SANTA MONICA, Calif. – As friends, relatives and even strangers wept for the dead, authorities said it would be several days before they could conclude whether an elderly man whose car barreled through a busy farmers market could be held criminally liable for the crash that killed 10 people and injured dozens more.
Police say Russell Weller (search), 86, told them he was leaving a post office Wednesday afternoon and didn't realize until too late that a street crammed with pedestrians and produce was closed for Santa Monica's popular twice-a-week farmers market. They said Weller believes he might have hit the gas instead of the brake as he tried to avoid the crowd.
"Unless there's intent later proven, I think what we're going to find is we have an 86-year-old driver that may not have been as competent as he needed to be to drive," Police Chief James T. Butts said Thursday. "So we're pursuing this as if it were a criminal act. But we're going to let the facts speak for themselves and we'll sort this out at the end."
Weller's attorney, Jim Bianco, called the crash a tragic accident and said Weller's thoughts were with the victims.
Police Lt. Frank Fabrega told The Associated Press authorities had finished collecting evidence at the scene, but might need several more days to finish their investigation. They also visited Weller's house Thursday, where Butts said they found evidence he had recently struck his garage with his car at least twice.
Meanwhile, people who attended a birthday party that Weller was a guest at 10 years ago released a videotape that was made after he smashed his car into a retaining wall upon his arrival. Because no one was hurt, the tape was made in a lightheaded fashion and even included credits listing Weller as a "stunt driver."
The car in the video, the same one involved in Wednesday's crash, was to have its brakes and other equipment checked by the California Highway Patrol (search).
The longtime Santa Monica resident's aging Buick sedan, which witnesses said was traveling as fast as 70 mph, raced along the entire length of the open-air farmers market on Wednesday, knocking down stalls, scattering produce and hitting as many as 50 people. Ten victims, ranging in age from 7 months to 78 years, were killed. By Thursday night, 20 people were still hospitalized, five in critical condition.
The dead, reflecting Southern California's eclectic population, represented a cross-section of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
They included a famous actor's daughter-in-law, the matriarch of a struggling Mexican immigrant family, husband-and-wife film producers who had recently relocated from New York, and a former welder from Shreveport, La.
Lynne Ann Weaver, who was actor Dennis Weaver's daughter-in-law, lived in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley with her husband, Robby, and a teenage daughter. She worked at a nonprofit organization called Afterschool All-Stars, which has an office near the market.
Gloria Olivera Gonzalez, a struggling immigrant from Mexico, cleaned an office to make extra money before going for vegetables to serve her children. She lived in the nearby Venice section of Los Angeles with her husband and their 9-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
She arrived in the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, 15 years ago.
"When we came in and we didn't have a place to stay, we didn't have dishes in the kitchen, she was the one who said, 'Go to the beach and pick up cans, and we'll make our way up,"' her sister-in-law Maria Martinez recalled.
Leroy Lattier, 55, had moved to Southern California from Shreveport, La., about a year ago, said his niece Rhonda Lattier of Shreveport.
"He was a very lovable, very funny person," she said.
As she and other friends and family members grieved, some of those lucky enough to avoid injury returned Thursday to the market area just blocks from Santa Monica's shimmering beaches and famous pier.
Fay Cohen, 42, sat at a coffee shop near the crash scene and wept, as she recalled the images of the day before.
"I saw three people killed before my eyes and I couldn't do anything for them," Cohen said. "I saw this man, he was bleeding and his eyes were opening and closing. I was trying to help him but I couldn't. I came back here because it wasn't finished for me. I don't think I ever will heal from this."