Prosecutor: Driver who killed woman, hurt 17 in Venice sought revenge against drug dealer

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LOS ANGELES — An Italian newlywed's honeymoon ended in a death ride on the hood of a Dodge Avenger driven by a man bent on revenge against a drug dealer who ripped him off, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Nathan Campbell was grinning and aiming for people as he weaved the sedan down the popular Venice Beach Boardwalk two years ago, taking out Alice Gruppioni and mowing down 17 other pedestrians, Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila said in opening statements in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Campbell was mad the dealer had made off with $35 and didn't return with methamphetamine he and a friend had paid for, Avila said.

"Point them out, I'll run them over," Campbell told a witness, Avila said. "The defendant was angry as he went to his car."

Campbell, 39, of Colorado, does not deny hitting the pedestrians at one of Los Angeles' top tourist destinations. But his lawyer disputed the drug deal motive and said his client weaved to avoid people. He asked jurors not to convict Campbell of murder.

Campbell has pleaded not guilty to murder, 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 10 counts of leaving the scene of an accident.

Campbell intentionally hopped a curb and squeezed past barriers before steering toward vendors and pedestrians, Avila said.

The prosecutor showed video of panicked pedestrians ducking into storefronts and running for the beach as the sedan barreled down the pathway at speeds up to 35 mph.

Millions of visitors from around the world are drawn to the funky mix of jugglers, musicians and dancers hustling for tips while merchants peddle hand-crafted art, tapestries and knickknacks. With a scent of pot — sold legally in nearby medical dispensaries — often permeating the surroundings, the vibe harkens back to its hippy past.

On Aug. 3, 2013, Gruppioni was honeymooning with her new husband from Bologna, Italy, among the throngs of people taking in the scene.

"You're going to hear about the last day in the life of Alice Gruppioni," Avila told jurors. "The evidence will show this defendant not only killed her, he murdered her."

Gruppioni, 32, could be seen on a surveillance video standing on the walkway as the car suddenly appeared and struck her before disappearing into a sea of people.

She was carried 300 feet on the hood of the car and then rolled off, hitting the pavement. She died from head injuries.

Defense lawyer James Cooper III said Campbell took out tents, an ATM, a row of bikes and a mannequin, but swerved to dodge people, which is how Gruppioni fell off the car's hood.

"From (the prosecution) perspective, they believe he was aiming at people," Cooper said in his opening statement. "He's actually avoiding hitting pedestrians."

Cooper did not explain why Campbell drove on the walkway that is closed to cars. A previous defense lawyer in the case said the model of car was subject to a recall notice and that a faulty shift lever was to blame.

If Cooper presents that defense, experts are prepared to testify for the prosecution that there was nothing wrong with the shift, Avila said. He demonstrated through video that the car's brakes and horn worked.

Witnesses said they never heard the horn or saw Campbell try to stop, Avila said.

Animation produced from surveillance showed how the car would have struck more pedestrians if they didn't bolt.

"A lot more people could have died if they didn't jump out of the way," Avila said.

The driver left a path of casualties including merchants and people from England, France and China. He seriously injured three people before turning on a side street and vanishing.

Campbell, a transient with a history of petty crimes, surrendered to police in neighboring Santa Monica a couple of hours later.

"He said, 'I'm the one you're looking for. I'm the one who hit those people,'" Avila said.

Campbell was legally drunk and told officers he drank vodka after the incident. He had been fired two months earlier from managing a sobriety residence after abusing alcohol and drugs.

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