WAUKESHA, Wis. — A close-knit community that had been gearing up for the holidays found itself in mourning on Monday night as residents gathered in a candlelit park a block from where a Milwaukee man drove through a crowded Christmas parade, killing five and injuring scores of others.
Christmas songs gave way to sirens and screams on Sunday afternoon as the driver of an S.U.V. broke through barricades, ignoring the warnings of officers, and raced along the parade route. The driver, identified by the authorities as Darrell E. Brooks, 39, who had a long history of arrests, had left the scene of a domestic disturbance involving a knife moments before the incident, police said. He faces five counts of intentional homicide.
What the mayor described as “a Norman Rockwell type of Christmas parade” in suburban Milwaukee became all at once a mass-casualty incident, with firefighters who were watching the parade with their families suddenly tending to the wounded on the street.
“I’d liken it to a war zone,” said Steve Howard, chief of the Waukesha Fire Department, his voice choked with emotion as he recounted the chaotic scene on Main Street. “Some of our first responders were there with their families — they left their families to treat people.”
A child as young as 3 was among those hospitalized. The dead included Wilhelm Hospel, who was 81.
On a freezing Monday night in Cutler Park, a block from where the tragic scenes took place, a community gathered in parkas, hats and gloves to mourn those who lost their lives. Candles held aloft by mourners illuminated the crowd.
“Tonight is the first night to healing our community,” said Shawn Reilly, the town’s mayor.
Mr. Brooks had been free on $1,000 bail in an earlier criminal case, in which he was accused of trying to run over the mother of his child in the parking lot of a Milwaukee gas station with his maroon 2010 Ford Escape earlier this month. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office on Monday described the state’s bail recommendation in that earlier case as “inappropriately low” in light of the seriousness of the charges, and “not consistent” with office policy. The decision was under internal review.
It was supposed to have been a celebratory night in Waukesha. Dance groups and high school bands and politicians were marching along Main Street in the Milwaukee suburb’s Christmas parade, which was returning from a pandemic hiatus.
Then, just before 4:40 p.m., the S.U.V. stormed into the crowd, striking dozens, including members of an amateur dance group, the Milwaukee Dancing Grandmas, who were preforming in the parade.
David Durand, 52, whose wife, Tamara, was appearing with the group for the first time, raced to the scene when he learned of the carnage, but found only chaos. The next time he saw his wife, he said, was at the morgue, where he identified her body.
“She was always like a cheerleader,” Mr. Durand said.
The driver was captured shortly after speeding away from the scene, according to Dan Thompson, chief of the Waukesha Police Department.
Officials at Children’s Wisconsin, which treats only pediatric patients, said in a news conference on Monday that it had treated 18 children who were injured in the parade, including three sets of siblings. Of those 18 children, six were in critical condition.
This was the 58th Christmas parade for Waukesha, an annual event that was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The theme of this year’s event was “Comfort and Joy.”
Darrell E. Brooks, who is accused of driving a maroon 2010 Ford Escape into the Christmas parade in Waukesha, has a long, violent criminal history — and was freed just six days ago on $1,000 bail after being accused of trying to run over his girlfriend with the same S.U.V.
Mr. Brooks, 39, who is from Milwaukee, has been charged with or convicted on an array of charges over the past 22 years, including battery, domestic violence, cocaine possession and resisting arrest in several jurisdictions in Wisconsin.
He has served at least two jail sentences and spent years on probation and in court-mandated work-release and anger management programs, records showed.
On Nov. 2, Mr. Brooks was arrested in Milwaukee after the mother of his child accused him of punching her in the face in a hotel room, then following her in his S.U.V. into the parking lot of a gas station, where he hit her with the car, according to the police.
“Officers observed tire tracks on her left pants leg,” wrote one of the officers, according to a criminal complaint, accompanying a charge of recklessly endangering the woman, which carries a possible sentence of 10 years in prison.
The woman was treated at a hospital for injuries that included facial cuts and bruises. The police observed “swelling on her lip and dried blood on her face.”
