Cab driver attacked by man accused in NYC crash knew man needed help

Teen killed, 22 others injured by ex-sailor in Times Square, police say

By Jim Piggott - Reporter , Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A cab driver attacked in Jacksonville five years ago by a man now accused of plowing into a crowd of pedestrians on the sidewalks of Times Square told News4Jax that he feels sorry for the former Navy sailor.

Richard Rojas, 26, is charged with second-degree murder, aggravated vehicular homicide and multiple counts of attempted murder.

While stationed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in 2012, Rojas was arrested after police said he attacked a cab driver who tried to collect a $162 fare for driving Rojas from Mayport to the NAS Jax base.

"Once I got close enough to him, that's when he proceeded to attack me,” said the cab driver, who asked not to be identified. “First he punched me a couple of times and then he started kicking me and got on top of me and telling me that he would kill me."

That attack landed the driver in the hospital.

DOCUMENT: 2012 arrest report of Richard Rojas

"Even through all of that, I felt so much empathy for him that I sort of understood that anger he was trying to release,” the driver said.

He said that's because during the cab ride before the assault, he and Rojas had a long talk.

"He was very intoxicated, so he went from happy to sad. Myself, being a veteran, empathized with him,” the driver said.

But when he heard Rojas was the man arrested for in the deadly Times Square crash, the 2012 attack rushed back to his mind.

"Once I heard the name, it brought back a memory, but, again, empathy, because of my personal experience with him and (it) confirmed that the young man truly, truly needed help,” the driver said.

Prosecutors said in court Friday that Rojas, who is charged with slamming his speeding car into pedestrians on the sidewalks of Times Square, killing a teenage tourist and injuring nearly two dozen people, said he wanted to "kill them all" and police should have shot him to stop him.

Rojas also told responding officers Thursday after he crashed his Honda Accord into protective barriers that he had smoked marijuana laced with PCP, according to a criminal complaint. Officials are awaiting toxicology results, though a police official said Rojas "had glassy eyes, slurred speech, and was unsteady," during his arrest, the complaint said.

Rojas drove his car from the Bronx to Times Square, where he sped into the bustling Crossroads of the World, hitting nearly two dozen people on the sidewalk before steel security barriers finally stopped him, authorities said.

Eighteen-year-old tourist Alyssa Elsman, of Portage, Michigan, was killed in the crash. Her 13-year-old sister was among the 22 injured.

Three people are in critical condition with serious head injuries, and a fourth person is being treated for a collapsed lung and broken pelvis, according to the complaint.

Rojas, who enlisted in the Navy in 2011, was an electrician's mate fireman apprentice. In 2012, he served aboard the USS Carney, a destroyer homeported in Mayport.

Navy records show that in 2013 he spent two months at a naval prison in Charleston, South Carolina. They don't indicate why.

Rojas spent his final months in the Navy at NAS Jax before being discharged in 2014 as the result of a special court martial, a Navy official said.

"From my understanding, due to the battery charge was the ultimate reason he was discharged from the military,” the cab driver said.

The police report from 2012 said Rojas also threatened to kill police and military police that were involved in his arrest in Jacksonville. The driver said he did not hear that but was told that later by investigating officers.     

The charges were later dropped.

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.