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Murder Charge Sought in SUV Attacks

The Fremont motorist is also expected to be arraigned on 14 counts of attempted murder.

August 31, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Fremont police said Wednesday they plan to seek a murder charge against Omeed Aziz Popal, who authorities contend went on a hit-and-run rampage with his SUV that left a Fremont man dead and at least 14 San Franciscans injured.

San Francisco Police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens said Popal could be arraigned as early as today on 14 counts of attempted murder.

Relatives described Popal, 29, as "loving" and "caring" but said he had recently shown signs of paranoia and other mental distress. The symptoms worsened since his return last month to the Fremont home he shared with his parents and siblings, after an arranged marriage ceremony in Afghanistan.

San Mateo attorney Majeed Samara, who is acquainted with friends of the Popals, stepped in at the family's request to represent the auto shop worker. But Samara said he would probably have to hand the matter over to the San Francisco public defender.

At a San Francisco County Jail meeting Wednesday morning, Popal was "under mental watch," Samara said. "He was wrapped in a blanket. The jail has determined he should be under constant observation for his safety."

Samara said signs of mental illness first surfaced in Popal six months ago and prompted several visits to Kaiser Permanente in Fremont. At one point, he said, Popal was hospitalized for more than a week.

On another occasion, Popal told his employer he had "stabbed somebody," Samara said, and was taken to the hospital by police after a brief interview indicated he was having mental problems.

Popal disappeared briefly last week, prompting his family to file a missing person report, said Fremont Police Sgt. Chris Mazzone. Relatives found him in Los Angeles and persuaded him to return home.

But Tuesday morning, authorities alleged, he went on a tear in his black Honda Pilot across the San Francisco Bay, cutting a path of destruction as he intentionally ran down pedestrians and at least one bicyclist.

The deceased victim, a 54-year-old Fremont man whose identity had not been released by coroner's officials, was apparently struck from behind as he walked in the bike lane about half a mile from Popal's home. Just past noon, a witness reported that hit-and-run by a black Honda, which had tossed the victim's body into a field, Mazzone said.

When San Francisco police arrested Popal about an hour later, Fremont authorities appeared to have their suspect. At least fourteen other people had been hit in the interim.

Mazzone said a murder charge would be submitted in the next week or two to the Alameda County district attorney's office "based on the physical evidence on the car, which was consistent with debris at the scene."

In San Francisco, many of the injured had been released from hospitals by late Wednesday. But five remained at San Francisco General, one of them in the intensive care unit, said San Francisco Department of Public Health spokeswoman Eileen Shields.

Trauma surgeons held a news conference Wednesday to applaud the emergency response system that triaged the victims along the mile-long path of the SUV. The victims will receive assistance in dealing with the potential onset of post traumatic stress disorder, they said.

Popal's family also struggled to deal with the aftermath, torn over their feelings for the pain of victims and Popal's sudden unraveling.

"They feel very badly," Samara said of the family. "These are good people who have been in the country for more than 20 years and never harmed anyone." Samara said the family was also concerned over media questions about whether Popal had terrorist motives, a possibility discounted by authorities.

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