Car Plows Through Crowd in Santa Monica, Killing 9

Times Staff Writers

An 86-year-old man drove his car the length of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market early Wednesday afternoon, apparently reaching freeway speeds as he plowed through a crowd of terrified summer shoppers, killing at least nine people, including a 3-year-old girl.

More than 50 people were hospitalized, 15 of them with critical injuries, after George Russell Weller of Santa Monica sped for 2 1/2 blocks through a market renowned as one of the region's culinary treasures.

Police said it appeared that Weller had lost control of his car.

"His statement is, he possibly hit the gas instead of the brake," said Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. "He said he tried to brake and he couldn't stop the vehicle."

Tests conducted immediately afterward showed that Weller was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Investigators said they did not believe he had any medical problem that might have caused the crash.

Police released Weller after questioning but said he could still be charged.

Witnesses at the market, which attracts about 9,000 people every Wednesday, said Weller appeared to be in a trance-like state as he drove his maroon Buick LeSabre sedan west along Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd streets.

Bodies bounced off the hood; produce stands collapsed, sending tables and umbrellas flying; boxes of fruit and vegetables tumbled in his wake. Those who weren't hit could only watch in horror.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He was hitting people and they were just flying," said Parker Hall, 35, a salesman who had stopped at 2nd and Arizona to have a look at the market. "You would think it would have slowed him down, but it didn't. When he hit someone, you could hear it, and it was just, 'Boom! Boom! Boom!' "

By the time the car came to a halt between 2nd Street and Ocean Avenue, Hall said, two or three people were splayed on the hood and windshield.

"I was standing there talking to one of the farmers," said Laura Avery, the market's manager. "I heard this thing coming. It went right past us and we all ran after it. People were trying to get the license plate. Farmers were yelling, 'Get that guy! Get that guy!'

"But when we got there, it was just this old man sitting there in his car with an air bag blown up in his face, looking like he didn't know where he was. Then somebody said, 'Oh, my God! There's somebody under the car.'

"So everybody got together to try to move the car. There was this lady there just totally skinned and scraped."

The hood of the 11-year-old Buick was mangled and dented. An apple core and two unmatched women's shoes lay atop its roof.

"It was gruesome," Hall said. "There was fruit everywhere, and [bodies] were covered with raspberries and other things." He said the crowd pulled the driver out of the car, and he "looked like he was in some kind of numb state.... He wasn't freaking out. It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life."

There were more children at the market than usual because of summer vacation.

Lore Caulfield, a flower vendor from Oxnard, described a scene of shopping carts, baby carriages and bodies strewn amid the colorful disarray of produce.

One image, in particular, was seared into Caulfield's memory, that of a child covered in blood in the street.

"The baby was dead and the mother was screaming and there wasn't anything anyone could do," she said.

By late Wednesday evening, the Los Angeles County coroner's office was besieged with phone calls from frantic people who believed relatives had been at the market and not returned home. By midnight, coroner's officials said they were still notifying family members of the dead.

The dead included six men, two women and the child, officials said. Among them was a married couple.

Police said the incident occurred at 1:47 p.m., just 13 minutes before the market was scheduled to close for the day. Butts said Weller had just left a nearby post office and was headed west on Arizona when he spotted the farmers market blocking his path. It was at that point that he apparently hit the gas instead of the brakes, Butts said.

Daniel Vomhof, a San Diego area forensic consultant for traffic accidents, said such confusion between the brake and the accelerator can occur in drivers of all ages, although most commonly when they are behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car.

He said the mistake typically compounds itself as a driver panics, stepping harder on the gas in the mistaken notion that the brakes have failed.

"Things go from bad from worse instead of bad to better," Vomhof said, adding that in such cases the car often does not stop until it collides with something.

Andy Fisher, 40, of Venice, said he saw Weller's car accelerate as it crossed 4th Street. Arizona is closed off west of 4th every Wednesday and Saturday for the produce market.

The Wednesday market has a reputation as one of the best in the nation and attracts a loyal crowd that includes chefs from many of the most prominent restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

Fisher, who runs a nonprofit organization, Community Food Security Coalition, that promotes farmers markets on a national level, estimated the car was going 60 mph, a figure cited by other witnesses.

Jerry Johnson, 41, a homeless man who gets paid to sweep the market, was standing with other cleaners in the alley between 3rd and 4th, where the sawhorses are placed to stop traffic.

"I noticed the car coming closer," Johnson said. "I screamed and said, 'Hey!' He just kept going."

The first person hit was another homeless man standing right at the sawhorses, Johnson said.

"The car knocked him 15 feet in the air. He was dead when we got to him," Johnson said.

Jenna Edwards, 25, visualized a tidal wave as she saw white fruit stall canopies flying from side to side. "I knew it couldn't be, but that was my first thought," Edwards said from UCLA Medical Center, where she was being treated for leg injuries.

Edwards, who sobbed as she recounted the crash, said the car burst out of the canopies and struck a plywood table next to her, pinning her leg under the table.

