Hit-and-run rampage driver killed 'just because I wanted to'

A San Francisco Superior Court judge today listened to a calm, soft-voiced Omeed Aziz Popal tell police in a taped interview hours after his arrest for a 2006 hit-and-run rampage through San Francisco that he had simply decided, “I was going to hit people today.”

The preliminary hearing for Popal, 30, began last week, when some of the pedestrian victims testified about being struck by a black sport utility vehicle on various city streets and sidewalks of northern San Francisco in the early afternoon of Aug. 29, 2006.

Popal is accused of targeting 17 pedestrians in all in an approximately 15-minute span before the blackHonda Pilot he was driving was boxed in at about 1 p.m. by police cars in the Laurel Heights neighborhood and he was arrested.

In a nearly two-hour-long interview inside a San Francisco police station three hours after his arrest, a non-combative, almost agreeable, Popal told police he had made plans to run people over about a week earlier, but that day “was my main day,” he said.

Popal listened quietly as the tape was played in court this afternoon, occasionally motioning to and asking questions of his attorneys.

“I was planning to just take people's lives,” Popal said plainly in the audiotape. “Just because I wanted to.”

The victims' injuries ranged from minor scrapes to one woman who suffered life-threatening injuries and is now a quadriplegic.

Popal has been charged by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office with 17 counts of attempted murder, 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and felony counts of battery on a peace officer causing injury and reckless evasion from police.

The incidents took place about 45 minutes after 54-year-old Stephen Jay Wilson was struck and killed in a hit-and-run in Fremont, for which Popal is being charged with murder in Alameda County.

“He was walking and I just ran him over,” Popal told police.

Popal said he had seen the man before a few times, “and he got kinda rude.”

“He used to flip me off sometimes,” Popal said.

Popal then drove onto U.S. Highway 880 and across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, he said.

Popal, who said his family moved to California from Afghanistan when he was 5 years old, told police during the interview that he grew up in the East Bay and studied to be an auto mechanic, but had tried several different jobs before he was laid off by a staffing company a week before the attacks. He also said that he had left his new wife in Kabul a month before, and missed her.

He split his time between his family's home in Fremont and his own apartment in Central California, he said.

That morning in Fremont, Popal said he woke up, washed his face, finished a breakfast of milk and cookies, and dropped of his brother at school and his mother at work before heading out “to kill people.”

“I believe it was wrong,” he later confessed.

Police asked Popal numerous times why he committed the attacks, to which he most often complained about people “flipping me off.” He also said he was angry at his father, and nearly incomprehensibly, that he came to San Francisco planning “to donate my heart,” adding that he didn't want to hurt himself but he wanted togive his “good heart” to someone.

When asked by police whether the people he struck deserved to be hit, a sheepish-sounding Popal responded, “No. I'm sorry.”

Queried about if there was anything anyone, or Popal himself, could have done to prevent the attacks, he again answered, very softly, “No. I'm sorry.”

Defense attorneys and Popal's family contend he has a history of mental illness. According to the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, he suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and auditory command hallucinations.

However, after a positive reaction to medication, he was found competent to stand trial in November 2006.

San Francisco sheriff's deputies prevented Popal from hanging himself in his jail cell with his sweatshirt about a week later.

Popal's attorney Sandy Feinland said today that should the case go to trial, he intends to argue Popal is not guilty by reason of insanity.

In his cross-examination this afternoon of San Francisco police Inspector Michael Mahoney, the lead investigator in the case who interviewed Popal, Feinland noted that Popal had made “a series of false confessions”

following his arrest that day, including that he had killed his family the night before, that he had an AK-47 assault rifle in his car, and that he had stabbed a man to death five years before in San Francisco, all of which were untrue.

Mahoney countered that Popal appeared to be thinking “clearly and rationally” during the interview.

Testimony in the preliminary hearing, after which Judge Carol Yaggy will decide if enough evidence has been presented to hold Popal for trial, is scheduled to resume Jan. 2 at 10 a.m. in Department 28.

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