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Driver in 2017 Times Square car attack that killed 1 and injured 20 found not responsible due to mental illness

<i>FDNY/twitter</i><br/>First responders attend to a person after a car was driven into pedestrians in Times Square in 2017.
First responders attend to a person after a car was driven into pedestrians in Times Square in 2017.

By Lauren del Valle, CNN

A Manhattan jury found the man who drove his car onto bustling sidewalks of Times Square in 2017, killing one person and injuring at least 20 others, is not responsible for the attack because he was suffering from mental illness, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

The jury determined Wednesday that Richard Rojas, 31, should not be held responsible by reason of mental disease or defect and he will not face a standard prison sentence for the charges against him, the district attorney’s office said.

Instead, the office said, he will be involuntarily mandated to a psychiatric setting determined by the judge.

Rojas, a Bronx resident who had served in the Navy, plowed his car into crowds of pedestrians in Manhattan’s buzzing Times Square on May 18, 2017. He jumped the sidewalk in the car on the west side of 7th Avenue at 42nd Street and barreled through three blocks before crashing at the northwest corner of 45th Street, police said at the time.

When he emerged from the smashed vehicle, witnesses on the scene worked to restrain him. At the time, he told a traffic agent, “I wanted to kill them all,” according to the criminal complaint.

Rojas tested positive for PCP and told police that God made him do it, a law enforcement source told CNN at the time of the attack.
He was charged with the murder of 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, who was killed in the rampage, in addition to 20 counts of attempted murder, one count of aggravated vehicular homicide and a count of attempted murder in the second degree, according to the criminal complaint. He pleaded not guilty.

Elsman’s mother questioned the jury’s decision after the verdict was announced.

“If this had happened to any of the juror’s children – would they still have said ‘not responsible’?” Jyll Elsman said to CNN in a message Wednesday. “Do they feel safe living in the same area where Richard Rojas could be back out on the streets?”

Alyssa was visiting the city from Portage, Michigan, with her family that day. Her younger sister Ava was severely injured but survived the incident.

CNN reached out to counsel for Rojas for comment.

Shortly after the 2017 attack, city officials and law enforcement said they were investigating the possibility that Rojas had a history of mental illness.

“We’re now hearing from family members [that Rojas] has had demonstrated mental health issues going back to childhood that … went unaddressed even during the time he was in the U.S. military,” then-New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC Radio the day after the event.

He had been arrested several times before the attack, including while he was in the Navy in Florida in 2013. At the time, he pleaded guilty before a military judge to drunken driving, failure to pay a just debt, drunk and disorderly conduct and communicating a threat.

Rojas remains in custody and the parties are expected to review the judge’s examination order at a hearing Thursday.

“We are grateful to the jury for its service. Our condolences continue to be with the family, friends and loved ones of Alyssa Elsman, who suffered a terrible and tragic loss, and all of the victims of this horrific incident. I thank the prosecutors, detectives, analysts and staff members for their hard work and dedication on this long case,” District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement about the verdict.

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CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this report.

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