Austin Police Officer Lewis Traylor was on patrol just after midnight on March 13, driving westbound on East 12th Street, when he spotted the gray Honda Civic.
The car was in the right-hand lane, driving without any lights toward the intersection at the southbound access road of I-35. As Traylor approached, driving in the left-hand lane, the Civic made an illegal left turn from the right-hand lane, crossing directly in front of Traylor, who had to avoid a collision.
Suspicious that the driver might be drunk, Traylor also turned left and pulled behind the Civic – which he later learned was being driven by 21-year-old Killeen resident Rashad Owens – and lit it up by turning on the red-and-blue lights on his cruiser. Now in the right-hand lane and heading southbound, Owens activated his right-hand turn signal before pulling into a crowded Shell gas station at the corner of East Ninth. Traylor assumed Owens was merely finding a safe place to pull over, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said.
But that wasn't what Owens did. Instead, he maneuvered the sedan through the crowded parking lot, "squeezing between the building and the stopped cars at the gas pumps," according to an arrest affidavit. Owens exited the parking lot at East Ninth and turned right, accelerating the wrong way down the one-way street, through a line of road cones set up to narrow the eastbound-only flow of traffic. Traylor, driving the larger Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser, couldn't navigate through the station parking lot and had to back up out onto the access road before he could follow Owens. According to Acevedo, by the time Traylor got to the intersection at Ninth Street, Owens was already speeding up the block, nearing the intersection with Red River Street, which was closed off for SXSW. Traylor followed, also driving the wrong way on Ninth, in an effort to "catch up to the vehicle before it got to the crowd," reads the affidavit for Owens' arrest.
He didn't make it in time. Instead, Owens would shock festivalgoers and make international headlines by driving onto a closed street and directly into a large crowd of pedestrians outside Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlie's, both hosting music fest shows. At press time, three are dead and five additional victims remain hospitalized, including one in critical condition. Fifteen additional people received treatment for injuries and were released.
As friends and families grieve, many questions remain – the overwhelming one, why did it happen?
Although it didn't work, Traylor, on the beat since mid-2012, did what he could to stop Owens. As Traylor headed west on Ninth, he could see the car ahead as Owens turned right, northbound, onto Red River. There, Owens maneuvered the Civic between the barriers set up to block traffic, including a parked car, and accelerated past two APD officers – Michael Hankemeier and Joseph Desormeaux – who were stationed at the corner to keep traffic from driving up the street.
Hankemeier tried to get Owens to stop; he waved his arms in the air and yelled at him, but Owens ignored him, driving past the officers – who had to jump to get out of the way, Acevedo said – and through a large crowd of pedestrians outside the clubs. "Witnesses stated that they heard the motor of the Honda rev up and the car accelerated northbound running over pedestrians that were in the closed street," according to the affidavit. "Victims were reported to have been flying everywhere as they were being struck by the Honda."
As bodies hit the ground, Owens did not stop – police say video shows no brake lights, meaning Owens never applied the brakes as he sped up the street through the crowds. Instead, he accelerated, police allege. Traylor followed, activating his siren in an effort to warn people farther up the street of the oncoming danger. "The Honda continued northbound at a high rate of speed, mowing down people that were standing [near] the intersection at [East] 10th Street knocking people in the air and leaving victims laying, some lifeless, on the ground," reads the affidavit.
And still he sped on, through the intersection of Red River and 11th, where he first struck a moped with two people on it before colliding with a taxicab carrying a backseat fare. The impact of that collision pushed the taxi "all the way across the intersection" and into a bicycle rider traveling southbound. Owens' car continued on, through the intersection, jumping the curb, sidewalk, and a "grassy knoll" before slamming into a van and coming to a stop in a parking lot on the northwest corner of 11th and Red River.
Traylor, who Acevedo said navigated his cruiser purposely and gingerly through the crowd, caught up with Owens, after he abandoned the Civic, fleeing on foot away from the scene along East 11th. Traylor jumped from his cruiser and gave chase, as did Desormeaux, who'd been running toward Owens from Ninth Street; ultimately, Traylor had to fire his Taser twice at a "combative" Owens before he and Desormeaux were able to make an arrest.
Owens was taken to University Medical Center Brackenridge where he was treated for minor injuries before being released to police custody.
Others were not so fortunate.
Twenty-seven-year-old Austin resident Jamie Ranae West, who had been riding on the back of a moped driven by her husband, Evan, was dead at the scene; Evan West is still in the hospital, though his condition has been upgraded from serious to fair – meaning his vital signs have stabilized and he is conscious. Also dead is 26-year-old Mississippi native and recent Austin transplant Sandy Le, who was standing with a group of friends when she was hit by Owens' car as he plowed along Red River; she remained on life support until Monday morning, her brother-in-law told Jackson's Clarion-Ledger. Thirty-five-year-old Steven Craenmehr, a Dutch resident, father, and creative director for international music agency MassiveMusic, died in the intersection of 11th and Red River after the cab Owens rammed was pushed into the bicycle Craenmehr was riding. The four others who remain hospitalized include 18-year-old DeAndre Tatum, who is listed in critical condition. Tatum, who is reportedly in a medically induced coma, was struck with such force that he was knocked out of his shoes, his mother told Fort Worth's CBS 11 news.
