This story was republished on Jan. 17, 2022 to make it free for all readers.
The driver who plowed through a Christmas parade in downtown Waukesha, killing five people and injuring nearly 50, did so intentionally and is expected to face first-degree homicide counts and other charges, police said Monday.
The suspect, Darrell Brooks Jr., 39, recently had been released from custody in a strikingly similar case, in which he was accused of driving over a woman during a domestic dispute, sending her to the hospital and leaving tire marks on her pant leg.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting that case, said Monday it was launching an internal review of a prosecutor’s “inappropriately low” $1,000 bail recommendation. The bail amount was signed off on by a court commissioner.
The horrific scene Sunday evening tore at the heart of the Waukesha community and rippled outward from the Norman Rockwell-style parade that has been a six-decade tradition. At least 18 children were among the injured, 10 of whom remained in Children’s Wisconsin’s intensive care unit.
“Last night, that parade became a nightmare,” Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said Monday.
Police Chief Daniel Thompson became emotional Monday at a news conference as he read the names of the victims: Virginia Sorenson, 79; LeAnna Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; Jane Kulich, 52; and Wilhelm Hospel, 81.
“Right now our focus, the Waukesha Police Department’s focus, the city of Waukesha’s focus, is the families, the victims and due process,” Thompson said.
Investigators learned Brooks was involved in a "domestic disturbance" before he drove into the parade route, the chief said. There was a report of a knife being involved, but police were unable to confirm that as of Monday afternoon, he added.
Thompson said a police chase did not lead to the driver's actions but Thompson said he would not be providing more details about the suspect's motivations at this point. The chief said there was no sign the event was an act of domestic terrorism. Waukesha prosecutors expect to file formal charges Tuesday.
The suspect's earlier interactions with the criminal justice system quickly drew scrutiny Monday. He has two open court felony cases in Milwaukee County. In July 2020, he was charged with three felonies after being accused of firing a gun during an argument with a relative.
Earlier this month, a woman told police that 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.
Brooks was arrested and charged Nov. 5 in the case.
The $1,000 bail recommended by prosecutors, and accepted by the court commissioner, was "inappropriately low" given the nature of the charges, according to a statement Monday from the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office, led by District Attorney John Chisholm. The assistant district attorney who appeared at the hearing where bail was set was Carole Manchester.
The bail also was not consistent with the office's approach to cases "involving violent crime, nor was it consistent with the risk assessment of the defendant prior to setting of bail," the statement read.
"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."
Wisconsin requires payment for the full amount of bail set in any criminal case.
An attorney representing Brooks in his current Milwaukee County case declined to answer questions about the most recent charge there. The attorney, Joseph Domask, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he is not representing him in the Waukesha incident.
The Journal Sentinel tried to reach Court Commissioner Cedric Cornwall, who set the bail, and did not hear back. Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, who oversees the court system, said the judicial code of conduct restricted her from commenting on pending cases.
Brooks posted the $1,000 bail on Nov. 11 and was released from Milwaukee County Jail on Nov. 16 and into the custody of Waukesha County Sheriff's Department, where he had a hold in a paternity case, according to the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office.
Brooks was booked in Waukesha County, appeared before a court commissioner and then was released from custody that same day, the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department confirmed Monday.
Waukesha parade live updates: Fund created to help those affected by parade incident
A history of contacts with law enforcement, courts
The suspect has a history of criminal allegations involving violence, court records show.
He has been charged with crimes 10 times since 1999, when Brooks pleaded guilty at 17 years old to a felony charge of inflicting substantial bodily harm against another person, according to court records. He also has been cited for traffic and disorderly conduct offenses.
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.
Eventually, the officer was able to stop the car and removed the keys. Brooks ran away from the car, court records say, and he was arrested hiding in a children's playhouse in the same block. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in that case.
More recently, Brooks was charged in July 2020 with two felony counts of second-degree recklessly endangering safety and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was accused of getting into a fight with a relative and then firing a gun at the relative and a friend, according to court records.
His bail was set at $10,000 and then reduced to $7,500. Prosecutors were prepared to go forward with his jury trial on Feb. 9, according to the district attorney's office's statement. Brooks was still in custody at that time and had made a speedy trial demand, but because another jury trial was in progress in the same court, the case was postponed.
Story continues below the gallery.
