The driver suspected of plowing through the Waukesha holiday parade Sunday — killing five people and injuring nearly 50 others — had an ongoing domestic violence case and was out of custody after prosecutors recommended an “inappropriately low” bail in the case, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office said Monday.
Police expect to refer five counts of first-degree intentional homicide and additional charges to prosecutors. The penalty for first-degree intentional homicide is a mandatory life prison sentence.
Darrell Brooks Jr., the man suspected of being the driver, has been charged three times in less than two years with recklessly endangering the safety of others, most recently in an incident in which he is accused of running a woman over with his vehicle in Milwaukee.
Waukesha Police Chief Dan Thompson confirmed Brooks’s identity at a Monday afternoon news conference and said investigators learned Brooks was involved in a “domestic disturbance” before he drove into the parade route. Thompson said there was a report of a knife being involved, but police were unable to confirm that as of Monday afternoon.
Thompson said a police chase did not lead to the driver’s actions but Thompson said he would not be providing more details about that suspect’s motivations at this point. The chief said there was no sign the event was an act of domestic terrorism.
“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.
Thompson became emotional Monday at a press conferenc as he read the names of the victims:
- Virginia Sorenson, 79
- LeAnna Owen, 71
- Tamara Durand, 52
- Jane Kulich, 52
- Wilhelm Hospel, 81
Some of the victims were members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, a group of women who are grandmothers who perform dance routines for parades and festivals.
Also killed was an employee of Citizen Bank who was walking with a parade float and was struck, the business said in a statement.
Sunday’s attack was not the first time Brooks has been accused of running a person over with a vehicle. In the early November case, 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.
The woman was hospitalized for her injuries, court records show.
Brooks posted $1,000 bond on Nov. 11 in the most recent incident and was released from Milwaukee County Jail on Nov. 16, according to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. He also was charged in July 2020 with two felony counts of second-degree recklessly endangering the safety of others using a dangerous weapon. Both cases are ongoing.
The recent $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 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 Journal Sentinel he is not representing him in the Waukesha incident.
The Journal Sentinel contacted Court Commissioner Cedric Cornwall, who set the bail, and Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, who oversees the court system, on Monday morning and has not heard back.
A history of contacts with law enforcement, courts
The man taken into custody in connection with the parade tragedy has a history of criminal allegations involving violence, court records show.
He has been charged with crimes 16 times since 1999, when Brooks pleaded guilty at 17 years old to a felony charge of inflicting substantial bodily harm against another person.
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.
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.
The woman was hospitalized and officers saw a tire track mark on her pants leg, according to court records.
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 reporters. 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.
‘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.
Early Monday morning, the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies confirmed some of their members had died.
“Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies. Their eyes gleamed … joy of being a Grannie. They were the glue … held us together,” the organization’s post on Facebook reads.
Formed in 1984, the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies are a choreographed dance and pom-pom group that performs in about 25 parades each year, according to its website. The group rehearses their routines weekly.
The Waukesha Xtreme Dance also 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.”
Jessalyn is in critical condition, said Kohnke, who called her a “fighter.”
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 a fund to 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, citing online court records. This article has been updated with 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 and Cary Spivak of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.