As a result of his deadly rampage, Owens was charged by police with capital murder – punishable by life without parole or the death penalty. That charge, and any others, will be considered by a Travis County grand jury, which will review the evidence and decide on any additional charges and a formal indictment. Owens is currently in prison on a $3 million bond; his first court appearance is scheduled for April 9. Court records reflect that he has retained Dallas attorney Rickey Durante Jones; at press time Jones had not returned our phone calls.
After his arrest, Owens consented to a breath alcohol test, which revealed a blood-alcohol content of .114 – .08 is the legal limit – and it could have been higher at the time of the pursuit, Acevedo said, because the test was not administered until after he was apprehended and treated at the hospital. BAC depends greatly on when a person had his last drink, and alcohol generally dissipates at a rate of .02 per hour; how much Owens had to drink, and when, remains part of the APD's ongoing investigation, according to Acevedo. Similarly, whether Owens had other intoxicants in his system has not yet been determined. "We are analyzing [Owens' blood tests] for everything," Acevedo said.
Exactly what might have motivated Owens to make such a tragic series of decisions remains unclear. Reportedly, he is a father of six young children, an online student of Full Sail University, and was an aspiring rapper who performed under the name KillingAllBeatz, or K.A.B254 (some of his work can be found on SoundCloud). He was reportedly in town for a scheduled 1am performance Thursday morning at Club 1808 on East 12th, but that could not be confirmed. Owens' brother Lamar Wilson told the Statesman that the last time he saw Owens was sometime Wednesday evening. Wilson left Owens at the Eastside club and went Downtown to find the pair's older brother; Owens, who had been drinking and didn't know how to get around Austin well, drove toward Downtown to meet up with his brothers. Wilson and the other brother waited for their ride, and Owens never showed.
Wilson told the daily he was shocked by what happened. "I can't grasp it. I can't believe it," he said. "Everything was going good. We were just there trying to perform, and it made a whole other turn." (According to Wilson, the Honda Civic that Owens was driving was borrowed from a friend in Killeen; that friend, Andrew Bramwell, reported the car stolen on Thursday morning.)
Though these are certainly the most serious criminal allegations Owens has faced, the charges related to the Thursday morning rampage are not his first – nor are they the first that include an allegation of driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident. Owens was charged with both in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2011; he pleaded guilty to DUI, and the fleeing charge was dismissed. According to Alaska court records, Owens spent 10 days in jail and was sentenced to two years of probation; he violated his probation in April 2012. There is currently an outstanding warrant from Alaska for his failure to appear in court.
When asked by police on Thursday morning why he fled from Traylor, Owens said that he got "scared" when he saw the police lights behind him. He said he was wanted on a kidnapping warrant related to a custody battle and "didn't want to go to jail for 5 years for something he didn't do," according to his arrest affidavit. Whether any such warrant exists is unconfirmed; Alaska records show no such warrant, and the Statesman has reported that its warrant search turned up no such records.
On Thursday morning, Owens left in his wake a trail of death and destruction. An eerie silence fell over Red River from East Ninth to 12th streets in the minutes after he plowed through. The music stopped and the sirens took over. Police, fire, and EMS worked calmly and deftly – tending, alongside SXSW volunteers, club employees, and bystanders, to the wounded, who were scattered along the street. There was debris everywhere: trash, personal effects, trails of blood. Mohawk owner James Moody said he was proud of his employees for stepping up and diving in to help. "My door guys that had no formal medical experience were there doing triage in the street, with blood on their hands," he recalled. You never know how you're going to respond, he said, "until you actually get punched in the face," and when the time came, everyone did what they could. Indeed, Moody was instrumental in setting up a fund to help the victims of the incident, working with the city and SXSW to set up www.sxswcares.com. He canceled Mohawk's Thursday day shows in order to get the fund up and running; he would not open, he said, until he could find a way to contribute to the healing process. "That's my focus; I can't help these people, but I can raise money," he said. As of Wednesday press time, the fund had collected $100,000 in individual donations and $50,000 in business commitments. A fund, to help the family of Sandy Le pay for her medical and funeral expenses, has also been established: www.fundly.com/assistance-for-sandy-le. The fund has already received nearly $21,000 in donations. A separate fund has been established to bury Jamie West and to provide rehab for her husband, Evan. It has raised more than $9,000: www.fundrazr.com/campaigns/dinF5.
Since learning that she was wounded and placed on life support, Le's family has been reeling, her family told the Clarion-Ledger. "It's been a four- or five-day process, and we've been through the indecision and hope of pulling for a miracle," her brother-in-law, Stuart Gates, told the paper. But the outpouring of support from friends and strangers has helped, he said. "We want to pass along how grateful we are for the response, the kind words, the prayers, the donations. Everything," he said. "This is so terrible. The one solace for us has been the support, and that doesn't end here. If anything, that just begins with the new healing process."
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.