Investigators believe the man who drove a vehicle into a group of law enforcement recruits, injuring 25 of them, committed a “deliberate act,” and the case should go to prosecutors Friday, the Los Angeles County sheriff said in an interview.
The news came on Thursday, just before Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez, 22, was released from jail, according to records that indicated the initial complaint was insufficient to hold him following the incident in Whittier.
Yet authorities have “developed probable cause to believe it’s intentional,” Sheriff Alex Villanueva told NewsNation prior to Gutierrez’s release Thursday, adding that that he expects the case to be presented to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office on Friday.
Investigators undertook an “exhaustive interview process” and reviewed video surveillance, physical evidence, and statements from the recruits and Gutierrez.
Gutierrez, 22, was released from custody at 9:49 p.m. Thursday, jail records show, and the sheriff’s department insisted it had not made a mistake in freeing him.
“It’s not like they arrested the wrong suspect,” Deputy Deanna Mares told CNN late Thursday. “They just want to make sure the investigation is going to be complete.”
Gutierrez is still considered a suspect, Mares said. Investigators simply want more time to collect evidence to present for charges.
Police are required to present a case within 48 hours of a suspect’s arrest, and they were not ready to do that with Gutierrez, Mares said.
It was ‘a tragic accident,’ lawyer says
The 25 recruits from multiple law enforcement agencies were injured Wednesday when a vehicle drove into the group, an incident Villanueva initially labeled “a horrific accident.”
The characterization changed Thursday morning when the department announced Gutierrez’s arrest on suspicion of attempted murder of peace officers.
CNN has requested comment from Alexandra Kazarian, an attorney for Gutierrez who told CNN affiliate KABC Thursday, “I have no doubt that an in-depth investigation will confirm that Nicholas is a hard-working young man who holds no animosity towards law enforcement, and this was an absolutely tragic accident.”
Gutierrez was booked Wednesday, inmate records show. He was alone in the vehicle at the time of the crash, the sheriff’s department said.
Five of the injured cadets were listed in critical condition. Another four recruits suffered moderate injuries, while 16 sustained minor injuries, the sheriff’s office said. Gutierrez suffered minor injuries, too, Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Sheila Kelliher said.
All were taken to local hospitals. There have been no updates on their conditions.
CNN has requested comment from the prosecutor’s office and the California Highway Patrol, which is leading the investigation.
Initial reports said it wasn’t intentional
The crash appeared to have been “a horrific accident,” Villanueva originally said at a Wednesday news conference.
The driver, who was going the wrong way, showed no sign of impairment and blew a zero on a Breathalyzer test, he said. There were no skid marks visible at the scene, the sheriff said.
“It looked like an airplane wreck – so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury,” Villanueva said. “It was pretty traumatic.”
Those injured include recruits from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, along with the Pasadena, Glendale and Bell police departments. Recruits from the El Segundo and University of California, Los Angeles police departments were also present but not hurt.
The 75 recruits, all wearing white T-shirts and green shorts, were on what sheriff’s Capt. Ted McDonald of the department’s training bureau described as a “typical run,” part of the department’s 22-week training course. They were accompanied by two safety vehicles and were running in four lines when they were hit, McDonald said.
The crash occurred about 500 feet from a fire station, officials said. The four most critically injured patients were rushed to the hospital, Los Angeles Fire Chief Anthony Marrone said. It likely saved their lives.
The incident was “hard to see because these young people are getting ready to go put themselves in the line of danger in their career,” Kelliher, the fire captain, said. “And who knows that while you’re training to do that, you’re actually in harm’s way.”
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin and Kevin Flower contributed to this report.