provisionally release him (Gutierrez) until we can have the case iron clad, iron proof, and submitted to the DA for filing consideration. Right now, we want to tie up all the loose ends on the case and then present it to the DA,” Villanueva said.

He added: “We already had probable cause to arrest, but now we have to take it to beyond unreasonable doubt in the proof in court.”

While appearing on “Dan Abrams Live” on Thursday evening, Villanueva provided an update on the conditions of the recruits.

“We have two that still remain in critical condition, one at UC Irvine, the other one at St. Francis Hospital. The one in St. Francis he’s on life support with a serious brain bleeding and swelling. That is our biggest concern right there. Him and another recruit at UC Irvine, they both have multiple fractures on their legs. They have a long road to recovery happen to them, and we’re just hoping and praying that they can pull through. A total of seven remain in the hospital, two in critical, five under observation, the remaining 20 have been released to their families,” Villanueva said.

About 75 recruits, from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and several local police agencies, were running in formation in the street just before 6:30 a.m. in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier when the driver veered into the wrong lane and struck the runners before crashing into a nearby light pole, authorities said.

Villanueva described the scene as traumatic and chaotic.

“It was a bedlam, chaos, you know, there were bodies everywhere, bones sticking out and bleeding profusely. It was a pretty traumatic scene,” Villanueva said. “In fact, the paramedics that were there had never seen something of that scale. It was almost like an airplane accident, but everyone was alive, thankfully.”

Gutierrez suffered only minor injuries and a field sobriety test on him was negative.

Assistant Chief Charlie Sampson of the California Highway Patrol, which is leading the crash investigation, said officials were looking at all possibilities, ranging from an intentional act to impaired driving.

Villanueva said authorities are still waiting on different pieces of the investigation that will help paint a clearer picture of what happened such as sifting through his social media posts and further reviewing toxicology results.

While some may criticize the idea of releasing Gutierrez, Villanueva said his team has had to consider whether he would be a flight risk.

“We also have to look at his lack of prior criminal history. We do not believe he is a flight risk. His family has been longstanding members of the community, and this is definitely off the norm for this individual. So we’ll take all of our precautions possible,” Villanueva said.

The Los Angeles Times, citing sources, reports Gutierrez had marijuana in the SUV at the time of the crash.

The class of recruits was in their eighth week and had 14 more weeks to go.

“I am personally heartsick,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said, adding that she was focusing on the cadets who were injured to pull through this.

NewsNation’s Devan Markham and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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