Prosecutors agreed to release Mr. Brooks on Nov. 11 for a small fraction of the $10,000 bail they initially requested. In a statement on Monday, the Milwaukee district attorney, John T. Chisholm, described the state’s bail recommendation as “inappropriately low” in light of the seriousness of the charges and “not consistent” with office policy.
“This office is currently conducting an internal review of the decision to make the recent bail recommendation in this matter in order to determine the appropriate next steps,” the statement said.
Mr. Brooks’s lawyer in the November case, Joseph T. Domask, said in a brief telephone interview that he could not comment on the case without his client’s authorization.
The police have not said why Mr. Brooks traveled to Waukesha. In February, a judge in the county issued a warrant for his arrest after he reneged on a monthly agreement to pay a woman in the area $151 in child support and $50 in money he owed her, in a case that seems to date back a decade.
In almost every one of his brushes with the law, Mr. Brooks resisted arrest or attempted to obstruct officers, according to the records.
That pattern held true earlier this month: When the police tried to arrest him, he sprinted into his residence and “closed four doors on officers” before they restrained him, according to the criminal complaint.
He also has a long history of domestic abuse allegations and paternity warrants, which are typically issued for nonpayment of child support.
Dan Thompson, chief of the Waukesha Police Department, told reporters on Monday that Mr. Brooks had been involved in a “domestic disturbance” immediately before driving through the parade. He declined to release any other details or comment on Mr. Brooks’s previous cases, saying he did not want to compromise the current case.
Mourners gathered on Monday night in Waukesha, Wis., braving freezing temperatures to remember the dozens of victims from a parade that turned deadly after a man drove his vehicle through the crowd.
They held candles as police cars shined their headlights in Cutler Park, about a block from where police said the suspect injuried dozens on Sunday.
Heather Nosek, 46, and her daughter saw the car enter the parade on Sunday. The vigil, she hoped, would be a chance to heal. “I wanted to show my daughter that there can be something positive out of this and that people can come together,” Ms. Nosek said.
The vigil, which began at about 5 p.m. local time, grew to hundreds of people, many wrapped in blankets as the temperature dropped to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Speakers read out the names of the five people who died, followed by a moment of silence.
“Tonight is the first night for healing our community, and we take a small step to lift up those in need,” said Shawn Reilly, the town’s mayor, who was participating in the parade at the time of the attack.
Aide Garcia recalled the moments before the chaos on Sunday, as her daughter, Emma Garcia, 8, started marching with the Revolution Twirling Club.
Ms. Garcia grabbed her daughter and said she felt the car swerve past them.
“We don’t know anyone who died, but we are so close to everyone in this community,” she said. “It really hurts. We were seconds from dying, all of the girls and moms.”
Just out of earshot of the vigil, children laughed and played at a playground.
“At times, it may be difficult to find things to be thankful for in the wake of this tragedy,” said Steve Howard, the town’s fire chief. “But we do have things to be thankful for. We can be thankful for those people and officers who came out and helped others.”
Families were out in force for the parade on Sunday, with parents, grandmothers and children dancing, playing or marching, and others cheering them on, all to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season.
Now, five people have died, including three members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, an amateur dance group for grandmothers that has been a fixture in the local parades for nearly four decades. And dozens more people are injured, including at least 10 children in intensive care.
Virginia Sorenson, 79, LeAnna Owen, 71, and Tamara Durand, 52, were all members of the Dancing Grannies. Dan Thompson, the Waukesha police chief, identified the others killed as Jane Kulich, 52, and Wilhelm Hospel, 81.
On Facebook on Monday, the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies mourned their losses.
“Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies,” the group’s statement said. “Their eyes gleamed .…. joy of being a Grannie. They were the glue …. held us together.”
At a news conference on Monday, the chief medical officer of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Dr. Michael Gutzeit, said 18 children had been brought to the hospital after the parade, all between the ages of 3 and 16. The medical director of the hospital’s intensive care unit, Dr. Michael Meyer, said 10 of them were in the I.C.U. and six were in critical condition.
