Bill Handel

Bill Handel

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Cadet Injured by SUV in `Grave Condition'; Suspect Denies Intentional Act

Photo: Blake Troli, KFI News

SOUTH WHITTIER (CNS) - One of the four Los Angeles County law enforcement cadets critically injured when they were struck by an SUV during a training run in South Whittier last Wednesday has suffered medical setbacks and is in "grave condition" and on life support Monday.

Meanwhile, the motorist who struck the group of cadets spoke out for the first time since the crash, insisting the crash was an accident, not an intentional act, as Sheriff Alex Villanueva contended last week.

"I fell asleep at the wheel," Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez, 22, of Diamond Bar, told NBC4. "I woke up to the sound of (recruits) banging on the windows."

Gutierrez was behind the wheel of a Honda CRV that plowed into a group of law enforcement cadets early Wednesday morning. Two dozen recruits were injured, four critically.

One of those critically injured recruits, identified by the sheriff's department as Alejandro Martinez, was listed in grave condition on Monday. The sheriff's department asked the public to "keep him and his family in your prayers."

Sheriff's officials said three other cadets remain in critical condition, while the rest of the more than two dozen trainees who were injured in the Wednesday morning crash have been released from hospitals, according to the sheriff's department.

The cadets were injured when the SUV swerved into a group of about 75 law enforcement trainees who were on an organized run around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday in the 10600 block of Mills Avenue, near Telegraph Road, just blocks from the sheriff's STARS Explorer Academy law enforcement training center.

Sheriff's officials said the group of recruits was running in columns northbound on the roadway when the southbound SUV swerved to the opposite side of the road and plowed into the trainees, leaving a trail of injured bodies that Villanueva compared to a plane crash.

The SUV then slammed into a light pole, which was knocked to the ground. The vehicle was estimated to be traveling at about 30-40 mph at the time, authorities said.

A law enforcement vehicle was behind the runners for traffic control, but there was no vehicle in front of them. The first runners managed to avoid being hit by the oncoming SUV, which plowed into those behind them, authorities said.

Villanueva said the most serious injuries included head trauma, broken bones, and "loss of limb."

The sheriff said the training class included recruits from the sheriff's department and various other law enforcement agencies, and those who were injured included two each from the Bell and Glendale police departments and one from the Pasadena Police Department. The rest were all sheriff's department trainees.

Villanueva on Wednesday indicated the crash initially appeared to be a tragic accident, noting that the motorist did not appear to be drunk, with a Breathalyzer test finding no signs of alcohol in his system. But he said Thursday that the driver appeared to run into the group on purpose.

"They (investigators) went through an exhaustive interview process with everyone involved," Villanueva said during an appearance on NewsNation. "With video surveillance, statements from recruits, the physical evidence they have, and what they got from the suspect himself, they were able to form the opinion that this was a deliberate act."

But Gutierrez, in his interview with NBC4, denied intentionally plowing into the cadets.

"I didn't intentionally do it," he said. "I with it never happened. I feel bad it happened."

He told the station that sheriff's investigators "tried to say that I did it intentionally, which I didn't. I kept on telling them I didn't."

Gutierrez was arrested hours after the crash and booked on suspicion of attempted murder of a peace officer. But late Thursday night, he was released from custody, with sheriff's officials saying the complex case needed more extensive investigation. State law allows authorities to hold a suspect in custody for only 48 hours unless criminal charges are filed by prosecutors.

Gutierrez's attorney, Alexandra Kazarian, told Los Angeles Magazine that Gutierrez comes from a law enforcement family and has "zero animosity toward law enforcement."

"Homicide investigators have no evidence whatsoever to say this was intentional," Kazarian told the magazine.

Kazarian noted that Gutierrez is the son of a retired corrections officer, and he has brothers and cousins who are in law enforcement.

"He is a hard-working young man who lives with his parents and installs solar panels for a living," Kazarian told LA Magazine.

Gutierrez told Channel 4 he doesn't remember exactly what happened leading up to the crash, insisting he fell asleep behind the wheel while heading to his job as an electrician installing solar panels.

The Sheriffs' Relief Association -- which provides aid to department members during times of crisis -- is accepting donations from the public to support the injured recruits. People who wish to donate can write checks payable to the Sheriffs Relief Foundation, with "Class 464 Recruits" on the memo line, and send them to the association at 11515 Colima Road, Building B Whittier, CA 90604.

The Sheriffs’ Relief Foundation is also accepting donations via Venmo and Paypal.

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