In the Times Square shooting, the victims recount the horrors of the day

For some survivors, the sounds are part of what still haunts them: people screaming. Car tires squeak. An engine revs up.

It was “like someone just punched it down … It was so loud,” Jyll Elsman recently told a jury in a Manhattan courtroom. “That’s the last thing I remember before everything went black.”

When Elsman came to her senses, she frantically searched for her teenage daughters, only to find the ultimate mother’s nightmare. One of their children was dead and another badly injured — carnage left in its wake by a rampaging driver plowing through pedestrians on what began for one Michigan family as a mundane Times Square tourist excursion in 2017.

Elsman’s harrowing story is at the center of the ongoing trial of Richard Rojas, the man behind the wheel of a maroon Honda Accord who killed Elsman’s daughter and injured more than 20 others in an alleged attack with an elusive motive. Rojas, 31, has pleaded not guilty to murder, assault and other charges.

Prosecutors rely largely on the testimonies of victims like Elsman to lead a case against Rojas that could land him behind bars for decades. His lawyers say he had a nervous breakdown that day and was unable to understand what he was doing.

At the time, he was someone who was “suffering from schizophrenia and whose mind had deteriorated to the point where he was losing control,” defense attorney Enrico DeMarco said in his opening statement about a client who appeared apathetic during the trial. DeMarco added, “The evidence will show that he met the criteria for legal insanity.”

Prosecutor Alfred Peterson acknowledged that Rojas had some mental issues. But Peterson also argued the defendant was a military veteran who had lived a largely normal life and didn’t meet the standard of insanity.

“It was impossible for him not to know exactly what was happening,” the prosecutor said.

Experts are expected to address the mental health issue later in the process. At the moment, the jury is analyzing the prosecution’s case, which began when they saw a selfie on a video screen of Elsman, their daughters Ava and Alyssa, and a family friend taking a selfie on a video screen shortly before the tragedy, in the red stand in the middle of the Times Square sat hit.

The group was walking and “just looking around, looking for a place to eat,” when a car mounted the sidewalk, Elsman said. She testified that she felt herself being hit by the car, briefly deflated, and then pulled herself up to look for her daughters.

The mother found Ava, then 13, on the ground but still awake. Then she rushed around to look for Alyssa, who was 18 years old. What she found was devastating.

“I looked into her eyes and just knew she was dead. They have been fixed. You didn’t look around,” she said. “I could only scream.”

Thomas Patterson, an actor who was on his way to a rehearsal that day, took the witness stand to bring back vivid memories of the chaos.

“I saw someone being thrown 25 feet in the air, people being thrown around. It was an intense sight,” Patterson said.

On impulse: “I ran after the car,” he said. “I’m not particularly proud of that. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He said he collected himself and stopped to call 911.

Michael Elias, a tax attorney, testified that he saw “bodies flying, chaos, screaming people jumping out of the way.”

First responders found a survivor named Wissam Issa, a social worker who testified that he felt the full effects of the runaway Honda. Issa said he was hit “all over my left side of my face, all over my left side of my body, my back, my arm with the windshield.”

Ava, the younger Elsman daughter, was mown down in a similar fashion. She recited her multiple injuries to the jury: broken ribs, collapsed lung, a compound fracture of a leg, and other injuries that kept her from her feet for months.

She said a deeper injury occurred at the hospital when she asked her mother what happened to her older sister. She was answered with silence.

“Her mother’s face lowered,” she said. “And without words, I knew exactly what had happened.” In the Times Square shooting, the victims recount the horrors of the day

Bobby Allyn

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