“The injuries from Sunday night will go well beyond the physical and will take time to heal,” Dr. Gutzeit said.
The victims include three sets of siblings, said Dr. Amy Drendel, the medical director for the hospital’s emergency defense and trauma center. Their ailments range from facial abrasions to broken bones to serious head injuries.
The Waukesha School District canceled classes on Monday because of the tragedy.
Ms. Durand couldn’t wait for her first performance as one of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies at Sunday’s holiday parade, her husband said. But by that evening’s end, she became one of five people to die after a driver plowed through the crowd.
Her husband, David Durand, also 52, wasn’t at the parade. But he found out what happened immediately after. By the time Mr. Durand made it to the scene, it was chaos, he said. The next time he saw his wife, it was at the morgue, when he identified her body.
Ms. Durand, who is from Waukesha, met her husband when they both attended Mukwonago High School. They later reconnected and married eight years ago. Before retiring, Ms. Durand worked as a recruiting assistant at Virgin Media.
These days, when Ms. Durand wasn’t dancing, she cared for her grandson four days a week and volunteered for local hospitals and the Red Cross. Ms. Durand, who was the group’s youngest member, had also been a longtime dancer.
Her husband said that dancing “was her happy place.” “She was vibrant, energetic,” her husband said. “Everyone knew her. She was that kind of person that captured your attention as soon as she walked into the room.”
“She was always like a cheerleader,” Mr. Durand said. “She literally danced her way through the day.”
A representative of Milwaukee Dancing Grannies did not immediately return phone calls seeking more information, but the statement said the group would post more details as they became available.
“The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies are devastated by this terrible tragedy,” the statement said, adding, “Our group was doing what they loved, performing in front of crowds in a parade putting smiles on faces of all ages, filling them with joy and happiness.”
Founded in 1984, the group performed choreographed pompom routines and dances at summer and winter parades across southern Wisconsin. A Facebook posting said members need only be “a grandmother or grandmother figure,” available for weekly practice, healthy and “ready to have fun.”
Daniel Victor contributed reporting.
The tragedy spoiled what participants and onlookers described as a joyous night in Waukesha, a bedroom community about 20 miles west of Milwaukee. More than 60 entries, from the Waukesha Fire Department to the Old Car Club to Santa Claus, were scheduled to march through downtown.
Witnesses described scenes of chaos and tragedy in the moments after the driver passed through.
Mikey Randa, 14, said he was marching in the parade with his high school football team when he saw a young girl hit by the car.
“The car just flew past us, there was a lot of panic,” he said, adding that he initially didn’t grasp what had happened. Mr. Randa said he then saw five or six bodies lying on the ground. “I’m still in a bit of a shock,” he said.
Jason Kellner, 49, said that he had just watched his son, a drum player in the Waukesha South High School marching band, pass by when he saw a red Ford Escape heading toward the crowd. After passing through an intersection, Mr. Kellner said, the car “started mowing people down.”
“I’ve never felt a worse feeling; wondering what I’m going to find when I get to my kid,” Mr. Kellner said of the moment he ran toward his son, whom he found standing unharmed by the side of the road.
Mr. Kellner said he pulled a bloody saxophone off the street and saw several people, apparently injured, on the ground.
Tyler Kotlarek, 28, was watching the parade with family members when they heard what at first sounded like cheering, but then they realized “it was screams,” he said. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Chris Gresky, 36, said on Monday that he had been at the parade with his wife and three young children. He said that when they saw the S.U.V., they “knew it wasn’t quite right.”
“All the cars in the parade were classic cars, so this one stood out,” he said. “We watched it get up on the curb and then kind of go on two wheels.” He said he and his wife grabbed their children and fled, seeing bodies on the ground as they left.
“This morning,” Mr. Gresky said, “my 6-year-old was asking, ‘Why? Why did he do that?’”
Ellen Almer Durston contributed reporting.
