Driver plowed into Venice boardwalk crowd 'in anger,' prosecutor says

Trial begins in 2013 Venice boardwalk crash that killed 1, injured 17

Moments before bulldozing his car into people along the Venice Beach boardwalk, killing an Italian honeymooner, the driver told someone he wanted to run down a drug dealer who he believed had ripped off his friend, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday.

Nathan Louis Campbell seemed "agitated" with a drug dealer who didn't return after Campbell's friend paid $35 for meth, Deputy Dist. Atty. Victor Avila said during opening statements in Campbell's murder trial.

"Point them out, I'm going to run them over," Campbell told a homeless man, according to Avila.

Campbell then got into his Dodge Avenger, jumped a curb, squeezed past yellow bollards meant to block vehicle access and plowed through a crowd "in anger" while going at least 25 mph, Avila said. The incident injured 17 people and killed Alice Gruppioni, a 32-year-old Italian woman visiting California with her husband.

The Aug. 3, 2013, incident prompted city officials to add new safety measures at one of L.A.'s busiest and most storied tourist destinations. (Witnesses from England, China and several states are expected to testify during the trial.)

Campbell, 39, has pleaded not guilty to murder, assault with a deadly weapon and hit-and-run charges. On Thursday, he sat in court with his hands clasped in front of him, occasionally clearing his throat.

His attorney, James Cooper, told jurors that his client did not act deliberately but hit objects — an ATM and a table — before hitting people, adding that he was driving an "S-like route" to dodge them.

"Mr. Campbell was actually avoiding hitting pedestrians," the attorney said, adding that the homeless man who told investigators that Campbell had said he was going to ram his car into the drug dealer "has a lengthy criminal record" and "may have been intoxicated."

But Avila said evidence shows that Campbell acted deliberately. The prosecutor played surveillance video from a nearby restaurant, which showed Campbell walking around the boardwalk moments before he went to his car and drove into the crowd. Avila said the footage proves that Campbell knew how many people were packed onto the boardwalk that summer evening.

As Avila showed video of Gruppioni's body curled in the fetal position on the hood of the car, one juror shook her head. Another averted his eyes for a moment.

"This is the reality of what happened to Alice," the prosecutor said as he displayed autopsy images of her bloodied and bruised body.

In another video clip played for jurors, Campbell's car jerks suddenly to the left and two people jump out of the way, escaping the car's path by inches. Investigators later found a purple trinket from the table of a street vendor, who was hit, inside Campbell's car.

"There could've been a lot more victims," Avila said.

The prosecutor said Campbell fled the scene but walked into the Santa Monica Police Department headquarters a couple of hours later and said, "I'm the one you're looking for. I'm the one that hit all those people."

During the trial, Avila said, mechanics will testify that the vehicle was "in proper working order" and that the gear shift was working properly. Although Cooper didn't mention the gear shift, an attorney previously defending Campbell had said that the mechanism was faulty.

During an earlier preliminary hearing in the case, a man testified that he heard Campbell rev his engine. Another man testified that he caught a glimpse of Campbell's face and recalled seeing a "manic grin." Witnesses at the time said the Avenger tore through the crowd "like a train," barreling into an ATM and a tent where a man sold pendants, and flinging a woman's body into the air.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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