Driver is released after arrest in deputy recruit crash that sheriff called ‘deliberate act’
A 22-year-old Diamond Bar man was released Thursday night after he had been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder of peace officers in a crash that injured 25 recruits on a training run Wednesday in South Whittier.
Jail records show that Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez was released at 9:49 p.m. and that his initial arrest Wednesday has been deemed a detention. The records cite California Penal Code 849(b)(1), which authorizes police to release arrestees from custody without first being arraigned if there are insufficient grounds to make a criminal complaint.
Investigators are continuing to develop the case against Gutierrez but are not legally allowed to hold a suspect in custody for more than 48 hours without presenting the case to prosecutors, said Sgt. Gerardo Magos, an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson.
Once investigators have built a case, they plan to arrest Gutierrez and present the case to the L.A. County district attorney’s office, Magos said.
“The evidence is there,” he said. “We just want to make sure it’s properly presented.”
Earlier Thursday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in an interview with NewsNation that investigators “have developed probable cause to believe it was intentional.”
“They went through an exhaustive interview process with everyone involved, with the video surveillance, the statements from the recruits, the physical evidence they have and what they got from the suspect himself, and they were able to form the opinion this was a deliberate act,” he told the news station.
Villanueva later confirmed to The Times there was probable cause to arrest the driver on suspicion of attempted murder because of evidence he deliberately ran into the recruits. But the sheriff did not provide further details, and his department has not yet presented the department’s case to the district attorney.
Twenty-five sheriff’s recruits were injured in the crash, authorities said.
Gutierrez’s family could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva says injuries include head trauma and broken bones, and ‘we have had some loss of limb.’
The recruits were running in four columns, accompanied by drill instructors and two black-and-white radio cars, when a Honda CRV drove into the group about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday near the sheriff’s STARS Center Academy in the 10600 block of Mills Avenue, authorities said.
As the group ran north on Mills Avenue, a vehicle approached at 30 to 40 mph, according to witnesses. It veered onto the wrong side of the road and plowed into the recruits.
The runners at the front of the formation were able to get out of the way before the SUV struck others and crashed into a light pole, authorities said.
Villanueva said during a news conference Wednesday there were no skid marks at the scene. The driver remained in the vehicle after the crash, and those at the scene struggled to get him out initially, the sheriff said.
“From what I understand, he was in the vehicle with his foot still on the accelerator,” he said.
Video shot by a man who lives across the street from the crash site showed recruits desperately trying to help those who appeared to be most seriously injured.
Villanueva said witnesses said the area “looked like an airplane wreck.”
“There was so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved,” he said. He called the injuries, which included head trauma and lost limbs, “life-altering.” Five recruits were in critical condition after the crash, and more than a dozen others suffered minor to moderate injuries.
Villanueva said seven recruits were still in the hospital Thursday night. Five were in observation, and two remained in critical condition. One underwent surgery for extensive leg fractures.
The biggest concern is recruit Alejandro Martinez, who Villanueva said had surgery Wednesday. He had major trauma to his head and multiple fractures.
Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Marcos Espiritu said he was working an overnight shift at Station 96 on Mills Avenue when he heard the familiar sounds of dozens of recruits jogging past just before sunrise. But then he heard a terrible crash, followed by screaming. A deputy recruit banged on the station door and pleaded for help.
Espiritu and another firefighter rushed the few hundred feet to the crash site.
“There was just total chaos,” Espiritu said.
Recruits were tending to injured classmates when other firefighters arrived to help. Espiritu saw mangled legs and exposed bones, including one deputy recruit with severe head injuries. Minor injuries included abrasions on recruits’ arms, legs and backs.
Espiritu, who has been with the county Fire Department for 36 years, said he’s “never seen something at this magnitude.” But he added that traffic is known to move fast on Mills, with “cars flying up and down here.”
Gutierrez was detained at the scene by other cadets. He sustained minor injuries and was treated at a hospital, authorities said. He was arrested Wednesday afternoon.
A Breathalyzer test was administered at the scene and authorities found no evidence of alcohol, Villanueva said, noting that the driver “blew a 0.0.” But authorities are working to determine whether he was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash.
A law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said marijuana was recovered from the driver’s vehicle.
News video showed that authorities searched Gutierrez’s family’s home Wednesday night. Deputies banged on the door at the house in Diamond Bar, and a tactical team with guns drawn was also present, footage showed.
Authorities made entry after escorting two women outside. The video showed authorities spent some time inside, but they did not appear to remove anything visible from the home.
The recruits were members of the STARS Center Academy in South Whittier. Deputy recruits participate in a 22-week training program. They complete extensive training on firearms, law, police procedures, self-defense, law enforcement driving, physical fitness and force de-escalation.
Academy Class 464 was in its eighth week.
Times staff writers Gregory Yee and Noah Goldberg contributed to this report.
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