An Austin police officer who worked security at last year's South By Southwest festival on Monday described the chaotic scene when a speeding car plowed into a crowd of people, leaving four dead and more than 20 hurt.
Michael Hankemeier was the first witness called by Travis County prosecutors Monday as the trial got underway for Rashad Owens, 23, of Killeen, who is facing multiple murder charges in the fatal collision. Owens could be sentenced to up to life in prison if convicted of the most serious capital murder charge. He's also charged with lesser counts of murder and 24 counts of aggravated assault.
Hankemeier, who was stationed on a police department all-terrain vehicle, watched as Owens' vehicle hurtled with ever increasing speed the wrong way along a one-way street.
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"I never once saw brake lights," he said.
People were screaming and trying to get out of the way, Hankemeier said, adding that the impact of the collision hurled a woman in a red dress into the air nearly as high as overhead utility lines.
"That was the one that sticks out most in my mind," the officer said.
Another witness, Meredith Bradley, of Austin, testified that she saw a car turn the wrong way onto the one-way street, so she flashed her truck's headlights and blew the horn.
"There were hundreds and hundreds of people not just walking on the sidewalks but also in the streets," she said. "He whipped into that turn without stopping or any concern for what was going on there. ... He just whipped into the crowd of people."
She said it looked like people were "tossed around like a rag doll."
Those killed in the March 13, 2014, crash were: DeAndre "Dre" Tatum, 18, of Fort Worth; Jamie West, 27, and Sandy Le, both of Austin; and Steven Craenmehr, 35, of The Netherlands.
Owens' lawyers insist he never intended to hurt anyone. The Austin American-Statesman reported Monday (http://atxne.ws/1MBJuRY ) that court records show the aspiring rapper and father of six had a blood-alcohol level of 0.114, exceeding the legal level of 0.08.
Defense attorney Russell Hunt acknowledged that Owens was fleeing police when the crash happened but said Owens was unaware the street was a pedestrian area.
"It is unclear what Mr. Owens saw," Hunt told jurors. "There was some street lighting but not great lighting.
"The question is, did he intend to kill folks?"
Prosecutor Amy Meredith warned jurors they will hear "horrific testimony."
Jurors were selected last week and the trial is expected to take up to three weeks.