2 dead at SXSW after driver crashes into crowd; police ID suspect
Will Weissert, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, March 13, 2014 5:39AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 10:45PM EDT
AUSTIN, Texas -- Fleeing police, a driver gunned a grey Honda Civic through a street barricade and into a crowd of South By Southwest festival attendees early Thursday, killing two people, injuring 23 others and casting a pall over one of the nation's hippest celebrations of music, movies and technology.
The driver struck multiple pedestrians around 12:30 a.m. on a block filled with concertgoers, then sped down the street, hitting and killing a man from the Netherlands on a bicycle and an Austin woman on a moped, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said. The driver eventually crashed into a parked van and tried to flee on foot before police used a stun gun to subdue him.
Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21, will face two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle, Austin police said Thursday afternoon in a statement. Formal charges are still pending. The statement did not provide a city of residence.
Police said the incident started when an officer on a drunken-driving patrol tried to stop a vehicle. Acevedo indicated the suspect was drunk, but drunken driving was not among the charges police said Owens would face. Acevedo said investigators have obtained blood samples and were testing them.
Public records obtained by The Associated Press show that Owens had a previous conviction in Alaska for drunken driving and one in Texas for criminal trespassing.
Acevedo said he believed Owens was so intent on evading the police that he wilfully drove into the crowd.
"The bottom line is, when somebody's acting intentionally, and this is a person that was trying to get away, it's very difficult to stop," Acevedo said, adding later: "It's clear for me from his actions, from what I've seen, that this is an individual who showed no regard for the human beings that he plowed through in his attempt to get away."
Acevedo said the crash transformed Red River Street -- which is on the northeast edge of an Austin entertainment district that's packed at all hours of the day and night during South By Southwest -- into "basically a very long crime scene."
The crash was loud enough to shake the living room of Kirk Visser's condo, two stories up.
"I knew I had heard metal on a body," said the 47-year-old, who stepped out on his balcony to see people screaming and running in all directions.
Hours later, a pool of blood and bits of broken taillight were still in a crosswalk at the scene, with a trail of crimson droplets leading to the sidewalk. Still, concertgoers streamed in for another day of festivities, and by early afternoon, bass boomed through the area as bands played scheduled concerts nearby.
Now in its 27th year, South By Southwest has grown from a small showcase for up-and-coming bands to an international extravaganza, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and top music and Hollywood stars. Acevedo said the festival had never experienced a similar deadly incident before.
Roland Swenson, the festival's managing director, said events would continue "through this tragic time."
"I think it would probably cause more problems for everyone to show up and be turned away from a show than to just move ahead," Swenson said.
Three people were in critical condition Thursday afternoon, up from two earlier in the day.
"We are going to do our best for them, but these are some of the worst injuries that we see and not everybody with these kinds of injuries is going to survive," said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the emergency department director at the University Medical Center-Brackenridge, about three blocks from where the crash occurred and where most of the victims were taken.
Massive Music, a company with offices in Amsterdam, New York and London, said employee Steven Craenmehr, 35, died suddenly in Austin. Additional information wasn't available.
The Travis County medical examiner identified the other person who died as 27-year-old Jamie Ranae West of Austin. West was on the moped that was struck. Her husband, Evan West, was among those hospitalized.
The names of the other injured people were not released.
Public records obtained by the AP show that, as a 19-year-old, Owens was charged and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Fairbanks, Alaska, in October 2011. He also was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, but that charge was dismissed.
He also was charged in Alaska with criminal mischief related to a May 2012 incident. Court records show a warrant was issued for him in October 2012 after he failed to appear in court and the case remains open.
Records also show that in September 2010, Owens was arrested in Texas by the Killeen Independent School District police for criminal trespassing. He pleaded guilty and was convicted in October 2010.
Police said the latest incident started when an officer on a drunken-driving patrol tried to stop the driver at a gas station a few blocks away. The car took off, weaving between parked cars, and racing the wrong way down a one-way street.
The driver rammed through police barriers -- three wooden pieces held up by metal poles -- forcing an attending police officer to dive out of the way near The Mohawk nightclub, where the bands X and TEEN had just wrapped up and rapper Tyler the Creator was scheduled to perform at 1 a.m.
Next door, Ted Evans, 29, watched singer-songwriter Kurt Vile on the outdoor stage at Cheer Up Charlie's nightclub when the New York City resident said he heard what he thought was a gunshot.
"There was blood on the ground. I saw some people who had blood on their hands," said Evans, who said police cancelled shows at both clubs shortly after the incident.
The driver continued down the street, hitting a bicyclist, two people on a moped and a taxi before striking a van.
One bouquet of flowers sat by a telephone pole in front of The Mohawk on Thursday afternoon. Daytime concerts there and next door were cancelled, but Thursday evening's slate of bands was to go on as scheduled.
Associated Press journalists Chris Talbott, Chris Tomlinson and John Mone in Austin and AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.