There’s no evidence of terrorism in the fiery New Year’s Day crash in which the driver of an SUV stashed with gas canisters sped toward pedestrians and collided with a car, killing two people and injuring several more, after a concert in Rochester, New York, police said.
The suspect, identified as Michael Avery, 35, of the Syracuse area, died Monday night from his injuries, officials said.
Rochester Police Chief David M. Smith said in an update Tuesday that Avery's motive is not clear and urged the public to come forward with information.
Authorities have spoken with Avery's family, and they believe he “may have been suffering from possible undiagnosed mental health issues,” Smith said.
“We have not recovered any information that his actions were motivated by any form of political or social biases,” he added, saying it is believed Avery acted alone.
The crash happened shortly before 1 a.m. as police officers were directing traffic after a concert by the band "moe" at the Kodak Center theater complex, police have said.
At 12:52 a.m., Avery drove the Ford Expedition on West Ridge Road toward where police officers were stopping traffic to allow pedestrians to cross.
“At this time, Avery sped up, crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and appears to have intentionally been driving towards the pedestrian crossing,” Smith said.
That’s when he crashed into the Outlander, sending both vehicles “through a group of pedestrians that were in the crosswalk,” police said in a statement. The two passengers in the Outlander were killed, and the driver suffered non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.
Police initially said three pedestrians were struck and hospitalized. The number rose to nine pedestrians, Smith said Tuesday, adding that one pedestrian suffered life-altering injuries and the rest should make full recoveries.
The passengers killed were identified by family members as best friends Justina Hughes and Josh Orr.
"We take peace in knowing that Justina and her very best friend, Josh, spent their last moments together, enjoying their passion and friendship," Hughes' family said in a statement. "We also take comfort in knowing that many other lives were saved because they became, albeit unaware, a shield for others. And because of that, they will forever be heroes."
The collision caused an explosion and a large blaze that took the fire department more than an hour to extinguish.
Once the flames had been doused, firefighters “located at least a dozen gasoline canisters in and around” the Expedition, the police statement said. That prompted police to bring in an arson team and alert the FBI, police said.
The FBI Buffalo Field Office confirmed in a statement that it is assisting Rochester police in the investigation.
Police said Avery had traveled to Rochester in his personal vehicle on or about Wednesday and checked into the WoodSpring Suites in Greece, a suburb of Rochester.
Two days later, Smith said, Avery rented a Ford Expedition from a car rental agency at the Rochester airport and left his personal car in the airport parking garage. Between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, he made “at least half a dozen purchases of gasoline and gas containers at different locations” throughout Monroe and Ontario counties.
A search warrant was executed on Avery’s hotel room Monday, and no suicide note was recovered, Smith said. Another was executed on his personal vehicle, which is still being searched and hasn’t yielded any insight into a motive so far, authorities said.
Investigators asked witnesses or anyone with information to reach out to police. Rochester is about 340 miles northwest of Manhattan.
The band "moe" said in a statement late Monday that the crash left its members “in profound shock and sadness.”
“On a night that was meant for celebration and togetherness, we are faced instead with tragedy that defies understanding,” the statement said. “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of those who lost their lives, and our thoughts are with those who were injured.”
Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said a statement: “My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims who were killed in the fiery crash that occurred on West Ridge Road last night. I pray for the victims who are still fighting for their lives and whose who are working to recover.”
He asked for patience as investigators piece together the details and asked for anyone with information to contact 911.
President Joe Biden has been briefed, a White House official said.