WAUKESHA, Wis. – The driver of an SUV that hurtled through a barricade and slammed into a Christmas parade in a suburban community on Sunday was fleeing from a domestic disturbance moments before he killed at least five people and injured more than 40, police said.
Waukesha Police Chief Dan Thompson said Monday that Darrell Brooks Jr., 39, was fleeing a domestic disturbance with a report of a knife when he rammed into the parade. Brooks was not being chased, Thompson said. He will be charged with five counts of intentional homicide, Thompson added.
The dead were four women and a man ages 52 to 81. Thompson said 48 people were injured in the crash, which was captured on the city’s livestream as the SUV struck a high school band, children’s dance group and the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies.
At least nine patients were in critical condition at two hospitals Monday, and seven others were in serious condition. Local hospital officials said earlier Monday that at least six children were in critical condition. Children’s Wisconsin Hospital received 18 patients, ages 3 to 16, including three sets of siblings, doctors said.
“Last night, our wonderful Waukesha parade became the scene of a horrific tragedy. Last night, that parade became a nightmare,” Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said at a news conference Monday.
Gov. Tony Evers ordered that flags be flown at half staff Monday and on the days when funerals for the victims take place. Evers said he and his wife, Kathy, were “praying for Waukesha tonight and all the kids, families, and community members affected by this senseless act.” The city of Waukesha said it would hold an interfaith prayer vigil Monday.
Brooks, a Milwaukee man with an open court case related to domestic violence, was arrested and will face five charges of first-degree intentional homicide, Thompson said.
Thompson provided few details of the domestic disturbance beyond that there was a report of a knife. He said police did not respond to that scene before they immediately went to the parade. Thompson said Brooks was acting alone and there was no indication of terrorism or that Brooks knew anyone in the parade.
“This is a fluid investigation,” Thompson said.
The Waukesha County District Attorney’s Office said it will file the initial charges Tuesday and additional charges at a later date. Brooks will appear in Waukesha County Court at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Brooks has been charged with crimes 10 times since 1999, including three times in less than two years with recklessly endangering the safety of others. Most recently, Brooks was charged in a domestic abuse incident Nov. 5 for which he was also charged with resisting or obstructing an officer.
A decade ago, during a traffic stop, a Milwaukee police officer jumped inside Brooks’ car, fearing he was about to be run over. The officer had pulled him over for not wearing a seat belt. As Brooks began to drive away while the officer was talking to him, the officer got inside the car and wrestled for control of the steering wheel.
In the most recent case, a woman told police Brooks purposefully ran her over with his vehicle while she was walking through a gas station parking lot after he had followed her there after a fight, according to the criminal complaint. The woman was hospitalized, court records show.
Brooks was released from jail Friday after posting bond in the recent incident, according to court records. He was charged in July 2020 with two felony counts of second-degree reckless endangerment of the safety of others using a dangerous weapon. Both cases are ongoing.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office said it has launched an internal review of its “inappropriately low” bail recommendation in the recent domestic violence related case. Brooks posted a $1,000 bond, according to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.
Waukesha, a city of 72,000 people 20 miles west of Milwaukee, was celebrating the holidays with a parade when disaster struck at about 4:39 p.m. local time. Angelito Tenorio, a West Allis alderman, said he had just finished marching with his family and friends when he saw the vehicle drive through the parade.
“We saw an SUV cross over, just put the pedal to the metal and just zooming full speed along the parade route,” Tenorio said. “And then we heard a loud bang, and just deafening cries and screams from people who are struck by the vehicle. And then we saw people running away or stopping crying, and there are people on the ground who looked like they’d been hit by the vehicle.”
Thompson said he was at the scene shortly after the crash. “What I saw out of chaos and tragedy was heroes,” he said. “First responders and the community coming together and working together on triaging victims.”
A police officer fired gunshots at the SUV in an attempt to stop it but stopped firing because of the size of the crowd, Thompson said. No bystanders were injured by the gunfire. He said police don’t believe any shots were fired from the SUV. The officer who fired the shots was on administrative leave pending an investigation per department policy, Thompson said.
Thompson identified the dead as Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson, 79, LeAnna Owen, 71, Tamara Durand, 52, Jane Kulich, 52, and Wilhelm Hospel, 81.
