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Testimony Describes Market Tragedy

Angry crowd engulfed George Weller, shouting epithets after his car stopped, witnesses say.

September 19, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

With 10 dead in his wake, motorist George Russell Weller came to a stop at the end of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market three years ago and was quickly engulfed by dozens of angry, crying and screaming people.

Weller, then 86, was called a "terrorist," a "murderer," a "mass murderer" and worse, witnesses at his trial in downtown Los Angeles testified Monday.

One man yelled, "Kill him, kill him!" said Crawford Peitso, a young market worker who chased Weller's 1992 Buick as it plowed through the market at Arizona Avenue, near 2nd Street, running up the death toll and injuring more than 60 others.

Weller, who has lived in Santa Monica for 52 years, is charged with 10 counts of manslaughter. Jurors in the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson must decide whether the tragedy was an accident or a crime.

The defense contends Weller suffered a catastrophic instance of "pedal error," mistaking the gas pedal for the brake. National safety experts have cited thousands of such instances. His lawyers received permission for Weller to stay home rather than attend his trial, citing declining health.

Prosecutors say he drove intently and disregarded the people he hit. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 18 years in prison -- the equivalent of a death sentence for a man of his age, his lawyers contend.

Witnesses described the grisly scene on July 16, 2003, as pandemonium. Market-goers sought to come to grips with what had happened, help the injured and capture the man responsible.

"Everyone was yelling, 'Get him! Get him! Stop him!" Peitso testified. Despite the aggressive, loud "mob," as Peitso described it, Weller was not touched.

Peitso's father, Dennis, who also worked at the market, said he chased Weller and ordered him from his car when it came to rest.

"He had a smirk on his face," he testified. Asked by the prosecutor what he meant, he said, "I mean a smirk. He made me very angry."

Dennis Peitso said the car was "shocking, covered with gore, battered by peoples' bodies ... blood. There was a dead man lying on the windshield."

Weller stood to the side as Peitso and others frantically tried to lift the vehicle to free a woman who was caught underneath. He never changed his expression, Peitso said.

"I was standing there screaming at him, calling him a murderer, a mass murderer," but Weller never said a word, Peitso said.

Crawford Peitso confirmed his father's testimony, saying that Weller emerged from the car with a "hateful, smirking, unrepentant, unrueful, arrogant smirk."

But the father-son appearances pointed up a problem for prosecutors: Although each said he was next to the other, they contradicted each other's account in a number of details.

The father said he forced Weller to remove the keys from the ignition, but the son said his father took the keys.

The son said his father was the first to reach Weller in the car, but the father said another person was there first.

Shopper Andrew Fisher testified that he was giving a police officer a statement when he noticed Weller standing nearby, listening calmly.

At one point, he said, Weller interrupted, saying, "You know, if it was terrifying for you, you should imagine what it was like being in my seat," Fisher quoted Weller as saying.

Pressed by defense attorney Mark Overland, Fisher changed the quote to "think how terrifying it was not being able to stop."

After the police interview, Weller approached Fisher again. Fisher said he was shocked when Weller said, "If you saw me coming, why didn't you get out of the way?"

The trial is scheduled to continue today.

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john.spano@latimes.com

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