Culver City Edition

Testimony begins in Venice boardwalk crash trial

LOS ANGELES — An Italian man whose newlywed wife was struck and killed by a car driven onto the Venice boardwalk testified May 4 that the motorist gave no warning as he weaved down the crowded tourist destination.

Testifying in the trial of 39-year-old Nathan Louis Campbell, who is charged with murder and other counts for allegedly driving his car down the boardwalk on Aug. 3, 2013, Christian Casadei told jurors through an Italian interpreter that he was holding his wife’s hand when he spotted the car careening through the crowd of tourists and locals.

He said he tried to pull his wife — 32-year-old Alice Gruppioni — into a doorway to avoid being struck.

“I tried to pull her,” he said. “After that, I felt, like, a hit. I closed my eyes and when I opened them back up, I was on the ground.”

Casadei, who fought tears throughout his testimony, said that when he got up, he was “surprised, I thought it was a movie.”

But his wife was nowhere to be seen.

“I was screaming her name. … I thought she had fled but I wasn’t able to find her,” he told jurors.

When he finally found her, “she was lying on the ground, face-down on the asphalt with blood next to her head and that’s it … she was not moving.”

He said he took her by the hand as she struggled to breathe, but she was unable to say any last words to him.

In addition to murder, Campbell is also charged with 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 10 counts of leaving the scene of an accident.

In opening statements last week, defense attorney James P. Cooper III conceded to the seven-woman, five-man jury that Campbell drove down the boardwalk, but said he was “actually avoiding hitting a number of pedestrians.”

On the stand May 4, however, a woman who was on the boardwalk said Campbell appeared to swerve directly at pedestrians.

“There was a path where a driver could have gone and avoided people,” Diane Hlywiak testified, adding that the driver instead took a path toward pedestrians.

Hlywiak testified that she heard the car speed up and the driver “started aiming at people,” but her statement was stricken from the record following an objection by Cooper.

A British couple who were vacationing in Venice gave a similar account May 4.

Katriye Marshall told jurors that when she saw “a car crashing into the market stalls … initially I thought someone had lost control.”

Then she noticed that “it was picking up speed, 20 to 30 miles per hour,” and she could see the driver’s hands on the steering wheel before the car struck her.

Her boyfriend, Aaron Mason, said he ran from the car after it came “plowing down a side road into the stores, vendors.”

While running, he realized he could be trapped between the car and a brick wall, so he headed in the opposite direction, Mason said. But he was unable to escape being hit as the Dodge Avenger also changed course.

“The vehicle seemed to keep going in the same direction I was going,” Mason said.

Marshall testified she couldn’t tell whether there was a clear path through the crowd on the boardwalk but suggested another option.

“The beach was pretty open, I’m sure,” the 33-year-old witness told the jury. “It could’ve drove onto the beach.”

In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila said last week that Campbell was angry because he believed a drug dealer had cheated his friend — with one witness expected to testify that Campbell had threatened to run the dealer over. Instead, Campbell struck Gruppioni and 17 other people with his 2008 blue Dodge Avenger, with the Italian woman “on the hood of his car for over 300 feet” before her body slid off, the prosecutor said.

Campbell walked into the Santa Monica Police Department a few hours later and said, “I’m the one you’re looking for. I’m the one who hit all those people,” the prosecutor said.

A blood test performed at 2:26 a.m. — hours after the car careened down the boardwalk — showed Campbell’s blood-alcohol content at 0.09, just over the legal limit, Avila said.