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Bay Area Driver Goes on Rampage

One person is dead, at least 14 are hurt as SUV rams a bicyclist and pedestrians in crosswalks and on sidewalks. A suspect is in custody.

August 30, 2006|Lee Romney and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — A motorist in a sport utility vehicle went on a hit-and-run rampage Tuesday, targeting pedestrians in a terrifying spree in the Bay Area that killed one person and injured at least 14 others.

San Francisco police captured a suspect, whom they identified as Omeed Aziz Popal, a 29-year-old Fremont man. He was arrested on suspicion of 14 counts of attempted murder.

"It's being looked at as an intentional act," said Sgt. Neville Gittens, a spokesman for the Police Department. "He was deliberately targeting pedestrians on the street, on the sidewalk, whatever."

Police said the incidents began about noon in Fremont when a suspect driving a Honda SUV mowed down a pedestrian walking in a bike lane on a busy thoroughfare, sped off with a broken windshield and left the victim lying dead in a field.

Less than an hour later, across the bay in San Francisco, a motorist in a Honda SUV began ramming into people in an onslaught that lasted 14 minutes, starting at 12:47 p.m., the time of the first of many 911 calls.

Police said the suspect hit a bicyclist and pedestrians in crosswalks and on sidewalks, striking at 13 locations from near the city's civic center to south of the Presidio. At least 13 people were sent to the hospital, three with what were believed to be serious injuries. The victims range in age from 18 to 78.

"He looked me right in the eye and showed no remorse," said Emanule Gowan, who witnessed the driver run down two pedestrians near his home in the 1800 block of Steiner Street.

Gowan saw the SUV hit a brown Buick and then hit a pedestrian, dragging him.

He "hurt him real bad," Gowan said. "The driver must have hit that man at 40 to 50 miles an hour."

Gowan said he and another man pulled the injured pedestrian out of the street.

A car started to chase the SUV, Gowan said, but the SUV backed up and hit it. Then the SUV circled again and struck another pedestrian.

"I could not believe how he hit this guy," Gowan said. "What I saw today, I could not believe a guy could do this and have no feelings."

Marc Tarasco said he was standing at the reception desk at Salon Neja Cosmetics on Fillmore Street when he saw an SUV race down the sidewalk. "He hit an old lady. I walked out and saw her on the sidewalk. She was bleeding and disoriented."

"It was very frightening," he said. "The police car was out trying to chase him. People were screaming."

Another witness, Erica Setness, said she saw the SUV moving very fast, circling around and driving the wrong way on one-way streets. "His car was all smashed up. Everyone was running down the street yelling. The cops, the helicopters and all that showed up," Setness said.

A cousin of Popal's, Hamid Nekrawesh, 43, also of Fremont, described Popal, an auto mechanic, as "very loving, caring, respecting," adding, "I don't even imagine him doing such an act as he did today."

He said, however, that Popal started to show signs of mental distress about a month ago and had visited several doctors for help.

Nekrawesh said that Popal had gone to Afghanistan two months ago for an arranged wedding and that his wife is still there, awaiting immigration clearance. He said Popal was born in Afghanistan but came to California as a young boy. He grew up in Hayward and moved about three years ago to Fremont, where he lives with his parents, a brother and two sisters.

The family, Nekrawesh said, was upset by the news. "They're all sad. The little sisters were crying. The mother was crying," he said.

Officials said they have not determined a motive for the attacks, but they said there is no evidence of a link to terrorism.

"The victims are of all ethnicities and of all ages. There seems to be no pattern. We make no assertions that this was a hate crime or that anyone else was involved," said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, after he met with police at the command post at the scene of the final incident.

Newsom visited San Francisco General Hospital, where he met with three of the seven victims taken to the county's trauma center. The most seriously injured was a 53-year-old woman who was in critical condition in the intensive care unit. Newsom said he also saw the youngest victim, an 18-year-old with severe cuts, and an older man with fractures.

"It's impossible to read the mind of someone who could go on such a rampage," Newsom told reporters afterward. "When you see the victims you can appreciate the depth of that callousness."

Police said Popal was reported missing three days ago. One police source reported that Popal told police that he wanted to kill his family. Authorities quickly went to his home in Fremont and found his mother and sisters unharmed.

Police said they were confident the same person struck in Fremont and San Francisco. "It sure looks that way. It seems to be the same vehicle and the same method," said Sgt. Bill Veteran of the Fremont Police Department.

Newsom said the suspect appeared to have no arrest record.

Popal's driving record, however, shows convictions for six moving violations between 2003 and 2005.

The suspect was trapped in the Laurel Heights neighborhood at the intersection of California and Spruce streets when police boxed in the Honda with their patrol cars. Police said the suspect threw his car into reverse, ramming a squad car and slightly injuring an officer.

Police said they have not been able to trace the exact route the SUV took. But they said many of the neighborhoods that the suspect cut through were upscale areas in the northern part of the city, including Pacific Heights.

Late Tuesday, police were interviewing more than 40 witnesses, trying to piece together what happened.

*

Times staff writers Steve Chawkins, Stuart Silverstein and Tim Reiterman contributed to this report.

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