Witnesses recount horror of seeing car mow down pedestrians in Venice

By Gary Walker

Mourners gather at Venice Beach shortly after the Aug. 3, 2013, vehicular rampage  on the boardwalk to hold a public memorial for Alice Gruppioni, an Italian tourist killed during the mayhem. At top right, Gruppioni’s father-in-law brings flowers to the vigil. Photos by Ted Soqui

Mourners gather at Venice Beach shortly after the Aug. 3, 2013, vehicular rampage
on the boardwalk to hold a public memorial for Alice Gruppioni, an Italian tourist killed during the mayhem. At top right, Gruppioni’s father-in-law brings flowers to the vigil.
Photos by Ted Soqui

The prosecution’s case against the man accused of deliberately running down pedestrians on the Venice boardwalk in August 2013 has brought forth days of heart-wrenching eyewitness and victim testimony.

Nathan Louis Campbell, 39, of Colorado is accused of killing 32-year-old Italian tourist Alice Gruppioni and hurting 17 other people during a prolonged vehicular rampage behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenger.

Campbell, who prosecutors say flew into a rage after being ripped off in a boardwalk drug deal, faces one count of murder, 10 counts of leaving the scene of an accident and 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon. He has pleaded not guilty.

The trial began on April 30 at the Airport Courthouse in Westchester and broke Friday for a hiatus until May 18.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila said he expects to wrap up the prosecution’s case by May 20 or May 21.

Westchester-based defense attorney James Cooper III, who represents Campbell, said during opening remarks that Campbell struck a variety of objects on the boardwalk and was actually trying to avoid hitting pedestrians on crowded Ocean Front Walk.

Victims who had been injured in the crash were among the first witnesses called by the prosecution.

Under questioning by Avila on May 5, Joanna Buttòn, who was visiting from France when the mayhem occurred, told the court she was walking near Dudley Avenue on Aug. 3, 2013, when a loud noise caught her attention.

“We saw a car coming toward us, and I turned and saw a woman on the ground and a man standing over her screaming,” Buttòn, 28, said through an interpreter.

Asked by Avila what was going through her mind at the time, Buttòn responded: “I thought I was going to die. I thought it was a terrorist attack and that it might start again.”

Buttòn, who cried during much of her testimony, said she suffered injuries to her right shoulder, thigh and leg during the mayhem and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Buttòn said she also continues to have nightmares about the crash.

“In my head I can always hear the man screaming,” she told Avila.

Linda Alvarez, 77, a palm and tarot card reader who had set up on the boardwalk near Dudley Avenue, said she saw a speeding car strike a canopy next to her stand on the boardwalk. Alvarez testified that she was struck by the Dodge Avenger and suffered a concussion as well as injuries to her back.

“I saw a woman and a child get hit and I was afraid that he would come back for me,” Alvarez said.

Shane Nelson, who was in Venice with his girlfriend and her children, said he saw a car coming directly at them as they walked along Ocean Front Walk. Nelson said he saw Edward Baily, a pedestrian who was hit by the car, dragged 15 to 20 feet and stated that the car’s driver made no effort to avoid pedestrians on the boardwalk.

“The vehicle seemed to move in very deliberate directions,” said Nelson, 44.

An emergency medical technician from Durango, Colo., Nelson testified that he provided Baily with medical assistance for scrapes and abrasions before paramedics arrived.

Elizabeth Adams, 33, testified that she had planned to go hat shopping with a friend and was waiting for her with other friends on an apartment balcony on the 400 block of Ocean Front Walk when she witnessed a car strike several people as it headed south on the boardwalk.

“Did you see the driver try to swerve, apply the brakes or avoid hitting anyone? Avila asked.

“It appeared as though the driver was following the crowds of people. I still have nightmares about it,” Adams said through tears. “Whenever I hear a loud engine … it’s something that I’ll never forget.”

Cooper asked only perfunctory questions of most witnesses but mounted challenges to the testimony of Nelson and Adams. On cross examination he confronted Nelson about his testimony during a September preliminary hearing in which he put the distance of Baily being dragged at approximately 10 feet.

Cooper was also able to get Nelson to acknowledge that he had seen YouTube videos of the accident and online comments about the crash prior to taking the stand last week.

“After seeing new information, you felt that it was necessary to change your testimony?” Cooper asked.

Nelson denied that seeing the videos had impacted his testimony.

Cooper also pounced on an earlier description that Adams had given to police about the description of the driver. Campbell is white, but Adams identified the driver as Latino, male and muscular.

“I really don’t know. I was kind of in shock when it happened and I didn’t really see [the driver] very well,” Adams said.

Cooper also pointed to an earlier statement given by Adams that she saw the vehicle “race down” Dudley. Using a map, Cooper noted that from the balcony where Adams was standing, a car traveling north on Dudley could not be seen.

None of the aforementioned witnesses were able to identify Campbell as the driver.

On Friday Avila took testimony by Los Angeles County criminalist Jennifer Francis, who painstakingly detailed collection of evidence at the crime scenes aided by a variety of photographs and other images.  Francis said she collected hair fibers from the windshield, trunk and the hood of the Dodge Avenger, which investigators found on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.

One of the prosecution’s first witnesses was Christian Casadei, Gruppioni’s husband. According to news reports, Casadei testified that he saw the Dodge Avenger and began running down the boardwalk to escape being run over. After the car struck him, Casadei told the court that he did not see his wife again until he saw a group of people standing over her.

The jury of seven women and five men appeared to pay rapt attention to the cross examinations of Nelson, Adams and Francis.

The defense could wrap up its case by Memorial Day, Cooper said.

“The case should get very interesting after the break,” he said.