WAUKESHA, Wis. (AP) — Investigators are looking into whether the SUV driver who plowed through a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee, killing at least five people and injuring more than 40, was fleeing a crime, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.
The joyous scene of marching bands and children dancing in Santa hats and waving pompoms gave way in an instant Sunday to screams and the sight of crumpled bodies as the SUV sped through barricades and struck dancers, musicians and others. Members of a “Dancing Grannies” club were among those killed.
“It looked like dummies being thrown in the air,” said Nicole Schneiter, who was there with her children and grandchildren. “It took second to register, like, ‘Is that just we really just saw?’ And then you looked in the road and there were just people laying in road.”
At least nine patients — most of them children — were listed in critical condition Monday at two hospitals, and seven others were reported in serious condition.
One person was taken into custody after a Waukesha police officer opened fire to try to stop the vehicle, authorities said.
Two law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized the discuss the matter publicly, identified the person as 39-year-old Darrell Brooks.
Investigators were questioning him about an earlier crime Sunday, which one of the officials described as an argument involving a knife. The official cautioned the investigation was still in the early stages.
Online court records showed that a person named Darrell Brooks Jr., with a birthdate making him 39, has two open criminal cases in Milwaukee County. In one case, filed Nov. 5, he is charged with resisting or obstructing an officer, reckless endangering, disorderly conduct, bail jumping and battery. Records show $1,000 cash bond was posted on Friday.
In the other case, filed in July 2020, Brooks is charged with reckless endangering and illegal possession of a firearm.
The Milwaukee County district’s attorney office emailed reporters copies of the criminal complaints in both of those cases. In the more recent one, a woman told police that Brooks deliberately ran her over with his vehicle in a gas station parking lot after a fight. She was hospitalized for her injuries.
The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether the Brooks in custody was the same one named in the two complaints.
The horror was recorded by the city’s livestream and onlookers' cellphones. One video shows the moment the SUV broke through the barricades and includes the apparent sound of several gunshots.
Waukesha Police Chief Dan Thompson said he did not know if the driver was hit by the officer’s bullets.
“It was like a war scene walking through there,” said Ken Walter, who had been riding in the parade in a hot air balloon basket along with his wife and youngest son. “There were these piles of blankets with cops standing over them that you just knew were bodies.”
Walter said he saw a red SUV careen into view and watched it hit a member of his real estate-agency parade contingent, then barrel straight into members of the Waukesha South High School marching band.
The SUV continued down the parade route. Behind it, people were screaming, running, searching for family and friends and unsure whether they were still in danger, he recalled.
“It was like everything went into slow motion, and I couldn’t hear anything,” Walter said.
Schneiter said after sheltering in a store, she emerged to see bodies in the street, along with strollers, chairs, candy, random shoes. “Just stuff everywhere,” she said. “You can’t believe that really happened. It felt like we were in a movie or something. It just felt crazy.”
The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies posted on its Facebook page that its members were “doing what they loved, performing in front of crowds in a parade putting smiles on faces of all ages, filling them with joy and happiness.”
“Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies. Their eyes gleamed ... joy of being a Grannie. They were the glue ... held us together," the organization said.
A Roman Catholic priest, parishioners and Waukesha Catholic schoolchildren were among those injured, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee said.
Eighteen children ages 3 to 16 were brought to Children’s Wisconsin Hospital, including three sets of siblings, said Dr. Amy Drendel, medical director of the emergency department. They suffered injuries ranging from scrapes on their faces to broken bones and serious head injuries, she said. Six were listed in critical condition.
“This is unique and truly demonstrates the devastating effects of this on our community,” said Dr. Michael Meyer, head of the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.
At the White House, President Joe Biden said that “we don’t have all the facts and details yet” but that his administration was closely monitoring the situation.
The Waukesha school district canceled classes Monday and said extra counselors would be on hand for students and staff. The parade’s lineup included cheer, dance and band entries associated with district schools.
The parade, held each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, is sponsored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. This year’s event, the 59th, had the theme of “comfort and joy.”
Waukesha is a western suburb of Milwaukee, and about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Kenosha, where Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted Friday of charges stemming from the fatal shooting of two men and the wounding of a third during unrest in that city in August 2020.
This story has been corrected to show that online court records indicate a Darrell Brooks Jr. faces charges in another case that include second-degree recklessly endangering safety and that bail in a previous case was $1,000, not $500.
Bauer reported from Madison, Wis., and Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis, Kathleen Foody in Chicago and Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan, contributed.