The tragedy at a parade in Waukesha came less than a week from one of the country’s best known events: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Concern about intentional attacks on the parade have long driven law enforcement efforts to secure the route. And New York has seen vehicle ramming turn deadly at other crowded events in recent years.
In 2017, a driver who was apparently under the influence of drugs rammed into crowded sidewalks in Times Square, killing one and injuring more than 20 people before security barricades stopped him. And, later that same year, a 29-year-old man rammed his pickup truck into pedestrian traffic along the busy West Side Highway, killing eight and injuring 11.
More recently, in September 2020, a vehicle rammed through a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting police brutality in Times Square.
But the scale of the Thanksgiving parade in New York is so large that it is difficult to draw comparisons, a law enforcement official said. The parade for years has been seen as a high-value target for extremist and terror groups.
“You can’t really take an incident that occurs at a holiday parade in a relatively small city and compare it to what we do in New York City for that event,” said John Miller, the deputy commissioner for the Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau.
The space around the parade is what is known as a “hardened route,” cordoned off from traffic by cars that block roads, sand-filled dump trucks and long gun teams, Mr. Miller said. The security measures include tools as mundane as metal barriers and as high-tech as radiation detectors fastened to the belts of police officers. And, the entire route is blanketed by the Lower and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiatives, a surveillance dragnet that overlays tactics like license plate readers and video surveillance to secure Midtown and Lower Manhattan.
Police officials will hold a news briefing on Wednesday about security along the parade route, Mr. Miller said.
“We don’t worry. We plan,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a better use of our time.”
For more than half a century, the Waukesha Christmas parade has been the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season and an economic booster to the dozens of storefronts that border the floats’ path.
“The route has pretty much been the same or similar to what it is now, and it’s always been packed along the way,” John Schoenknecht, a board member of the Waukesha County Historical Museum, said in an interview on Monday.
Typically, the parade attracts at least a few thousand people every year, he said.
Black-and-white photos from as far back as 1952 show children and women dressed as angels in the back of a pickup truck and dressed-up boys riding atop the St. Matthias Episcopal Church float past hundreds of spectators.
Other photos from the 1960s and 1970s show Santa Claus on top of a decorated sleigh, surrounded by children and riding down Main Street — the same path where the driver of an S.U.V. barreled through on Sunday, killing five people and injuring more than 40 others.
Mr. Schoenknecht, 70, said the parade had always been a “fun attraction for families,” making what occurred on Sunday all the more horrifying. Among those injured, at least 18 were children.
Christmas has always been a major holiday for residents. In 2013, the city set a Guinness World Record for the number of Christmas carolers (more than 1,800). And every year, the parade attracts people across the county eager to partake in holiday festivities.
“If you look at old pictures, it’s the same thing,” Mr. Schoenknecht said. “People gather around their church float or their business float that’s sponsoring — that’s been a constant.”
High schools in the county have also historically been a big part of the parade, Mr. Schoenknecht said. He added that in 1968, he participated with his school marching band.
Typically, four high schools in the Waukesha area practice all of the fall term for their Christmas parade performance.
A downtown business association was the main sponsor of the parade when it began decades ago, Mr. Schoenknecht said. In recent years, various local businesses and organizations have sponsored it separately.
In 2017, one of the themes for the parade was “Christmas in Waukesha throughout the ages,” with marketing materials showing old monochromatic images.
Waukesha has spent 2021 celebrating 125 years as a city, with officials hosting events to encapsulate the history of their community.
“And then this happened,” Mr. Schoenknecht said. “I mean, oh my gosh.”
A police officer in Waukesha, Wis., fired shots at the S.U.V. that barreled into a parade on Sunday, but had to stop because of the crowds nearby, Dan Thompson, chief of the Waukesha Police Department, said on Monday. No one was hit by gunfire, he said.
Police departments generally allow officers to shoot at drivers in moving vehicles who have already run someone over.
But shooting at moving vehicles is a contentious practice for police officers. It endangers passengers and passers-by. It often doesn’t effectively stop the threat; if the driver is injured or killed, the vehicle keeps moving.
