A long line of victims and witnesses began recounting the shock they felt after being caught in the path of a speeding black sports utility vehicle that injured at least 18 people on the streets and sidewalks of The City last year.
Omeed Aziz Popal, the 30-year-old man accused in the 30-minute hit-and-run rampage, smiled and laughed as he entered the courtroom, nodding to family and chatting with his lawyers. However, when facing his alleged victims, who were testifying for the first time, he held an expression of lidded eyes with a half-open mouth.
Wednesday was the first day of the preliminary hearing for Popal and will determine whether there is enough evidence to send the case to trial. The Fremont resident, who has been determined by the court to be suffering from psychiatric problems, surrendered after being cornered by police a half hour after he allegedly began the hit-and-run spree on Aug. 29, 2006.
Maribel Boucher, 71, spent four days in the hospital with a broken collarbone. She said she was walking along the Fillmore Street sidewalk when she was struck.
“I woke up and I was lying on the sidewalk,” she said.
Chung-Wa Chan, 73, testified that he just finished lunch in Chinatown and was crossing at Sutter and Webster streets when he was “hit right away,” he said.
Security guard Mike Smith said he saw two people hurt when he walked out of the Jewish Community Center on California Street. He testified that a black Honda Pilot crushed a man on a bicycle against a wall before running down another victim on thesidewalk. While Smith caught the license plate of the vehicle, he didn’t see the driver’s face behind the tinted windows.
One of the alleged victims, Juan Gomez Ruiz, said he had been walking across Sacramento Street on a green light when he heard squealing tires. He turned to his right and a blur hit him smack in the chest.
The vehicle threw him five feet away, Ruiz said, where he fell to a seated position before the back of his head slammed against the concrete. He said the vehicle never slowed down.
“The wheels were spinning when it was already on top of me,” the man said through a Spanish interpreter.
Ruiz gave contradicting testimony when Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland questioned whether he had a lawyer seeking money for his injuries. Feinland also emphasized that Ruiz, along with the other alleged victims testifying Wednesday, did not hear any threats and did not see the face of the driver.
‘Clerical error’ lead to report of additional victim
Two counts against Omeed Aziz Popal were dropped by the prosecution Wednesday due to a processing error, leaving the 30-year-old man accused of running down 17, not 18, victims in a hit-and-run rampage in The City more than a year ago.
Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland said he brought the mistake to the attention of the District Attorney’s Office after noticing a “sloppy” mistake in the police report.
Assistant District Attorney Jim Thompson said a “clerical error” led to the victim’s name ending up on the charges when it should never have been there.
Superior Court Judge Carol Yaggy approved the change Wednesday at the beginning of the preliminary trial.
Popal is now charged with 17 counts of attempted murder, 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon, a count of battering a peace officer and a count of reckless evasion from police. Feinland said Popal has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
He also faces allegations of great bodily injury and use of a deadly weapon and faces life in prison if convicted.
The defendant’s mental health has been called into question several times. A judge ruled that he could stand trial in November 2006 after responding to new medication. Less than two weeks later, sheriff’s deputies prevented Popal from hanging himself with a sweatshirt in his jail cell, according to a department spokesperson.
Popal is also accused of purposefully running down and killing 54-year-old Stephen J. Wilson in Fremont, where Popal’s family lives, before driving his black Honda Pilot across the Bay Bridge to begin his rampage in San Francisco.