A 22-year-old southern California driver who plowed into a group of Los Angeles county sheriff’s department recruits on a run, injuring dozens, has been released from custody as authorities investigate the incident.
Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez had been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder of a peace officer after the Wednesday morning crash, which the sheriff said investigators think was a “deliberate act”. The Diamond Bar resident was released late on Thursday.
“Due to the extreme complexity of the investigation, which includes ongoing interviews, video surveillance review and additional evidence needed to be analyzed, homicide investigators have released Mr Gutierrez from the sheriff’s department custody today at approximately 9.55pm,” the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department said in a statement.
Authorities identified Gutierrez as the driver of an SUV that veered on to the wrong side of the road early Wednesday in the suburban Whittier area, where a sheriff’s academy facility is located.
Seventy-five recruits for the sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies were on a routine run in formation through the area. Five of the recruits were critically injured and two remained in critical condition on Thursday afternoon, according to the department.
At a news conference a few hours after the crash, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said “so far, it looks like it’s an accident, a horrific accident”, but Gutierrez was arrested later that afternoon.
Investigators say they think the crash was a “deliberate act” and that there was probable cause to make the arrest, Villanueva told NewsNation on Thursday. But he said Gutierrez would be “provisionally” released “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.”
The county district attorney, George Gascón, will decide whether Gutierrez will be charged and for what offense.
NBC4LA broadcast footage of Gutierrez arriving home and reported that he did not answer any questions. Gutierrez could not be reached for comment and it was unclear if he has a lawyer.
The California highway patrol is investigating the incident and officials initially said they are looking at all possibilities, including impaired driving, but the driver passed a field sobriety test.
In the NewsNation interview, the sheriff referenced his long dispute with the county’s district attorney, Gascón, who was elected to his office as a reformer.
“We operate under prosecutor George Gascón. We definitely have grave concerns about his ability to prosecute,” said Villanueva, who conceded defeat earlier this week in his re-election bid.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and criminal law professor at Loyola Law School who is not affiliated with the case, said attempted murder typically means the driver had intent to kill and they were not simply distracted or lost control of the vehicle.
In an interview before the driver’s release, Levenson also said a key question was whether the sheriff’s department can perform an objective evaluation given that the agency’s recruits were victims of the crash. That was why it was also important that prosecutors review the evidence and ultimately be the ones who decide, she added.
“They’ve gone after the highest possible charge – there is no doubt about it,” Levenson said of investigators. “The question is whether they are objective enough in evaluating this given that the crime was committed against their own. We’ve got to see what the evidence shows.”