"The car came straight at us," she said. "If the table wasn't there, it would have totally hit me."

A man came running over and lifted the table, she said, and found an elderly woman underneath it, bleeding profusely from her head.

"This poor old lady who was selling fruit was just crushed under the table," Edwards said. "She just couldn't talk. She just kept looking at me like, 'Please help.' She was just selling fruit, you know. It was so horrible."

As the crowd descended on Weller's car, some people concentrated on helping rescue the woman beneath it and others focused on Weller -- some to help him and others, apparently, to berate him or worse.

"There was a mob mentality developing," said Dave Baxter, a 34-year-old production coordinator who lives in West Los Angeles.

"People were yelling: 'You're a murderer! You ought to be shot.' I was afraid for the old man. I wanted the authorities to deal with it, not an angry mob."

Some people managed to get Weller's seat belt off and pull him out of the car.

Baxter, who is 6 feet 3 and weighs 280 pounds, said he got between the crowd and Weller and began yelling, "Back off!"

There were varying descriptions of Weller's behavior when he got out of the car.

John Ellis, 68, a building manager from Santa Monica, said he overheard Weller say very calmly to a woman who appeared to be an off-duty police officer: "How many people did I hit?"

"It wasn't even a question," said Ellis. "It seemed like more of a statement. He was very calm."

Kahmiim Gufur, who sells sprouts at the market, said he saw a man help Weller out of the car and ask him, "Do you know what's going on? Do you know what you're doing?"

"No," Weller said, according to Gufur.

Butts, the police chief, said that when he arrived at the scene, Weller "was talking and appeared confused." However, asked if Weller was lucid, the chief said, "He was speaking and he was lucid, yes."

Neighbors described Weller as a kind, religious man with no history of erratic behavior.

One neighbor, Anh Gurfield, said she had lived next door to Weller for 35 years. "I just don't understand," she said. "He always drives very carefully. Very slowly."

Weller was taken to Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center after the crash, where he was examined, evaluated and released to Santa Monica police, said Dr. Lawrence Schecter.

After police questioned him, Weller, slightly stooped and using a cane, walked out of Santa Monica police headquarters with a grandson, another family member and an attorney.

Asked to comment, he looked at reporters and said "no" several times.

Later, attorney James Bianco spoke to reporters outside Weller's daughter's home in Santa Monica.

"Mr. Weller and his family want to express their deepest sympathies to the victims of the tragic accident earlier today and their families," Bianco said.

"This was an unintentional and unfortunate accident. Mr. Weller is very shaken up, but his thoughts are with the victims and their families tonight."

Butts defended the decision to release Weller.

"One, he's a licensed driver. Two, he's a city resident; And three, he's not a flight risk," the chief said.

Investigators with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office were dispatched to the scene, but prosecutors said no further action would be taken unless an arrest was made in the case.

"We are trying to determine if this was a straight accident, a medical accident, negligent homicide or a criminal homicide," Butts said.

If Weller is found to have been unfit to drive, he could face "some sort of manslaughter charge," he added.

Under California law, vehicular manslaughter is defined as killing someone with a vehicle while committing another crime, or while driving the vehicle in an unlawful manner.

But the deaths might not lead to charges if investigators determine that the crash was caused by "accident and misfortune."

Hospital tallies indicated that more than 50 people were hospitalized, including eight airlifted to three public hospitals, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, County-USC Medical Center and Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

More than 100 emergency personnel and police officers and at least 17 ambulances responded to the crash.

Among those critically injured was a 7-month-old boy who was treated at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and transferred to the pediatric trauma unit at UCLA Medical Center in Westwood.

Dr. Marshall Morgan, director of emergency medicine at the hospital in Westwood, said six of 13 patients there were in critical condition, including two children.

"Some of these people may die," he said. "There are at least three, maybe four, whose survival is questionable."

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Contributing to the coverage of the Santa Monica crash were Times staff writers Mimi Avins, Hector Becerra, Patricia Ward Biederman, Andrew Blankstein, Daren Briscoe, Miguel Bustillo, Rich Connell, Tina Daunt, Cara Mia DiMassa, Robin Fields, Kathleen Flynn, Sue Fox, Jessica Garrison, Megan Garvey, Scott Glover, Matea Gold, Martha Groves, David Haldane, Erika Hayasaki, Allison Hoffman, Peter Y. Hong, Steve Hymon, Akilah Johnson, Michael Krikorian, Matt Lait, Mitchell Landsberg, Caitlin Liu, Robert J. Lopez, Eric Malnic, Joe Mathews, Jennifer Oldham, Charles Ornstein, Russ Parsons, David Pierson, Kenneth Reich, Polly Ross, Joel Rubin, Lori Shepler, Doug Smith, Larry B. Stammer, Stephanie Stassel, Connie Stewart, Wendy Thermos, Tracy Weber, Kenneth R. Weiss and Nora Zamichow.

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