(NEW YORK) — The driver suspected of causing a fiery fatal crash outside a concert venue in upstate New York early New Year’s Day was identified on Tuesday, however, officials added they have not yet found any nexus to terrorism after multiple canisters full of gasoline were found in his vehicle, officials said.
Two people in a ride-sharing car were killed after a rented Ford Expedition driven by the suspect, 35-year-old Michael Avery, slammed into it and burst into flames as it sped in the direction of pedestrians in a crosswalk outside the Kodak Center at about 12:52 a.m. Monday, Rochester Police Chief David Smith said at a news conference Tuesday morning.
The two passengers riding in the backseat of the ride-share, a Mitsubishi Outlander, were killed, Smith said. They were identified by police Tuesday evening as Justina Hughes, 28, of Geneva, and Joshua Orr, 29, of Webster.
The ride-share driver was taken to a local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Smith said.
Avery was also killed in the collision with the ride-share vehicle that was struck as it was exiting a parking lot at the Kodak Center, where a Grateful Dead tribute band had just performed, the chief said.
Smith said video of the incident reviewed by him and investigators appears to show the pedestrians in the crosswalk outside the theater were Avery’s targets.
“Avery sped up, crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and appears to have intentionally been driving towards the pedestrian crossing,” Smith said.
During a press briefing Monday, Smith said the the force of the collision caused the two vehicles involved in the collision to strike a group of pedestrians who were in the crosswalk, and then plow into two other vehicles,
“There was a large fire associated with the crash that took the Rochester Fire Department almost one hour to extinguish,” Smith said.
On Tuesday, he said at least nine pedestrians were injured in the incident, including one who suffered life-threatening injuries.
First responders found at least a dozen gasoline canisters in and around the Ford Expedition once the fire was extinguished, the police chief said.
“We are continuing to work with our federal partners, including the FBI, to learn exactly what led to this crash,” Smith said.
No insight into possible motive yet
During Tuesday’s news conference, Smith said investigators executed a search warrant on a hotel room where Avery had been staying in Greece, New York, about 9 miles northwest of Rochester. Investigators also executed a search warrant on Avery’s personal vehicle, which was found at a parking garage at the Rochester Airport, the chief said.
Smith said no suicide note or written journals were discovered in the search of Avery’s car and vehicle.
“Investigators are still combing through evidence recovered from his vehicle, but nothing, thus far recovered provides any additional insight into why this occurred,” Smith said.
In interviews with Avery’s family members, investigators learned the suspect “may have been suffering from possible undiagnosed mental health issues,” said Smith, who declined to elaborate.
“At this time, we have not been able to identify that there was anyone else involved in the crime or that it was part of a larger plot,” Smith said. “Additionally, we have not recovered any information leading us to believe the actions of Michael Avery on New Year’s Eve were motivated by any form of political or social biases.”
Jeremy Bell, the FBI agent in charge of the bureau’s Rochester office, confirmed that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is involved in the investigation, saying that is “not abnormal in a case like this.”
“But what I can tell you is that, so far, we’ve uncovered no evidence of ideology and no nexus to terrorism either international or domestic,” Bell said.
Smith said investigators believe Avery checked into a room at the WoodSprings Suites hotel on Saturday and rented the Ford Expedition on Monday from a car rental agency at the Rochester Airport.
On Tuesday, between 9 a.m. and about 6 p.m., Avery made at least a half-dozen purchases of gas containers from different locations in Monroe and Ontario counties.
“Thus far, our information has shown he was alone when making these purchases,” Smith said.
“The force of the collision caused the two vehicles to go through a group of pedestrians that were in the crosswalk, and then into two other vehicles,” Smith said at a press briefing Monday. “There was a large fire associated with the crash that took the Rochester Fire Department almost one hour to extinguish.”
Rochester Mayor Malik Evans urged people to contact the Rochester Police Department’s Major Crime Unit with any information about the incident.
“The most important thing today I think for us as we go into the New Year is the victims of this horrific accident,” Evans said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Remember, these folks were going to see a Grateful Dead tribute band and they were expecting to ring in the New Year and have a good time. Instead, we have individuals that are now going to be burying family members and we have people who have now life-altering injuries because of the choices that this suspect made.”
Orr and Hughes, the victims killed in the Mitsubishi Outlander, were best friends, Hughes’ family said.
Hughes was remembered by her family as a “beautiful free spirit.”
“She was a talented artist who loved nature, and took every opportunity to hike a new trail and find a new waterfall,” her family said in a statement.
Music was the “passion that gave her the most joy,” her family said.
“We take peace in knowing that Justina and her very best friend, Josh, spent their last moments together, enjoying their passion and friendship,” her family said.
Orr was “doing his most favorite thing in the world” — attending a Grateful Dead tribute band concert — that night, his family said.
“Josh was a beautiful, generous human, filled with love and positivity and an advocate for those struggling with mental health,” his family said in a statement.
Both families said the victims are heroes who prevented other lives from being taken in the incident.
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