On top of that, police academies don’t give training in how to shoot at moving vehicles. Large departments ban the practice — except for carve-outs set up in recent years for terrorist attacks like the one in which a truck killed dozens of people during a Bastille Day parade in 2016 in Nice, France.
After that attack, the New York Police Department, which banned shooting at moving vehicles in 1972, told officers that they could shoot at moving vehicles during similar “vehicle ramming attacks.”
“This was a new form of terrorism, at least in the United States,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy nonprofit. “And police had to rethink in those very specific situations, how do you stop someone from killing people?”
Months after the N.Y.P.D. changed its policy, a man in a rental truck rammed into cyclists and pedestrians on a bike path in Manhattan, killing eight. The driver jumped out of his vehicle before a police officer shot him in the abdomen, injuring him.
A recent New York Times investigation showed that in the past five years, law enforcement officers killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were being pursued for nonviolent, often minor offenses and were not wielding guns or knives. About 250 of those were killed by officers who justified shooting at motorists by saying they feared they were about to be run over, even as dozens put themselves in harm’s way or didn’t appear to be in any danger.
But the situation on Sunday in Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, was different. Although no terrorism motive was found, the police announced five intentional homicide charges against a 39-year-old Milwaukee man, Darrell E. Brooks.
“In this extreme case where the vehicle is being used as a weapon to strike multiple people, the calculus may tip in the officer’s favor to shoot at the vehicle,” said John Gross, an associate professor and director of the Public Defender Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. “But only in extreme cases, such as this one, would that decision be warranted.”
Waukesha’s use-of-force policy, updated in July, doesn’t mention whether police officers are allowed to shoot at moving vehicles. But it does say officers may “use deadly force to apprehend a criminal suspect who has used or threatened to use deadly force against someone, and presents a continued threat to the public.”
The department used to have a further caveat, saying that officers were allowed to shoot at an unarmed fleeing felon only if the suspect posed “a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
It’s not clear why that provision was removed; the department did not return calls for comment. Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University Law professor and former Justice Department official, said departments should not change use-of-force policies based on what happened in Waukesha.
“You should never make policy when officers should shoot at moving vehicles based on such a rare occurrence,” she said. “Because it will translate to the much more common occurrence when people driving vehicles are trying to escape. We would be foolish to extrapolate too much from this incident.”
Marsha Winters has been a friend and occasional girlfriend of Darrell Brooks since they met on a social media site, Mocospace. She knew him by his rapper stage name, “mathboifly,” which she and others shortened to Fly.
When word of what had happened in Waukesha hit the news, she and her family couldn’t believe it.
“My sister and mom were like, ‘That’s Fly!’” she said. “I’m just in shock. I thought I knew him. I guess you don’t know what people are capable of until they do something like this.”
Ms. Winters, 29, said Mr. Brooks called her from jail over the summer, asking if he could stay at her family’s Milwaukee house when he got out. His time crashing in the family’s basement lasted only a day or two in August, she said.
“My mom didn’t like him from the get-go,” Ms. Winters said.
“She used to blow my phone up when I was with him,” she added, saying her mother told her to get home right away or she wouldn’t be let back in. “She just has a way of knowing people.”
Mr. Brooks kept a low profile and seemed to hide things around her, Ms. Winters said. When she’d visit the house he shared with his mother, he’d make a point of hiding the mail when it arrived. She never met his mother, and he never seemed to work, she said. He wouldn’t explain how he could afford things such as the Ford S.U.V. that he is accused of driving into the crowd in Waukesha.
She didn’t find him to be violent, she said, even when she told him he had to leave her family’s home in August.
“He’s like, ‘I understand,’” she said. “‘But I got to find someplace to stay.’”
Ms. Winters said she tried to help connect him to shelters and other resources but lost touch with him once he left. A few weeks ago, he reconnected with her, seeking to reclaim some belongings he’d left in the basement. But the basement had flooded since his time there, ruining his things. Ms. Winters said she hadn’t heard from him since.