At the Times Square rampage trial, victims recount the horrors of the day

NEW YORK – For some survivors, the sounds are part of what still haunts them: the screams of people. The car tires squeal. A running engine.

It was “like someone just put him on the ground… It was so strong,” Jyll Elsman told a jury recently in a Manhattan courtroom. “It’s the last thing I remember before it all went black.”

When Elsman came to her senses, she desperately searched for her teenage daughters to find a mother’s ultimate nightmare. One of his children was dead and another seriously injured – carnage left by a rampaging driver who ran through pedestrians during what started for a Michigan family as a mundane tourist outing in Times Square in 2017.

Elsman’s harrowing story is at the heart of the ongoing trial of Richard Rojas, the man driving a maroon Honda Accord who killed Elsman’s daughter and injured more than 20 others in an alleged attack including the motive remains elusive. Rojas, 31, pleaded not guilty to murder, assault and other charges.

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Prosecutors are relying heavily on the testimony of victims like Elsman to press charges against Rojas that could put him behind bars for decades. His lawyers say he had a nervous breakdown that day and lacked the ability to understand what he was doing.

At the time, he was someone ‘suffering from schizophrenia whose mind had deteriorated to such an extent that he lost control of it,’ defense attorney Enrico DeMarco said in his opening statements on the matter. of a client who appeared unmoved during the procedure. DeMarco added, “The evidence will show he met the criteria for legal insanity.”

Prosecutor Alfred Peterson acknowledged that Rojas had mental issues. But Peterson also argued that the defendant was a military veteran who had led an almost normal life and did not meet the standard of insanity.

“It was impossible for him not to know exactly what was going on,” the prosecutor said.

Experts are expected to address the mental health issue later in the trial. For now, it remains for jurors to parse the prosecution case which began with seeing a selfie flashed onto a video screen of Elsman, his daughters Ava and Alyssa and a family friend sitting on the red bleachers in the middle of Times Square moments before tragedy struck.

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The group was walking and “just looking around, looking for a place to eat,” when a car pulled up onto the sidewalk, Elsman said. She testified that she felt herself being knocked down by the car, going blank briefly, then getting up to pick up her daughters.

The mother found Ava, then 13, on the ground but still alert. She then rushed off to pick up Alyssa, who was 18. What she found was devastating.

“I looked at her eyes and just knew she was dead. They were fixed. They weren’t looking around,” she said. “All I could do was scream .”

Thomas Patterson, an actor on his way to a rehearsal that day, took the witness stand to reminisce about vivid memories of the chaos.

“I saw someone being thrown 25 feet in the air, people being knocked over. It was an intense sight,” Patterson said.

On a whim, “I ran after the car,” he said. “I’m not super proud of that. I don’t know what I was thinking. He said he pulled himself together and stopped to call 911.

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Michael Elias, a tax lawyer, testified to seeing “bodies flying, pandemonium, people screaming, jumping out of the way”.

First responders would find a survivor named Wissam Issa, a social worker who testified to feeling the full impact of the fleeing Honda. Issa said he took a hit to “my whole left side of my face, my whole left side of my body, my back, my arm with the windshield.”

Ava, Elsman’s youngest daughter, was similarly mowed down. She recited her multiple injuries to jurors: broken ribs, collapsed lung, compound leg fracture and other injuries that left her unable to walk for months.

She said a deeper wound occurred in hospital, when she asked her mother what had happened to her older sister. It was answered by silence.

Her mother’s “downcast face,” she said. “And without words, I knew exactly what had happened.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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