After hearing arguments from Brooks' attorney, bail was dropped to $500 by Milwaukee County Judge David Feiss, online records show. Brooks posted that bail Feb. 21. A plea and sentencing hearing was scheduled in that case for Nov. 11. At that hearing, Brooks' attorney requested another adjournment and the prosecutor did not object. Feiss scheduled a status hearing in December.
By that Nov. 11 hearing, Brooks already was in custody for the domestic-related incident.
According to court records, on Nov. 2, Brooks knocked on the door of a woman staying at a Milwaukee hotel, yelling profanities. She opened the door and tried to walk past him, but he snatched her phone and drove off, records say.
The woman was later walking toward a gas station when Brooks pulled up alongside her and demanded she get in the car, the criminal complaint said.
When she refused, he punched her in the face and then as she walked away through the gas station parking lot until Brooks ran her over his vehicle, a 2010 maroon Ford Escape, the complaint says. The vehicle is similar to the description of the SUV involved in the parade tragedy.
Brooks was charged Nov. 5 with felony second-degree recklessly endangering safety, felony bail jumping and three misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct and battery, with domestic abuse assessments.
Reporters who approached a Milwaukee address associated with Brooks were stopped by police who said the resident did not want to speak to reporters.
Three neighbors said they frequently saw Brooks but seldom said anything beyond a quick hello. One neighbor told reporters her home security system captured several police officers at his home and examining his car several weeks ago. Officers were again seen at the house Sunday night, the neighbor said.
A woman who had a child with Brooks told a Journal Sentinel reporter he was not involved in her or her children's life.
"I have no idea what makes him tick, why he would do something so stupid and tragic and why he would hurt those babies and those kids,” she said.
Brooks also had an outstanding warrant in Nevada, the USA TODAY Network confirmed late Monday. In 2016, police in the city of Sparks arrested him, saying he failed to obey sex offender laws. He posted bail but later failed to appear in court, records show.
'Senseless violence': Vigils, funds organized to help victims
Dozens of witness videos showed a red SUV hurtling through the parade and appeared to show the vehicle hitting members of the Waukesha South High School Blackshirt Band, the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies and a children's dance group.
An officer shot at the SUV in an attempt to stop it. No bystanders were injured by the gunfire, and authorities said they don't believe any shots were fired from the SUV.
Three of those who died — Sorenson, Owen, Durand — were members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies and a fourth, Hospel, was helping the dance troupe. Sorenson, known as Ginny, was described as the group's beating heart.
"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."
Kulich, the fifth fatal victim in the attack, had worked at Citizens Bank as a teller since November of 2020 and was remembered as a "loving, beautiful and charismatic mother, grandmother and friend to so many."
The Waukesha Xtreme Dance had injured members, including an 11-year-old girl named Jessalyn. Her uncle, Ryan Kohnke, told the Journal Sentinel she had danced with the group since preschool.
Kohnke was at the parade and scrambled to find family in the aftermath, spotting his niece on the ground.
"It’s just senseless violence,” Kohnke said. “The horrific scene that followed and the trauma that it’s going to have on this community, it’s unfortunate.”
As of Monday morning, six patients were in critical condition at Children’s Wisconsin, hospital, officials said. Three additional patients were in “serious” condition, while others were in fair condition and two had been released.
The hospital treated 18 children, from ages 3 to 16, who were injured in the Waukesha Christmas Parade incident. The patients included three sets of siblings, hospital officials said.
“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.”
Gov. Tony Evers visited the hospital on Monday and met with local officials in the wake of the attack, according to his spokeswoman.
Earlier, authorities said 11 adults and 12 children were ferried to local hospitals. Others were taken by friends and family. Children's Wisconsin hospital said it had 15 patients and no fatalities. Aurora Medical Center-Summit, a hospital in Waukesha County, confirmed they were treating 13 patients early Monday morning.
The United for Waukesha Community Fund has been created for those affected by the tragedy. People can make donations through the Waukesha Community Foundation at waukeshafoundation.org/parade.
Children’s Wisconsin is operating an emotional and mental health support line at 414-266-6500.
Correction: An earlier post contained inaccurate information about when the suspect had been released from custody in Milwaukee County Jail and how many crimes he had been charged with since 1999, citing online court records. This article has been updated with the correct number of charges and information from the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail.
Rory Linnane, Talis Shelbourne, Sophie Carson, Evan Casey, Cathy Kozlowicz, Mary Spicuzza, Bruce Vielmetti, Patrick Marley, Cary Spivak, John Diedrich and Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Darrell Brooks Jr. of Wisconsin had history with law enforcement