Family: Driver had history of mental illness

The man who police say left a trail of carnage along San Francisco and Fremont streets Tuesday had a recent history of mental illness, his family members and lawyer said Wednesday.

Omeed Aziz Popal, 29, of Fremont, had shown signs of mental instability for at least six months, according to his family. His attorney, Majeed Samara, said Wednesday that Popal’s father had reported him to police as missing last Friday, but that Popal had returned Monday, a day before he allegedly embarked on a deadly spree of hit-and-runs.

Starting at about noon on Tuesday, Popal allegedly ran down a man walking northbound in the bike lane of Fremont Boulevard, killing him. Police say he then drove to San Francisco, where he intentionally rammed his black Honda Pilot sport utility vehicle into at least 18 people on sidewalks, in streets and in crosswalks. Police finally used their squad cars to box himin at California and Spruce streets, ending the spree that left at least one San Francisco victim in critical condition.

Family members said they were stunned by the news and that Popal had been acting distant for at least six months.

“He thought the devil was coming,” his cousin Zarghona Ramish said, adding that Popal had suffered a mental breakdown before.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office booked Popal on Wednesday on 18 separate counts of attempted murder and 18 felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon. He also faces one felony count of battery on a police officer causing injury and one felony count of reckless evasion from police.

On Wednesday, Popal was transported from jail to San Francisco General Hospital. Samara said he was under “mental observation,” but that he also suffers from a lung condition. “Don’t expect him back in court for the next few days,” Samara said.

Samara said Popal recently spent time in a Kaiser hospital in Fremont for his mental illness. The specifics of his condition were not known. Fremont police refused to disclose whether Popal had a criminal record. He had no previous record registered with SFPD.

Samara also said that within the last six months, Popal told his employer that he had stabbed someone to death. The employer, whom Samara did not name, called police, who determined that the claim was false. “That was an effect of his mental illness,” Samara said.

Popal, who lived in Fremont with his parents, returned from a trip to his native Afghanistan where he was married, according to neighbors. His wife had not joined him in the U.S. yet. Neighbors said Popal mostly kept to himself but he was pleasant when they would see him.

“He would wave when he would go by,” neighbor William Lofton said, adding that in the four years Popal had been living in the single-story house surrounded by a picket fence, he only spoke with him once at an auto mechanic shop. “If I hadn’t met him at Five Star [mechanic], I wouldn’t have met him ever.”

Fremont police Sgt. Bill Veteran said investigators were preparing an arrest warrant for the homicide of 54-year-old Fremont man Stephen J. Wilson, Popal’s first victim who was struck and killed at 12:04 p.m. in Fremont, according to Veteran. Calls to Wilson’s Fremont home were not returned on Wednesday.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office will prosecute Popal first, and he will then be tried in Alameda County on a murder charge. He faces life in prison for his San Francisco charges.

sfarooq@examiner.com amartin@examiner.com

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