Sorenson, Owen and Durand were members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, while Hospel was a volunteer with the group, relatives and friends said. Kulich was an employee of Citizens Bank, her daughter confirmed.
Sorenson was a 19-year veteran of the Dancing Grannies, a group of grandmothers in their early 50s to mid-70s who met once a week to practice routines for parades.
“What did she like about it? Everything,” said her husband of 56 years, David Sorenson. “She liked the instructing. She liked the dancing and the camaraderie of the women. She liked to perform.”
A registered nurse, Ginny Sorenson worked part time in medical records. At their home in Muskego, she cared for animals, including two horses, chickens, dogs and cats. She used the extra money for the animals and treats for her grandchildren, her daughter Heather Sorenson said. For the Sorensons, the Grannies were an activity for the entire family.
“The Grannies are kind of a really tight unit,” said Beth Krohn, a retired member of the group. “We used to call it a sisterhood.”
At the opposite end of experience on the Dancing Grannies was Durand, a young grandma who was “super excited” Sunday because she was going to make her debut with the group.
“She danced her way through life,” her husband David Durand said Monday. “She danced when there was no music. She always danced. That describes her personality.”
Owen, an enthusiastic member of the Dancing Grannies, managed an apartment complex.
She was full of kindness for her tenants, said Dave Schmidt, who owns the two 32-unit buildings Owen managed. “She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was the nicest lady,” Schmidt said.
Hospel was a familiar presence among the Grannies. His wife, Lola, was one of the dancers, and he helped out, ferrying the dancers and making sure everyone had what they needed.
An online fundraiser for Kulich’s family, verified by a GoFundMe spokesperson, called Kulich “loving, beautiful and charismatic mother, grandmother and friend to so many.”
Area hospitals were still treating victims Monday. The injured suffered serious head injuries, broken bones and scrapes on their faces, officials said; six people were operated on Sunday night and two more were in surgery Monday.
In addition to the six children in critical condition, three remained in serious condition.
Aurora Medical Center-Summit, a hospital in Waukesha County, confirmed it was treating 13 patients early Monday. Of those 13, three people were in critical condition, four were in serious condition and six were in fair condition, according to a statement released by the hospital, which is about 15 miles away from the scene.
“We are praying for all those impacted, their families and our first responders,” the statement said.
Staff at Children’s Wisconsin said the hospital helped treat a total of 18 children.
“As an emergency doctor, we’re trained for these types of incidents but you never want to experience them,” said Dr. Amy Drendel, medical director at Children’s Wisconsin Emergency Department and Trauma Center. “Our region has experienced mass casualty events in the past but none in recent history involving such a large number of children.”
Corey Montiho, a Waukesha school district board member, said his daughter’s dance team was struck by the SUV. “They were pom-poms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere. I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter,” he said.
He said his wife and two daughters were almost hit.
“My family is safe, but many are not. I held one little girl’s head in my hand, she was seizing and she was bleeding out of her ears. I held her mother as she collapsed. Please pray.”
President Joe Biden on Monday addressed the tragedy, saying, “An entire community is struggling to cope with the horrific act of violence.”
Biden said that his administration was monitoring the situation and that he and his family were praying for victims and families.
“Our team is in close touch with local officials to offer any support and assistance needed,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted. “Our hearts are with the families and the entire community.”
The Green Bay Packers released a statement Sunday saying the team’s thoughts were with the Waukesha community and “those affected by the terrible, senseless act that took place at the holiday parade.”
“We are grateful for the first responders and others who assisted the injured and comforted those in need,” the statement continued. “We share our condolences with those who lost loved ones. As a statewide community, we must all come together to support each other in these difficult times.”
The Milwaukee Brewers said they would host an event Tuesday morning to raise funds for the victims.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia. Miller reported from Carlsbad, California.
Contributing: Bill Glauber, Christopher Kuhagen, Mary Spicuzza, Molly Beck, Sophie Carson, Evan Casey, Cathy Kozlowicz, Elliot Hughes, Sarah Volpenhein, Talis Shelbourne and Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Celina Tebor, USA TODAY; The Associated Press