Sunnyvale crash intentional, but not terrorism; man's mental health in question

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Authorities in Sunnyvale are recommending eight counts of attempted murder charges for the driver who apparently acted intentionally when he ran over a group of people Tuesday night and was seen praising Jesus repeatedly after the violent collision. 

But his family countered that the former Army sergeant suffers from PTSD and is a good, church-going man. 

At an afternoon news conference on Wednesday, police said there was no indication the suspect, Isaiah Joel Peoples, 34, had any ties to organized terrorist groups. Capt. Jim Choi with the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safely said Peoples admitted to driving his car into the victims on purpose, that he was coherent at the time of the arrest and that he has been cooperative with police in their investigation. 

Of the eight victims, a 13-year-old girl was said to have suffered the most injuries and remains in critical condition. She is a Sunnyvale resident, according to police. Four other victims are hospitalized but are in stable condition. One of them was a 9-year-old boy, making him the youngest victim associated with the accident. While he wasn't directly hit, he was in proximity of the crash when a parent pulled him away. Two of the victims were treated and released at the scene. 

Earlier on Wednesday police served a search warrant at Peoples' apartment.

The crash happened at El Camino Real and Saratoga Sunnyvale Road around 6:40 p.m. A man driving a black, four-door sedan west on El Camino Real struck pedestrians in the Saratoga Sunnyvale crosswalk, then hit pedestrians waiting to cross the road.

According to witnesses, Peoples repeatedly began thanking Jesus before he was arrested. 

Witness Shantain Vargas said she heard Peoples say, "Thank you, Jesus, yes Jesus, praise Jesus," but did not comment further or offer an apology for the crash. 

"He was not remorseful at all," she said. "The vibe that I got was that this was a service to God." 

Vargas said there was blood everywhere, and that she saw a young man lying in the bushes at the intersection and two other victims. "I can't get the image of the victim out of my head," Vargas said.

Witness video also shows Peoples praising Elijah, an Old Testament prophet, as he was handcuffed Tuesday evening under a small grove of trees at the busy intersection. The video shows him on the ground, rocking back and forth as officers talked to him calmly. 

Possibly because of these statements, FBI spokesman Prentice Danner said Wednesday that his agency was called in to help authorities in Sunnyvale. But "should it be determined that a federal crime was committed, we will become more involved,'' Danner said.

The investigation is ongoing, Capt. Choi said and they are still looking into the motive. 

Choi said at the 3 p.m. news conference that three of the victims were family members, and two others were somehow related. Those who were hit, including two bicyclists, were either crossing the street in a crosswalk or standing at the corner. Three people were taken to Stanford Medical Center. One has since been released, while two others remain hospitalized at Valley Medical Center in San Jose.  

Peoples' car slammed into a tree after slamming into the people, but he was not injured, police said.

"I saw this woman, her body flying up in the air. She was upside down in front of me. She was relatively high up and then she fell right in front of my car," said witness Don Draper. The 72-year-old said he was compelled to go after the guy once his car hit a tree. 

"I was yelling at him, 'What's the matter with you? What's the matter with you?' He was inside the car, the airbags had popped and he was sitting there and saying thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus," said Draper. 

"This is very tragic, very concerning to us," Choi said.

Bob Ballard of Oakland, who said he is the uncle of Peoples, said his nephew is a “good man” and has never been involved in gangs or drugs and goes to church regularly. He said Peoples has had past mental health issues and has suffered from PTSD. 

KTVU spoke to Leevell Peoples, the mother of the suspect on Wednesday. She said she found out about the incident like most people did -- on the news. 

"I was looking for the color of his car, because I was like, 'Oh no. Maybe he was out there, but I didn't see his car," Leevell said. She said different stations have been calling family members on this story and that his grandmother was contacted first before his brother who lives in Sacramento. 

"He's never been in any trouble in his life," the mother said, describing shock as her initial reaction. She said he was a sharpshooter in the Army, a veteran who came back with PTSD from Iraq. 

Lt. Emanuel L. Ortiz confirmed that Peoples served as a civil affairs specialist in the Army Reserve from March 2004 to July 2009, attaining the rank of Sergeant.  He deployed to Iraq from June 2005 to May 2006.

"I asked him like two weeks ago. I said, 'you're still taking your meds, right?' And he said, 'Yes. All the time,'" Leevell said. She was not aware of what kind of medication he was on, only that it was for PTSD and that he got out of a veteran's hospital in 2015. 

In a later on-camera interview, the mother said she was sorry this had happened, but that her son didn't do it on purpose. She said Peoples may have suffered a seizure or that his car malfunctioned. 

Authorities are still determining records for Peoples and other possible aliases to see if he has any criminal history as well as looking into the possibility that he could have mental illness. 

Peoples is being held at Santa Clara County Jail.  

Bay City News contributed to this report