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Transient held in Venice boardwalk hit-and-run

Police arrest Nathan Campbell, 38, on suspicion of driving a car onto the crowded boardwalk Saturday, killing one person and injuring 11.

August 04, 2013|By Samantha Schaefer, Dan Weikel and Kurt Streeter

When he first saw the blue Dodge sedan screech around a corner at the Venice boardwalk, Mustafa Balci assumed that a driver had gotten confused and would quickly turn around.

But the car didn't turn around. It sped ahead Saturday evening, striking a metal trash can, destroying a table and then continuing "like a train" through the tent where Balci sells pendants, hitting his knees and flipping his wife through the air.

Police identified the driver of the Dodge as Nathan Campbell, 38, a transient who was arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with the hit-and-run crash that left one dead and 11 injured.

About an hour after the rampage, Campbell abandoned his blue sedan on a nearby street and walked into a police station to turn himself in, police said. Campbell, a Colorado native who sources said was possibly living in his car, is being held in lieu of $1-million bail. Police said Campbell asked how many people had been injured.

Alice Gruppioni, 32, an Italian tourist on her honeymoon, was killed, police and fire officials said. Gruppioni's husband, Christian Casadei, also of Italy, was hospitalized with minor injuries, according to European news media.

Another victim, whose name has not been released because of privacy laws, was listed in good condition Sunday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Four other people were treated at the hospital and released. Others suffered minor injuries and were released or being treated at local hospitals.

Yet not everybody found it easy to move on.

"If I was sitting a few inches to the left or to the right, I would have died," said Balci, whose wife landed in a nearby patch of grass after being thrown in the air by the car. Both were taken to a hospital with minor cuts and bruises.

Witnesses said the car appeared to reach speeds up to 60 mph as it raced roughly a quarter of a mile down the boardwalk — officially called Ocean Front Walk. The driver seemed to go out of his way to hit pedestrians.

"There were thousands of people on the promenade," said John Drolette, who watched the incident from the second-story balcony of the Cadillac Hotel. "He was zigzagging, he did it on purpose."

Surveillance video taken from a restaurant shows a man believed to be Campbell pacing near a dark-colored sedan, then getting into the car and speeding off, out of camera range. Another video shows the moments that followed: the sedan slamming into pedestrians, ramming a canopy, before turning left and speeding down Ocean Front Walk at a time when many people were simply waiting to watch the setting sun.

The driver entered Ocean Front by driving the car onto a sidewalk and finding enough space to maneuver it past five narrow concrete pylons used to block cars.

Several Venice locals said Sunday that more barriers were needed to keep motorists from deliberately or accidentally entering the boardwalk. Some streets that end at the boardwalk already have barriers while others do not.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, agreed that additional barriers were needed. He cautioned that they would have to be installed so that emergency vehicles and people with disabilities could get onto the boardwalk. He also said the issue is complicated because there are parking areas on the beach that can be reached only by driving over the boardwalk at Rose Avenue.

The hit-and-run crash left onlookers with searing images.

Drolette said the first indication he had that something was wrong came when he heard the gunning of an engine. A few moments later he watched the Dodge hit a woman who was shopping at a tent. The car carried her on the hood for a few yards until she rolled off. Then the car ran over her, picking up speed and zigzagging into a small group and hitting another woman.

Drolette said the car appeared to be dragging an ATM it had struck.

Others recalled the car ramming into a display of mannequins that ended up under the chassis, scraping against the pavement, creating a loud noise that some said was a lifesaver because it alerted them to danger.

"I didn't know what was coming, and I didn't want to find out," said Mark Barrios, 42, who was sitting at his tent when he heard a scraping sound and saw a wave of people running down the boardwalk.

Barrios hid behind a palm tree as he saw the car tear past him. In the background, he heard a man screaming, "Victoria! Victoria!"

The terror was over in moments. The Dodge first tried to exit through a parking lot but struck a sunglasses stand, onlookers recalled. Then it backed up and found a way out at Park Avenue, a street with no blocking barriers.

Emergency crews arrived, laying out tarps to help the injured who were strewn about the shattered, bloodied boardwalk as large crowds gathered behind police lines.

As news of Gruppioni's death began filtering through Venice on Sunday, life on the boardwalk began returning to normal.

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