NEW YORK – The man behind the wheel of the car that barreled through crowds of pedestrians in New York City's Times Square, killing a woman and injuring 22 other people, went on trial Monday after various delays over five years, including pandemic-induced court shutdowns.
In an opening statement, prosecutor Alfred Peterson told a Manhattan jury that Richard Rojas was well aware of the carnage he was causing by plowing through helpless tourists in 2017 visiting the popular destination known as “the crossroads of the world."
It was “impossible for him not to know exactly what was happening,” Peterson said. “But he didn’t stop.”
After Rojas finally crashed his car, his first words to a traffic agent were, “I wanted to kill them all,” the prosecutor added.
Defense attorney Enrico DeMarco said in his opening that Rojas has a history of mental illness that made him unable to understand the consequences of his actions that day.
“This a case about a 26-year-old who lost his mind,” DeMarco said.
Rojas’ trial, in state court in Manhattan, is expected to take several months and include testimony from victims who suffered severe injuries from what prosecutors labeled “a horrific, depraved act.”
Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old from Portage, Michigan, was killed on an annual family trip. Her 13-year-old sister, Ava, was among the injured.
Ava Elsman, now 18, was the first witness on Monday, telling the jury how she suffered broken ribs, a broken leg, a collapsed lung and other serious injuries that left her “going in and out of consciousness,” she said.
When she woke up in the hospital, she immediately asked her mom about her sister. Her mother’s “face dropped,” she said. “When there were no words, I knew exactly what happened.”
Elsman described struggling to recover, both physically and mentally. “There was a whole piece of my life that was ripped out that I’ll never get back.”
The jury was also shown a montage of security camera videos from Times Square in which the car mounted a sidewalk and hurtled into a crowd of people, setting off a wave of panic.
Prosecutors say Rojas drove his car from the Bronx, where he lived with his mother, through Times Square on May 18, 2017, then made a U-turn, steered his car onto a sidewalk, and roared back up the sidewalk for three blocks before he crashed his car into protective barriers.
Photographers snapped pictures of a wild-eyed Rojas after he climbed from the wrecked car and ran through the street waving his arms. At the time, the U.S. Navy veteran told police after his arrest that he had been smoking marijuana laced with the hallucinogenic drug PCP before the incident, authorities said.
Rojas pleaded not guilty to murder, assault and other charges in 2017 and has since been jailed at New York City's notorious Rikers Island jail complex. His lawyer said at the time that it was a “terrible thing that happened" in Times Square.
Rojas, now 31, has several prior criminal cases that paint a picture of a troubled man. Days before the Times Square incident he pleaded guilty to a harassment charge in the Bronx for pulling a knife on a notary in his home and accusing the person of trying to steal his identity.
He also had two previous drunken driving cases.
Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011 and served for part of 2012 aboard the USS Carney, a destroyer. Rojas spent his final months in the Navy at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 2012, he was arrested and accused of beating a cab driver whom he said had disrespected him by trying to charge too much, according to the arrest report. The arresting officer said Rojas screamed, “My life is over!” as he was being detained. After his arrest, Rojas told the officer he was going to kill all police and military police he might see after his release from jail, the Jacksonville sheriff’s office report stated.
Alan Ceballos, an attorney who represented Rojas in that case, said the state charges were dropped after the military stepped in to take jurisdiction over the criminal case. Navy records show that in 2013 Rojas spent two months at a naval prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was discharged in 2014 as the result of a special court martial, a Navy official said.