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Wrong-Way Driver Hits Group of Police Recruits, Leaving 25 Injured

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A wrong-way driver crashed into a group of 75 law enforcement recruits, injuring 25 people in South Whittier on Nov. 16. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has identified the suspect as 22-year-old Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez. 

The collision took place at about 6:30 a.m. while recruits were out jogging in formation. Witnesses reported seeing an SUV swerve onto the wrong side of the road before plowing through the group of recruits. Video surveillance shows recruits unable to get out of the way as the driver made no attempt to slow down or avoid the group. 

According to LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the car may have sped up as it approached the recruits. 

“Some recruits are saying they heard the car accelerating, they estimate around 30 to 40 miles per hour,” Villanueva said to the New York Post.

The SUV then stopped a short ways away after hitting a light post. Gutierrez was detained on the scene, where breath tests indicated that he was not under the influence. 

Among the 25 who were injured, five were left in critical condition while the others sustained less severe injuries. 

“It looked like an airplane wreck,” Villanueva told the LA Times. “There was [sic] so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved.”

Fire Station 96 helped transport the injured recruits, with 20 vehicles sent to assist on-site. 

“We had a ton of resources on scene, and it was amazing to watch those patients get off-scene as quickly as they did,” Capt. Sheila Kelliher of the LA County Fire Department said.

Despite the immediate response, several recruits are facing injuries that were described as “life altering” — including broken bones, head trauma and loss of limbs. Those with the most severe injuries were taken to the UC Irvine Medical Center. 

“There were three trauma surgeons who were readily available when the patients arrived here,” UCI trauma surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Nahmais told CBS. “As well as countless other nurses, other extenders and people to help with the care of all these patients.”

Law enforcement officials originally detained Gutierrez at the scene of the crash, but later released him due to insufficient evidence. However, officials later developed probable cause to believe the accident was intentional. Officials will not elaborate on what evidence fulfilled these conditions, as the investigation is still ongoing. 

“We have been in contact with LASD and CHP since the incident occurred,” officials wrote in a statement from the LA County District Attorney’s Office. “They advised our office late yesterday that they would not be presenting a case at this time and that they would be releasing the suspect. We cannot comment on the evidence in this case as this is an ongoing investigation.”

Gutierrez has since returned to his home. If officials are able to find evidence to prove that the crash was intentional, he will face charges for attempted murder of peace officers. 

“Homicide investigators, along with California Highway Patrol investigators, will continue to pursue all evidence relevant to this matter until a thorough investigation is complete,” authorities said in an official statement. 

Because the recruits had not been officially employed by the Sheriff’s Department at the time of the crash, they must pay for the medical bills out of pocket. 

The community has rallied in support of the injured recruits following the crash. The LA Sheriff Department held a fundraiser on Nov. 23 to help cover medical expenses for the recruits. The Sheriff’s Relief Association is also accepting donations from the public. More information can be found here.

“Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s recruits injured this morning while training to serve their communities,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said. “Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and stand with their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during this difficult time.”

Scarlett Roberts is a City News Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at sorobert@uci.edu