A California man was arrested Thursday after police say he drove through a crowd of protesters at an immigrants rights rally in Brea, sending six people to the hospital to be evaluated for minor injuries.
Daniel Wenzek, 56, was taken into custody on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, KTLA-TV reports. Wenzek, who is a registered sex offender, was released pending further investigation, Brea Police Department Lieutenant Kelly Carpenter told the news station.
The incident occurred as several hundred people protested outside of Republican U.S. Representative Ed Royce’s office in the Orange County city. The group was attempting to deliver letters to the Fullerton congressman’s office about what losing temporary protected immigration status would mean, Andrew Cohen, spokesman for Unite Here Local 11, told KTLA. The status protects people from being deported if they are unable to return to their home countries because of a natural disaster or political conditions.
““The workers who visited Congressman Royce’s office today aimed to draw attention to the suffering faced by immigrants covered by Temporary Protective Status, who are now under threat by the Trump Administration with the complicity of Rep. Royce and others in Congress who have turned their backs on these refugees,” the SEIU United Service Workers West said in a statement. “We are shocked and saddened that families seeking refuge from violence in their home countries were victimized here in this country.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Video Shows Wenzek Driving Toward the Crowd as Protesters Try to Get Him to Stop
The incident, which occurred about 12:30 p.m. Thursday, was captured on video by Unite Here Local 11 member Antonia Mendoza, and posted to Twitter with the caption, “Violence against TPS protesters in Brea.” You can watch the video above.
Police told the Orange County Register the incident happened toward the end of the protest, while about 150 to 200 people marched in the street after being turned away from Rep. Ed Royce’s office. Lieutenant Kelly Carpenter said the protest was peaceful and a group moved into the intersection of Birch Street and Brea Boulevard, briefly blocking it.
“We asked them to clear, and they did,” Carpenter told the newspaper. The protest lasted about 20 minutes. “The protest was almost over, and they were walking back when this car came to the crowd.”
The video shows protesters, banging drums as car horns are heard, walking across a Brea Boulevard. The driver of a black Toyota, identified as Daniel Wenzek by Brea Police, can be seen inching forward into the crowd of protesters while hitting his horn. As he drives into them, they begin banging on the car and trying to get them to stop.
A woman, identified by the Los Angeles Times as Claudia Aguilera, can be seen jumping onto the hood of the car. The driver then accelerates with her on the hood, hitting another protester while the crowd throws drinks and hits his vehicle with sticks to try to stop him. He eventually comes to a stop in front of a group of people and police approach the car, turning off the engine and surrounding the vehicle while telling protesters to move away.
“My only thought is that I just want him to stop,” Aguilera told the LA Times. “I’m like, if I just jump on the car, he’s going to stop. He did stop, thank God, because if he didn’t stop, he would [have] run over a lot of people that [were] crossing the street. It was so quick.”
Andrew Cohen, communications director for Unite Here, told the newspaper, “There were definitely a lot of drivers who were laying on their horns and getting pretty irate.”
Cohen told NBC Los Angeles that the incident reminded them of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, where a woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car driven by James Fields Jr. plowed into counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally.
“That was the first thought that was on all of our minds,” Cohen told the news station. He said some of the protesters suffered “bumps and scrapes,” but weren’t seriously injured. “The whole thing was pretty terrifying.”
Cohen called Wenzek an “irate driver,” in an interview with LAist, and added “things escalated quickly,” saying the driver, “appeared to accelerate before he was surrounded by protesters and police.”
Unite Here wrote on Facebook, “The congressman’s staff refused to meet with the constituents. Outside as protesters marched through an intersection, one irate driver decided to ram his car into the crowd. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt. Undeterred and unafraid, we will keep fighting for our TPS brothers and sisters so they don’t lose their protected immigration status.”
2. Protesters Called It a ‘Deliberate & Hateful Crime,’ While Police Say They Don’t Think He Was Trying to Harm Anyone
The SEIU United Service Workers West, which helped organize the rally, wrote in a statement posted to Facebook that the incident resulted in four of its SEIU members and two staff being taken to the hospital for evaluation. Police said no one was seriously injured.
“This afternoon, several members and staff of SEIU USWW became victims of what appears to be a deliberate and hateful crime while exercising their civil rights, when a car plowed into a crowd of families, seniors, and children,” President David Huerta said in the statement. “We call on Rep. Royce to join us in denouncing terrorist violence against peaceful demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights.”
