US authorities Monday identified the driver suspected of plowing into a Christmas parade in the Midwestern city of Waukesha, killing at least five and wounding dozens, as media reported he was fleeing a knife fight.
The Sunday evening chaos in Wisconsin, which saw a red SUV speed into a crowd of men, women and children raised immediate fears of a deliberate act — in a state where tensions have spiked following a high-profile acquittal in a racially-charged trial.
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But CNN and NBC both cited law enforcement sources as saying there was no known connection to terrorism at this stage — nor to Friday’s verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, a teen who fatally shot two people during Black Lives Matter protests in nearby Kenosha last year.
The SUV was recovered and a person of interest taken into custody, with Waukesha police identifying Darrell E. Brooks as “the main suspect in this senseless tragedy.”
Police described him as a 39-year-old man from nearby Milwaukee with an open court case connected to domestic violence, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Court records show that Brooks was charged multiple times in the past two years with recklessly endangering the safety of others, for firearms offenses, and this month for a domestic abuse incident.
Multiple US media quoted investigators as saying there were signs the driver was fleeing another incident when he barrelled through barricades and into the parade that had been celebrating the festive season.
The Washington Post reported, citing a local law enforcement official, that Brooks had sped away from the scene of a knife fight when police arrived, driving into the parade route.
Corey Montiho, a school district board member in the Milwaukee suburb, was near a restaurant when he heard that his daughter’s youth dance team had been struck.
“There were pom-poms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere,” he was quoted as saying by the Journal Sentinel.
“I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter. My wife and two daughters were almost hit.”
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly called it a “horrible and senseless” act, while Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers ordered flags across the state lowered to half-staff.
“We continue to pray for the Waukesha community and the kids, loved ones, and neighbors whose lives were forever changed by an unthinkable tragedy last night,” Evers tweeted Monday.
A vigil in Waukesha was scheduled for 5:00 pm (2200 GMT).
– ‘Deafening cries’ –
In Washington, President Joe Biden offered words of support to a community stunned by a “horrific act of violence,” and paid his respects to families “facing the fresh grief of a life without a loved one.”
While police confirmed at least five deaths and 40 injured, there were fears the toll may yet rise, and the city was left in shock.
Witnesses described an terrifying scene on Main Street, where school bands and other groups were marching before bundled up spectators lining the road.
Sandra Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Catholic church, said one of its priests was injured, “as well as multiple parishioners and Waukesha Catholic school children.”
Witness Angela O’Boyle, whose apartment overlooked the parade in the Milwaukee suburb, told CNN: “All I heard was screaming and then people yelling out their children’s names.”
A total of 11 adults and 12 children were taken to six area hospitals, Fire Chief Steven Howard said.
Schools and city hall remained closed Monday, as did some roads while the investigation continued.
Angelito Tenorio, running for Wisconsin state treasurer, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he “saw an SUV cross over, just put the pedal to the metal and just zooming full speed along the parade route.”
“And then we heard a loud bang, and just deafening cries and screams.”