Suspect pleads not guilty to charges, including murder of tourist
By Vince Echavaria
Los Angeles city leaders have moved to examine a variety of traffic safety measures including the placement of additional barriers on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, where a car tore through the walkway in a hit and run Aug. 3, killing a woman and injuring 16 other people.
The City Council voted unanimously Aug. 6 to initiate a public safety needs assessment exploring ways to restrict and control non-essential vehicle access to the boardwalk at each intersection up to the Santa Monica border. The review will involve the police and fire departments, as well as the Bureau of Street Services, departments of Recreation and Parks and Transportation, and the offices of the mayor and city attorney.
Such potential options would include removable posts allowing for emergency vehicle and maintenance crew access and permanent bollards, along with other safety measures including improved signage and lighting. The council additionally moved to immediately install temporary barriers at intersections identified as the most hazardous for non-emergency vehicles.
The city action came in the wake of an incident where a motorist is suspected of hitting pedestrians as he drove down a stretch of the world-renowned boardwalk near Dudley Avenue on a busy Saturday. Witnesses said the driver appeared to be steering toward pedestrians on purpose, Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said.
Alice Gruppioni, 32, visiting from Italy with her husband on their honeymoon, was killed in the crash, authorities said. Eight other women and eight men were injured, according to the county district attorney.
The driver, identified as Nathan Louis Campbell, 38, a transient from Colorado, fled the scene and was arrested after he turned himself in at the Santa Monica Police Department, police said. Campbell, who was charged by the district attorney with one count of murder, 16 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 17 counts of hit and run, pleaded not guilty to the charges Aug. 6. His bail was set at $1.48 million.
Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, who introduced the safety assessment motion, said the tragedy has highlighted the need to examine safety improvements at one of the city’s most popular destinations.
“This horrible incident showed vulnerabilities at the boardwalk and we have an obligation to do everything in our power to ensure this sort of tragedy cannot happen again,” he said.
With the news of the crash, Bonin said he felt a mix of heartbreak for Gruppioni, her family and the other victims, outrage at the suspect’s actions, and admiration for the “resiliency of Venice.” The councilman noted that despite the violence at the boardwalk the day before, thousands came out to celebrate the 37th annual Festival of the Chariots Aug. 4.
“That’s just a reminder that you can commit violence and assaults but you won’t stop the human spirit; you can’t extinguish the spirit of Venice Beach,” Bonin said.
Two days after the incident, despite the presence of news vans and reporters, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a typical day on the boardwalk, with people walking their dogs and vendors setting up shop. For some, the memory of the car peeling down the walkway, with the sound of screams and sight of people hit or running out of the way, was all too fresh.
Gary John, a 10-year vendor who sells paintings near where the car drove onto the sidewalk and turned onto the boardwalk, said he was unable to get the crash images out of his mind and his “heart is just shattered.”
“It was the most horrific thing I ever saw in my whole life; it’s surreal to see something like that. It was absolute carnage,” said an emotional John, who recalled witnessing a victim’s body on the hood of the car.
The vendor said the boardwalk was very crowded at the time and he was amazed that more people were not hurt or killed. One image that John said he has not forgotten was the look of the driver’s face as he sped by. “It was like he was out for a drive; there was no emotion in his face,” John recalled.
Others at the Phoenix House remembered seeing the car swerving as it drove by, creating a scene of “straight pandemonium” that caught everybody off guard. Members of the Phoenix House and people nearby offered assistance to victims as firefighters and paramedics arrived at the scene.
A makeshift memorial with candles and a photo of Gruppioni was placed at the crash site. Dr. Maria August, who was visiting Venice for her son’s wedding and stopped by the memorial, said incidents like the hit and run occurring at popular attractions can undermine one’s feelings of security.
“There’s no reason someone should be run over on a boardwalk where there are no cars; it’s awful,” she said.
In a statement released on the website of the Consulate General of Italy in Los Angeles, Gruppioni’s aunt, Katia, said she was born in a very traditional Italian family and became part of the family’s business when she was only 19. Gruppioni, who was the general manager of the key company of the Sira Group, a multinational family-owned group, was “making her personal dreams come true,” her aunt said.
“She was robbed of her life while living her dream visiting California with her husband and this was a tremendous injustice,” Katia Gruppioni stated.
A fundraiser and vigil ceremony was held Aug. 5 outside the Candle Café on Ocean Front Walk, where community members gathered to honor the victims and Bonin led the group in a prayer and moment of silence before walking to the makeshift memorial.
Police are continuing to investigate the hit and run crash. Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Andy Neiman said police have not determined a potential motive for the incident. Video surveillance in the area prior to the crash captured what appeared to be the suspect pacing around his vehicle before driving off.
In introducing his motion for safety measures, Bonin said it’s important that Venice Beach is recognized as a world renowned tourist attraction and less as a city park. He noted that police indicate that several cars mistakenly drive onto Ocean Front Walk each day and restricting non-essential vehicle access can help prevent potential threats to pedestrians.
Venice resident Nick Antonicello said he has also seen how motorists sometimes get lost and turn onto the boardwalk, especially in the evening, and he agrees that vehicle access to the area needs to be restricted. “The issue of car access needs to be restricted with additional and permanent barriers,” he said.
Neighborhood Council Vice President Marc Saltzberg said any and all methods of preventing similar events from happening in the future should be on the table, but he is not yet sure which specific measures should be implemented.
“The boardwalk is not a street for vehicles and I do think we need a way of not making it a street,” he said.
In addition to removable posts and permanent bollards such as concrete planters where emergency vehicle access is not required, Bonin said other potential safety measures could include an emergency public address system and enhanced closed circuit video equipment.