Challenging the claims of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva that a crash last week that injured a group of recruits on a training run in South Whittier was intentional, the attorney for the 22-year-old driver called it “a tragic accident” that occurred when the man fell asleep at the wheel while on his way to work.
The driver, Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez of Diamond Bar, was traveling in a Honda CR-V on Wednesday morning to his job as an electrical engineer for a solar panel company, his attorney, Alexandra Kazarian, said Monday. Gutierrez, who wakes for work at 5 a.m., had not been up late the night before, she said.
“He’s a good kid that fell asleep on his way to work early in the morning,” Kazarian said.
The recruits — the majority of them from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department — were running in four columns, accompanied by drill instructors and two black-and-white radio cars, when an SUV veered onto the wrong side of the road and into the group about 6:30 a.m. near the sheriff’s STARS Center training academy.
The runners at the front of the formation were able to get out of the way before the SUV struck others and crashed into a light pole, authorities said.
In an interview with NewsNation last week, Villanueva said that investigators had “developed probable cause to believe [the crash] was intentional.” Villanueva later confirmed to The Times there was probable cause to arrest the driver on suspicion of attempted murder because of evidence he deliberately ran into the recruits.
“I have no idea why the sheriff said that,” Kazarian said. “All indications in the preliminary investigation are that there’s no evidence whatsoever that this was intentional.”
A Breathalyzer test was administered at the scene, and authorities found no evidence of alcohol, Villanueva said, noting that the driver “blew a 0.0.” But authorities are working to determine whether Gutierrez was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash. A law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said marijuana was recovered from the driver’s vehicle.
Kazarian said Gutierrez was taken to the hospital and received toxicology and sobriety testing. “Everything came back negative,” she said.
Gutierrez comes from a law enforcement family, Kazarian said. His father is a retired corrections officer and he has uncles in the Los Angeles Police Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Department.
“He harbors absolutely no animosity toward law enforcement,” Kazarian said. She added that reports that Gutierrez was a disgruntled academy recruit are “completely incorrect.” He “never had any association with being a recruit,” she said.
Gutierrez was released from custody Thursday after investigators said they needed more time to gather evidence and could not legally hold him for more than 48 hours without presenting the case to prosecutors.
In an interview with KNBC-TV Channel 4, Gutierrez also said that he “didn’t intentionally do it.”
“I wish it never happened. I feel bad it happened,” he said. He told the news outlet he was dragged from his Honda sports utility vehicle.
“They tried to say that I did it intentionally, which I didn’t,” he said. “I kept on telling them I didn’t. I asked if everything was OK.”
Kazarian said that Gutierrez was injured after the crash and that “it was not a result of the air bags or the accident itself.” She wouldn’t give any further details.
As of Sunday, four recruits from Sheriff’s Academy Class 464 remained in critical condition. One recruit, Alejandro Martinez, had suffered setbacks that left him in grave condition.
Martinez suffered brain swelling, compound femur fractures, a collapsed lung and damage to multiple organs and had been placed on a ventilator, according to sources familiar with the incident but who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Villanueva said he swore in Martinez as a full deputy Sunday.
“His life ambition is to be a deputy sheriff,” Villanueva said.