NEW YORK – A man accused of crushing a fire department medic to death under the wheels of a stolen ambulance told reporters Friday he’d done nothing wrong, while his lawyer said he was mentally ill and didn’t act intentionally.
As colleagues mourned Fire Department Emergency Medical Services technician Yadira Arroyo at a stationhouse draped in black and purple bunting, Jose Gonzalez was arraigned on murder and other charges in her gruesome death. The mom of five sons worked as medic for 14 years, and colleagues said she was devoted to her job and a mother figure to co-workers as well as her own family.
Gonzalez, 25, hopped on the back of Arroyo’s ambulance Thursday night, then darted into the driver’s seat and ran her over after a man on the street flagged the vehicle down to say Gonzalez had seized his backpack, authorities said.
“I’m innocent. I didn’t do nothing,” Gonzalez said as he was escorted out of a police station, surrounded by angry, uniformed emergency medical technicians hurling insults.
Police said Gonzalez had been high on drugs during the deadly encounter. His lawyer, Alice Fontier, said he has a severe mental illness. She didn’t identify it, saying his history would be disclosed later in court.
“Whatever may have happened here, none of his actions were intentional,” Fontier said, calling Arroyo’s death a tragedy for both the EMT’s family’s and the suspect’s.
Gonzalez is being held without bail.
Police said Gonzalez, who lived for about a month at a group home for chronically homeless single adults, had a history of arrests and violent and erratic behaviour with officers. Fontier said his record involves mostly marijuana possession charges, as well as ongoing misdemeanour assault and criminal mischief cases.
Arroyo, 44, was incredibly dedicated, responding to calls even during asthma attacks, her colleagues said Friday.
“Yadi was the matriarch of the station,” Lt. George Lampon said, choking back tears during a sombre ceremony at Arroyo’s stationhouse. “She was not only a mother of five, but a mother to the 100-plus people who worked here.”
Another medic, Anastasia Rabos, said Arroyo was a great mentor and friend and “a very humble person.”
Arroyo and another EMT were responding to a routine medical call when Gonzalez began riding on the back of the ambulance, police said. Arroyo was driving.
After they were flagged down, Arroyo got out and briefly spoke to Gonzalez before he dashed into the driver’s seat, according to a court complaint.
She tried to stop him from driving off, but he threw the vehicle in reverse and ran her over, then drove forward and hit her again, the complaint said. A bystander’s video, posted on Twitter, captured a horrific scene of the ambulance speeding across an intersection with one of its doors open, its lights flashing and Arroyo’s body being dragged beneath.
Gonzalez was captured moments later by a passing transit police officer and a bystander after the ambulance hit several parked cars and got stuck on a snowbank, authorities said.
The second EMT, seen in the bystander’s video kneeling and sobbing over the body of her fallen partner, was treated at a Bronx hospital for minor injuries, police said.
All but the youngest of Arroyo’s children, who range in age from 7 to 24, were able to say goodbye to her, her sister-in-law Monica Salazar told the New York Post.
“It was devastating. It was their mother. They were very upset, but the eldest held it together for the others, and he gave them a beautiful speech, saying he was going to take care of his brothers and be a rock for them,” she told the newspaper.
While EMTs know their vital work can be dangerous, they don’t expect violence, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Friday. Arroyo, he said, was extremely brave.
“We will, with her family, celebrate her life,” he said. “We will mourn her death and stand strong together.”