Shortly before noon on Thursday, 26-year-old Richard Rojas veered his car on Seventh Avenue, making a sharp U-turn and mounting the sidewalk at 42nd Street. Rojas accelerated, mowing down pedestrians in his path. One, Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan, was walking down the block with her sister, Ava. They had no time to get out of the way of the speeding car; Elsman was hit, and died instantly. Her 13-year-old sister suffered serious injuries. Rojas, according to reports, made no attempt to brake.
Rojas sped down 43rd Street and 44th Street until finally drilling his car head-on into a metal stanchion at 45th and Broadway. He emerged from the smoking sedan, tilted on its side, in a Times Square packed with panicked people. Rojas reportedly tried to make a run for it; a Planet Hollywood bouncer helped tackle him to the ground. On-duty police officers, including a traffic cop, rushed over to subdue him, and took him into custody. A total of 20 people were injured in his rampage, including four critically. At least one, a 38-year-old woman from Canada, remains in extremely serious condition.
Rojas, a Navy vet from the Bronx, has now been charged with one count of murder, 20 counts of attempted murder, and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. Officials do not believe Rojas was motivated by extremist ideology or terrorism — but the incident does not appear to be an accident. “It appears to be intentional in the sense that he was troubled and lashing out,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on WNYC Friday morning, adding that Rojas appears to have unresolved mental-health issues.
Rojas reportedly gave a rambling, and sometime contradictory, testimony to police. Sources say he told police that Thursday was “the last day on earth,” and also made statements that indicated he had been attempting “suicide by cop.” Sources told the New York Post that Rojas said to police, “You were supposed to shoot me! I wanted to kill them.” He also reportedly said that was hearing voices and having hallucinations, according to the New York Times.
Rojas, who has a criminal record, including two DWI arrests, was tested for drugs and alcohol. He was not drunk, but did test positive for marijuana laced with PCP, according to the Manhattan DA.
Friends and family told reporters that Rojas became increasingly disturbed and paranoid after his time in the Navy, from 2011 to 2014. He was reportedly dishonorably discharged, and returned to the Bronx where in had increasing run-ins with the law. He was most recently arrested for menacing earlier this month, after he allegedly threatened a notary with a knife and accused him of trying to steal his identity.