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Police testify about LA beach auto rampage arrest

December 19, 2013

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A man charged with murder after his automobile plowed through the Venice Beach boardwalk last summer smelled of alcohol when he surrendered to authorities, a police officer testified Wednesday at a preliminary hearing.

Soon after the Aug. 3 incident that killed one person and injured 17 others, Nathan Campbell parked his car on a Santa Monica street not far from the carnage. From there he walked to a police station, where he told officers he had drank vodka immediately after the crash.

“You could smell the odor of alcohol coming from his person and his breath,” Los Angeles police Sgt. Benjamin Zucker said.

Superior Court Judge Antonio Barretto declined to immediately enter into evidence a blood-alcohol test conducted on Campbell, but the results showed he had double the legal limit of .08 in his system.

Campbell is charged with murder, assault with a deadly weapon and hit-and-run driving.

After hearing testimony Wednesday from eight police officers, Barretto recessed the case until Jan. 2, at which time attorneys may make their final arguments. After that, the judge said, he’ll decide whether Campbell, 38, should be ordered to stand trial on 37 counts.

Public defender Philip Dube has said the incident was a tragic accident.

When he asked Zucker on Wednesday if Campbell had been cooperative with investigators, the officer said he was.

“He said he drank vodka after the accident,” Zucker testified, adding Campbell denied being on any drugs.

Police Detective Joseph Harris, testified that Campbell’s car, a Dodge Avenger, was the subject of a recall but that the defendant had never been notified of that. He didn’t say what the problem with the car was, but noted Campbell had bought it used from a dealer in Denver.

Much of Wednesday’s testimony described how a typically colorful summer day on the Venice boardwalk, a place filled with peddlers, artists, musicians and tourists from around the world, quickly turned tragic with the sound of an approaching car.

Los Angeles police Detective Robert Riske testified that he interviewed the husband of an Italian woman who was killed by the car when it roared through the crowded area.

“He told me they were newlyweds and were on their honeymoon,” Riske said.

He said the man told him he heard the car coming up behind him and grabbed his wife and tried to run but became separated from her when he fell to the ground.

Minutes later, Riske said the man told him, he saw his wife down the boardwalk, lying gravely injured.

Alice Gruppioni died of blunt force trauma to the head and neck, and multiple skull fractures, according to a coroner’s report entered into evidence. Gruppioni, 32, was from Bologna, Italy.

Sixteen others were injured, including Nancy Martinez, who sat in a wheelchair and wore a back brace Tuesday as she tearfully recounted the rampage through a Spanish interpreter. She said the car slammed into her back.

Most witnesses said they couldn’t see the car’s driver, but Kevin Salveson testified Tuesday that it was Campbell.

“I saw part of his face and he was smiling,” Salveson said. “I saw that he didn’t have any remorse — smiling like he enjoyed what he had done.”

Campbell’s attorney noted that his client has no teeth, suggesting it was unlikely he was smiling.

Police Detective Kevin Pierce testified Wednesday that he interviewed a boardwalk fortune teller who was hit and who told him she thought Campbell’s act was deliberate. The judge expressed skepticism.

“I guess she’s really a fortune teller and is able to read everyone’s mind,” Barretto said. “We don’t have that advantage.”

Prosecutors contend that Campbell, a transient from Colorado, intentionally drove onto a sidewalk to bypass barrier posts and targeted vendor booths and pedestrians, plowing into them at speeds of up to 35 mph.

Harris testified that Campbell had been fired in June from his job as manager of a sober living residence after he had abused alcohol and drugs.

Dube has said Campbell was “profoundly depressed” after the incident and did not intentionally try to hit anybody.

Update hourly