By TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH
City News Service
A man who was behind the wheel of a car that plowed through the crowded Venice boardwalk last summer, killing an Italian woman on her honeymoon and injuring more than a dozen other people, was ordered today to stand trial on murder and other charges.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Antonio Barreto Jr. found sufficient evidence to require Nathan Louis Campbell, 38, to proceed to trial on one count of murder, 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 10 counts of leaving the scene of an an accident.
The prosecution agreed to drop seven other counts of leaving the scene of an accident, and the judge dismissed one more.
Alice Gruppioni, a 32-year-old woman visiting Venice on her honeymoon, was killed Aug. 3 when Campbell allegedly sped south down Ocean Front Walk from Dudley Avenue to near Sunset Avenue, causing chaos and panic at one of Los Angeles' biggest tourist magnets. Campbell turned himself in to Santa Monica police an hour after the incident.
Outside court, defense attorney Philip Dube said, "He never intended to hurt anybody or to kill that young lady, ever. He is not a homicidal person."
He contended that what happened was an accident and that his client "panicked," saying Campbell had experienced problems with the shift lever on the 2008 Dodge Avenger he had bought a few weeks earlier at a used car dealership in Colorado and was struggling to get it of the parking gear when he gunned the vehicle and it went forward.
Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila said Campbell was "going down a two-block boardwalk" and "hit people at different locations," telling the judge that it is the prosecution's position that Campbell "drove that vehicle, hitting whatever got in his way."
Campbell — who has been jailed since that day — is due back at the Airport Branch Courthouse on Jan. 22 for arraignment.
During testimony at the preliminary hearing last month, John Drolette told the judge that he was standing on the second-floor balcony of the nearby Cadillac Hotel when a car entered the boardwalk.
"He hit an ATM machine and just shattered it basically," Drolette said, noting that the vehicle then went toward the beach and hit a vendor's tent before veering left and going down the boardwalk.
He testified that a woman was knocked onto the car's hood and two vendors were knocked back toward the sand as the Avenger "revved up" and "continued down the boardwalk."
"A little bit further down the boardwalk, her body rolled off the vehicle," Drolette said of the woman who was atop the car's hood.
He said people started screaming when the tent was hit and "naturally parted."
"It went left, right, zigging down the boardwalk, hitting people who had moved out of the way," the observer said.
Mustafa Balci, a vendor who sitting with his wife in a booth on Ocean Front Walk, testified that he saw the vehicle hit an ATM but expected it to stop as it continued toward him.
"When the car hit the trash can, it slowed him down a little bit. I thought it was going to stop right there, but it continued," Balci said. "That trash can saved my life."
He said the Dodge's front bumper hit both of his knees, which he said have been "weak" since the crash. He said his wife was thrown about eight feet to the grass.
Kevin Salveson, who was bicycling with his two children on the bike path nearby, said he heard a scream and saw the car slam into several booths.
"No, absolutely not," Salveson said when asked if the car's driver had honked his horn or warned any pedestrians.
He said he was shocked that the driver didn't stop and just kept going, saying he saw the man smiling.
"I saw that he didn't have any remorse," Salveson said, describing the man as "smiling like he enjoyed what he had just done."
Defense attorney Philip Dube questioned what Salveson had seen, noting that Campbell is missing teeth.
In other testimony, Los Angeles police Detective Robert Riske said he spoke with the dead woman's husband, Christian Casadei, and was informed that they were newlyweds who were visiting Los Angeles and were due to travel next to Tahiti. The woman's husband told police the two were walking southbound on Ocean Front Walk when they heard the revving of a car behind them.
Casadei told police that he grabbed his wife and tried to run toward a building, but that she was nowhere to be seen after the car came toward them. Casadei told police he saw his wife — who was bleeding and appeared to be unconscious — surrounded by bystanders further down the boardwalk, the detective testified.
Los Angeles police Sgt. Benjamin Zucker testified that he could smell a "moderate" odor of alcohol when he met with Campbell a few hours later. He said Campbell told him that he had drunk vodka after the crash.