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Suspect in Venice crash had history of run-ins with authorities

Records show Nathan Campbell had arrests in Colorado, Florida on trespassing, reckless driving. And he'd had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Charges could be filed against him Tuesday.

August 05, 2013|By Kate Mather, Andrew Blankstein and Hailey Branson-Potts
  • Nathan Louis Campbell and a scene from a video showing pedestrians avoiding a Dodge Avenger on the Venice boardwalk.
Nathan Louis Campbell and a scene from a video showing pedestrians avoiding…

Nathan Louis Campbell came to Los Angeles less than a month ago, driving a 2008 Dodge Avenger just purchased from a dealership in Littleton, Colo.

The 38-year-old lived in Hollywood nearly two decades ago, living on and off for a few months at Covenant House, which provides services and housing for homeless youth. It's unclear how he spent the years in between — aside from a string of petty crimes in Colorado and Florida, little is known about him.

As a spotty picture emerged Monday of the suspect in Saturday's deadly hit-and-run on the Venice boardwalk, investigators attempted to fill in the gaps and better understand what might have motivated Campbell's alleged crimes.

PHOTOS: Pedestrians hit on Venice boardwalk

Witnesses say the driver of the Dodge Avenger appeared to deliberately target pedestrians as the vehicle tore through crowded Ocean Front Walk, sending tourists and vendors diving for cover. Alice Gruppioni, a 32-year-old Italian woman who was on her honeymoon, was killed and 16 others injured.

Authorities said Campbell turned himself in to Santa Monica police shortly after the incident and was arrested on suspicion of murder. Sources familiar with the investigation said he made statements at the time of his arrest implicating himself but did not elaborate on what specifically he had said.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office was expected to file charges against Campbell on Tuesday.

As officials worked to determine a motive, they continued to examine Campbell's background.

Public records showed Campbell had lived in Georgia, Florida and most recently Colorado. The records also showed that Campbell had a history of arrests in both Denver and Florida, including an April 2008 reckless driving arrest involving alcohol in Panama City Beach.

Four months later, he was charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace in Denver, according to Melissa Drazen-Smith, assistant director of prosecutions for the Denver city attorney's office. He pleaded guilty to trespassing, and the other charge was dropped. He received a fine, Drazen-Smith said, but didn't pay it and spent a few days in jail in early 2009.

In February of that year, he was arrested after allegedly shoplifting from a Virgin Megastore at a Denver mall, Drazen-Smith said. Campbell was picked up by store security after he put a pair of headphones down his pants and tried to leave the store.

He pleaded guilty and spent five days in jail, Drazen-Smith said.

In July 2009, he was arrested on suspicion of trespassing at the same mall after buying a movie ticket and refusing to leave the theater, Drazen-Smith said. He had been warned twice before not to go to the theater, she said.

Campbell again pleaded guilty and spent time in a sheriff's work program, Drazen-Smith said.

His movements in subsequent years remain unclear, though sources familiar with the investigation said detectives were focused on the months immediately leading up to Saturday's incident and whether any major life events could help explain his actions.

The sources said Campbell had a history of drug and alcohol addiction, but did not elaborate. They added that he had been clean and sober for some time but had recently relapsed.

Detectives were also re-interviewing witnesses and examining photo and videotape evidence in an attempt to establish a firm timeline as well as determine whether Campbell intentionally accelerated into the people on the boardwalk as witnesses reported.

Video taken from a Dudley Avenue restaurant shows a man believed to be Campbell pacing near a sedan, then getting into the car and driving suddenly forward, out of camera range. Officials said the car entered Ocean Front Walk by driving onto the sidewalk and maneuvering past five narrow concrete pylons meant to block cars.

The vehicle appeared to reach speeds near 60 mph as it sped a quarter of a mile down the boardwalk, witnesses said. The driver tried to leave through a parking lot but struck a stand selling sunglasses, onlookers said. The car then backed up and exited at Park Avenue, a street with no blocking barriers, they said.

By Monday, a colorful canvas added to the makeshift memorials dotting the boardwalk. Shelly Gomez, 52, put the canvas down, inviting visitors to "Help create a canvas of 'Love + Light' for the family of [Gruppioni] from the Venice Beach Community." Splashes of orange, neon-green and yellow filled the canvas by early afternoon.

Gomez was one of the artists who watched Saturday when the car barreled through the crowd.

"After the car started hitting all these people, it was like a video game," she said.

As witnesses rushed to help the injured, Gomez said, she sat with Gruppioni's husband and told him to try to stay calm.

"He was just screaming for his wife," she said. "He was just very distraught."

The Los Angeles County coroner's department completed an autopsy on Gruppioni on Monday and determined that she died of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck. Her death was listed as a homicide, coroner's spokesman Ed Winter said.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti called Saturday's rampage a tragedy and said he planned to get in touch with Gruppioni's husband and family.

"This should have been the happiest moment of her life," he said.

kate.mather@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton, Joseph Serna, Samantha Schaefer and Matt Stevens contributed to this report.

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