Norwegian tourist made wrong turn, sentenced to 7.5 years
This photo shows the border of the Navajo community of To'Hajiilee, New Mexico, on March 13, 2012. (AP / Susan Montoya Bryan)
Published Saturday, April 28, 2012 2:09PM EDT
WINSLOW, Ariz. - A Norwegian man who took a wrong turn onto a one-way street in an Arizona town and drove through a street festival has been sentenced to more than seven years in state prison.
John Kristoffer Larsgard, 33, was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and six other charges in Navajo County last month. A reporter for Norway's largest paper, VG, wrote about the trial in March, drawing international attention.
Larsgard's lawyer said the case is a miscarriage of justice involving a confused driver. The county prosecutor said Larsgard turned his car into a weapon, hitting one woman and nearly running over several other people.
Larsgard and his mother, Liv Larsgard, of Oslo, were driving across the U.S. when they had car trouble in Winslow, Ariz., last September, The Arizona Republic reported. They left the car there, got a rental car in another town and returned to pick up their possessions.
When they arrived back in the northwestern Arizona city made famous by the 1972 Eagles song "Take It Easy," they found an annual festival celebrating the song under way. Musicians, vendors, food tents and people crowded the streets.
Faced with numerous street closures, the pair soon were lost, and everyone agrees John Larsgard turned onto a crowded one-way street headed the wrong way. What happened next is in dispute.
Liv Larsgard said in an interview with Republic partner KPNX-TV that bystanders waved and screamed, but she could see the auto business where their belongings were stored, so they kept going. She got out and walked alongside the car, trying to explain to people why they just needed to go a little further.
"They became so angry, like we were trying to hurt someone," she said.
In an interview from jail Thursday, John Larsgard told a different story. He said he had no idea he was on a one-way street. With the windows up and the radio on, he thought his mom was getting directions.
Liv Larsgard said she and her son became fearful when angry people surrounded the car as it entered a lot next to the auto-body shop. John Larsgard put the car into reverse, hit the gas pedal too hard, and the car jumped a curb.
Defense attorney Criss Candelaria said the rear of the car approached a food stand on the sidewalk, and "people went nuts." John Larsgard said he wasn't aware anything was wrong and pulled away.
Witnesses later told police and prosecutors that Larsgard was making threats, and when he backed across the curb, his bumper nudged a pole of the food tent, dangerously close to the woman and children operating the stand.
Larsgard said he never made threats and was not aware he had almost backed into a food tent until days later when he was informed of the charges. They originally included 36 counts, including four of attempted second-degree murder.
Court documents say the children's father ran after Larsgard, following the car through a parking lot, down an alley and onto a side street, where he pulled over. As people approached, he rolled down the window, and the father punched him in the face.
Larsgard said he panicked, pressing the accelerator and throwing the car into gear to escape.
According to witnesses and police reports, he swerved toward several people as he made a U-turn. One told investigators the driver tried to hit him. One woman was struck by the car as she ran toward a nearby group of children she thought were in danger.
Larsgard apologized Thursday, blaming his state of mind for his erratic driving.
Candelaria said all his client was trying to do was leave as quickly as possible. The judge and jury rejected that explanation at his trial, and Larsgard is now awaiting transfer to Arizona's prison system to serve a 7 1/2 year sentence.
Witnesses and Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon described an enraged motorist who refused pleas to turn around and instead screamed at pedestrians and drove as if aiming to hurt someone.
"It was a case of bizarre, aggressive driving behavior," Carlyon said. "He was gesturing, he was yelling. People were getting out of the way for fear of being hurt."
Carlyon said John Larsgard has a history of aggressive behavior that received police attention in Alabama, Illinois and California, including a case in which he was accused of running over a man's bicycle in a fit of anger. None of those episodes led to a conviction.
George Orlander, honorary Norwegian consul in Phoenix, said the Scandinavian country will not intervene in Larsgard's case and can only visit him and offer support.
"Norway is very respective of local law," Orlander said. "We cannot as a country intervene, any more than we would want the U.S. to intervene in our jurisdiction."