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Deadly Times Square Crash Driver Pulled Knife on Man 7 Days Earlier: NYPD

By  Aidan Gardiner and Trevor Kapp | May 18, 2017 4:23pm | Updated on May 18, 2017 4:35pm

 Richard Rojas was arrested for on May 18 for killing an 18-year-old woman and injuring 22 others when he plowed his car through a Times Square crowd, police said.
Richard Rojas was arrested for on May 18 for killing an 18-year-old woman and injuring 22 others when he plowed his car through a Times Square crowd, police said.
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Facebook and DNAinfo/Trevor Kapp

MANHATTAN — The decorated Navy veteran who drove through a crowd of people in Times Square and killed a young woman Thursday had been arrested seven days prior for pulling a knife on a man he didn't know and asking, "Do you feel safe?" police said.

Richard Rojas, 26, a former sailor who left the Navy under a dark cloud in 2014 and never served overseas, was arrested May 11 when he grabbed the neck of a 45-year-old man with his left hand and pointed a kitchen knife at him inside his Walton Avenue home, near East Mount Eden Avenue, about 8:12 p.m., according to police and prosecutors.

"Do you feel safe? You stole my identity," Rojas told the man, according to police.

He was arrested for menacing and criminal possession of a weapon, but was allowed to walk free the day of his arraignment after the Bronx District Attorney's office offered him a plea deal for harassment 2, a violation, and gave him a conditional discharge at his arraignment before Judge Linda Poust Lopez.

He owed a $120 fine that was due by July 1, court officials said.

An NYPD spokeswoman didn't have further details about the incident.

Rojas was arrested seven days later when he was driving south on Seventh Avenue and pulled a U-turn at West 42nd Street where he hopped a curb several blocks north and plowed through a crowded sidewalk for several blocks before crashing to a halt, police said.

During the melee, Rojas fatally struck 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman of Michigan and injured her 13-year-old sister, police said.

In total, 22 people were injured, four of them critically, police said. It wasn't immediately clear why Rojas drove through the crowd, although Police Assistant Chief William Aubry said he made "certain statements" to police while in custody. Aubry declined to discuss the statements but said Rojas was being tested for drugs and alcohol, police said.

Rojas was arrested for murder, 20 counts of attempted murder and aggravated vehicular homicide, NYPD officials said.

Rojas, whose sparse Facebook profile includes a photo of him skydiving and said he attended William Taft High School in The Bronx, had been arrested for drunk driving in Queens in 2008, police said.

He pleaded guilty to a driving while impaired on alcohol, according a spokeswoman for the borough's District Attorney's office, and had his license suspended for 90 days. 

Rojas enlisted in the Navy on Sept. 17, 2011, and spent the next four months stationed in Illinois, Navy officials said.

He was then stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, from January 2012 through to June 2013 when he reached the rank of Electrician's Mate Fireman Apprentice and was stationed in the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, records show.

He remained at the brig until August 2013 when he was moved back to Jacksonville, records show.

He was awarded the National Defense Service Medal for being enlisted during the Global War on Terrorism but was "other than honorably discharged" on May 14, 2014, Navy officials said. The circumstances of his discharge weren't immediately clear.

He was caught drunken driving near West 79th Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway about 3:50 a.m. on April 22, 2015, according to the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

He pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol, an infraction, on Sept. 8 that year, prosecutors said. His license was suspended for 90 days, he had to pay a $500 fine and take a drunk driving program, prosecutors said.

Friends said after Rojas got back from military service, he began drinking heavily — loading up on Hennessey and Jack Daniels — which he used as "his medication" for dark thoughts and moods.

"When he came back from serving that’s when he was drinking a lot,” said Harrison Ramos, 30, who went to high school with Rojas. "I asked him to get help, but he didn’t. He’s not a terrorist. He served his country. He loved his country. He’s not a bad person. He just needs help.”

“Once he got back here, he felt like he was unappreciated. He served his country but it was hard for him to come back and find a job. he was having a lot of bad nightmares — just crazy thoughts... he would talk about demons and devils and conspiracies. His medication was drinking liquor.”

“Those crazy thoughts, I guess he didn’t want to think them, so he was drinking, drinking, drinking. I saw him about a week ago, and asked him 'how’s everything?' He just seemed a little lost in the world.”