Crime

08.06.13

The Venice Beach Menace’s Troubled Past

L.A.’s iconic boardwalk turned deadly when a car crashed into tourists, killing an Italian honeymooner. New details on the suspect and victim.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, close to two hours after mowing down a cluster of people in a deadly hit-and-run on the Venice boardwalk, 38-year-old Nathan Louis Campbell walked into the Santa Monica Police Department about two miles away and turned himself in.

“He said, ‘You guys are probably looking for me,’” said Lt. Richard Lewis, a watch commander with the Santa Monica police. “We didn’t talk to him. We didn’t handcuff him. We didn’t take him into custody. We called [the Los Angeles Police Department], and they took him.”

Campbell, who is in custody in lieu of $1 million bail, is accused of driving his 2008 Dodge Avenger onto one of California’s biggest tourist landmarks, gunning the gas, and ramming into at least 17 people, killing 32-year-old Alice Gruppioni, an Italian woman who was in Los Angeles on her honeymoon.

His car, which was reportedly purchased one month earlier from a dealership in Littleton, Colorado, was found abandoned and was quickly checked by an LAPD bomb-sniffing dog for explosives.

Charges came down on Tuesday afternoon: one count of murder, 16 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 17 counts of hit-and-run. The complaint also includes the special allegation of use of a deadly weapon—a car. If convicted, Campbell faces life in prison. Meanwhile, police investigators are still trying to determine a motive for the deadly incident—whether Campbell intentionally accelerated into the crowd or targeted someone specifically, or if there was any other reason at play.

“He is a murderer. I just hope they don’t put his photo on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

“The investigation is still ongoing,” said Lt. Andy Neiman with the Los Angeles Police Department. “There are a significant number of detectives working on this. There are still a lot of witnesses to do photo lineups. It was a large crime scene and a lot of moving parts. There is a lot of work to be done.”

Asked if the attack at one L.A.’s biggest tourist meccas—which can draw as many as 150,000 people on summer weekends and is known for its restaurants, tattoo shops, skateboard parks, pot shops, oddity museums, and the famous outdoor weight room called Muscle Beach—was an act of domestic terrorism, Neiman said: “I don’t know if domestic terror is any part of this at all.”

So far, little is known about Campbell. No family members have surfaced since the rampage, and local police have said very little about the Georgia native, who previously lived in Florida and Colorado.

However, according to public records and various outside law enforcement agencies, Campbell lived a life not devoid of crime. In April 2008, he was arrested for reckless driving involving alcohol in Panama City Beach.

The following year, in February, he was arrested for allegedly shoplifting at a Virgin Megastore in the Denver Pavilions shopping mall. According to the Los Angeles Times, he was nabbed by store security after they saw him place a pair of headphones down his pants. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five days in jail.

Five months later, he was picked up again at the same mall for trespassing after buying a movie ticket and refusing to leave the theater after being warned twice before not to go there, according to the Times. Records show that one month later he was accused of trespassing at Denver's 16th Street pedestrian mall and served to 10 days in jail.

He was later evicted from his Denver apartment complex in March 2012 after failing to pay his $655 rent. Campbell was employed at Phoenix Concept, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Denver, from April 2010 to February 2012. "He was hired to work in the kitchen," said program director David Hall. "Then after awhile he did some house management.

"While he was employed, we never had any issues at all," he added. Hall would not say if Campbell was a client at the treatment center.

Why Campbell, who was dressed in a baseball cap, gray shirt, and white pants on that fateful day, wound up along the 1.5-mile stretch of Venice Beach, is unclear. Los Angeles police have described Campbell as a transient who has lived in the city for only a short period. The Times reported that he spent time in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s at Covenant House, a nonprofit that provides services for homeless teens.

“I think people want to know why this happened,” said Tom Elliott, owner of the Venice Ale House on Ocean Front Walk. “I saw the guy, who looked to be fairly clean-cut. Then all of a sudden he goes berserk.”

Dennis Walker, general manager of the Candle Cafe & Grill on the boardwalk, said he provided the police with the first video footage of the deadly traffic rampage, which showed a driver purported to be Campbell maneuvering past five concrete barriers to gain entrance to the boardwalk. “He was still at large when police got the video.”

Walker, who organized a vigil Monday night to remember Gruppioni and the others, said he knew three people who were injured in the 6 p.m. incident. Like Walker, longtime resident Ira Koslow believes that Campbell intentionally ran down the throngs of people enjoying the evening on the boulevard. “He was obviously out to get people,” said Koslow. “He went around barriers and purposefully ran into people. This was a planned attack on people. This was no way a mistake. He is a murderer. I just hope they don’t put his photo on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

“He spent a lot of time casing out the situation before he made his move,” said Elliot. “He certainly wasn’t homeless. He was driving a brand-new automobile. It still had paper plates on it. The question is what he was on. [Drug use] is so rampant down here.”

Elliot says Campbell’s “frenetic, desperate behavior” is quite common among some of the addicts who call Venice Beach home. “It has always been a drug paradise,” he said.

“Venice is like Disneyland without much of a security force to watch over the visitors,” said Bret, the editor of YoVenice.com, a communal blog for residents of the area. “Most visitors are great fun and good people; some are not. ‘Wrong place at the wrong time’ gets said a lot in Venice.”

Venice Neighborhood Council president Linda Lucks says Venice has its crime problem, but “nothing like this has ever happened,” she said. “The worst that happens is fights or breaking up the drum circle. And there has been an occasional shooting over the years.”

But that’s little comfort for the friends and family who gathered at the home of Gruppioni's parents in the suburbs of Bologna on Monday afternoon, bringing flowers, cards, and religious mementos blessed by the parish priest Paolo Rubbi in Alice's name (pronounced Al-ee-chey in Italian). Father Rubbi had married the couple just 15 days earlier.

"These last few months, they came often to prepare for their Catholic marriage. They were two young people very serious, very simple, who, above all, really wanted to be joined in marriage,” Father Rubbi told The Daily Beast. “Alice was a girl who seemed so strong, but also very sensible and emotional. I just spoke to her mother about how wonderful their honeymoon was. This is such a tragedy.”

Her parents didn't feel comfortable traveling to America to retrieve their beloved daughter's body, so sent Alice's sister, her aunt who had lived in America, and her mother-in-law, who was also going to help her son Christian Casade, 38, an architect, through the trauma. On the family home, a simple sign meant to ward off the media—"please don't ring the bell but respect our family's privacy in our moment of pain"—was written in ink pen. Only those known to the family were let in. A cousin of the groom's told local television reporters outside the home, "There is no doubt that he also feels like he died with his bride."

The couple married in Italy on July 20. The surviving groom told his cousin, recounted in the television interview, "We had been taking a walk along the beach, hand in hand, and the car hit her out of nowhere. Everything changed in an instant. She was suddenly gone. There was total confusion. I couldn't find her. There is nothing else to say, it is a complete tragedy," he told his cousin.

Gruppioni worked as a manager in her father's very well-known, reputable, 50-year-old company that makes home heating units. She had grown up in the family business and after graduation from university with a degree in business management. She was tapped to take over the company with her new husband. It had recently opened factories in China and Romania. The company was growing; they were optimistic.

Alice had just uploaded pictures of their honeymoon on her Facebook page, which is now filled with R.I.P. notes and sentimental condolences. Her body will be repatriated to Bologna and buried in the family tomb this week. Her husband, Christian, whose injuries are not life-threatening, will accompany the body home Tuesday.