Huerta continued, “Unfortunately, such hateful crimes have been fostered by the climate of fear and division established by the Trump Administration, and vehicular attacks have actually been actively promoted by the forces right-wing extremism.”
The union added they hope Royce will voice his support for an extension of TPS status “for immigrants who tirelessly care for our children, clean our homes and offices, and work in our fields. There is no doubt they would suffer unspeakable hardship if they are forced to return to their countries of origin.”
The union the protest was lawful:
Today’s peaceful demonstration, organized by SEIU USWW, UNITE HERE, and CARECEN, was permitted and held in cooperation with the Brea Police Department. We are grateful for the bravery of officers who stopped the driver before more violence was committed, and who took the perpetrator into custody.
Our organizations pledge our full cooperation with law enforcement as this crime is investigated. Meanwhile, we refuse to be silenced in the face of oppression and violence and we will continue to elevate the voices of those calling for justice and healing.
The Brea Police Department disputed some of the union’s claims.
“I think he was trying to get through the crowd,” Lieutenant Adam Hawley told The Associated Press. “We don’t have any indication he was trying to harm somebody.”
Protesters told The Associated Press that Wenzek did not say anything as he drove through the crowd.
Steven Smith, a spokesman for Royce, told the Los Angeles Times the congressman was not at his office. He said Royce, “condemns in the strongest possible terms any and all violence” and his staff remains “committed to meeting with all constituents who wish to voice their opinions in a civil and respectful manner.”
3. Wenzek Was Convicted of Lewd or Lascivious Acts With a Child Under the Age of 14 in 2006 & Served 3 Years in Prison
Daniel James Wenzek was convicted of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14 in 2006, according to the California Megan’s Law website. He served three years and was ordered to register as a sex offender for life.
Details of the case weren’t immediately available. According to California law, a person is guilty of the child molestation law, Penal Code 288(a), if he or she “willfully and lewdly commits any lewd or lascivious act, upon the body, or any part or member thereof, of a child who is under the age of 14 years, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying the lust, passions, or sexual desires of that person or the child.” The law includes incidents when the “Defendant willfully touched any part of a child’s body by bare skin or through clothing,” or the “Defendant willfully caused a child to touch defendant’s body, or someone else, by bare skin or through clothing.”
Wenzek posted on a message board for sex offenders, “Living With 290,” a reference to California Penal Code 290, the Sex Offender Registration Act, on the website Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offender Laws, in 2015.
“I feel your pain! I have a doctorate degree that I cannot use anymore. When I got out of prison in 2009 I went back to school and became a certified Paralegal, wanting to help 290’s. I had a job in a lawyers office, I loved it. There was another job that came open at another place of employment, I filled out the application and answered yes to THE QUESTION! and I got hired doing Paralegal work in the real estate field,” Wenzek wrote. “After 4 months they decided to do a background check and they abruptly walked me off the premises. I cannot find anything now, I could not even get a job at Wal-Mart. I can’t get a job cleaning toilets. I know your frustration! I never give up so you keep going forward!”
4. He’s Posted on Facebook About Being a Born-Again Christian Along With Posts About GOP Politics, Conspiracy Theories & Obama
Wenzek has not posted publicly on Facebook in several years, and does not appear to have any other social media profiles, but he was an active user of Facebook in 2012. He posted often about religion and being a born-again Christian, along with posts about baseball and Republican politics. He also several anti-Obama posts.
In one of his posts about religion, he wrote, ” I am so grateful, honored and very humbled by the wonderful things God has done in my life. My life verse is and will remain Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future!!!!!”
In another post he said, “Hate has no part in the Kingdom of God!”
Wenzek was a fan of Andrew Breitbart, sharing a video from his CPAC speech in 2012 after Breitbart’s death. He wrote, “What a huge loss! Andrew Breitbart dies at age 43. Andrew, you will be missed by millions of Americans who love this country. May God Bless your wife and children. … Andrew Brietbart I will always be grateful you helped get rid of Anthony Weiner.”
In 2012, Wenzek studied to be a paralegal at Los Angeles Mission College, where he was given a National Society of Collegiate Scholars award for a 4.0 GPA, according to several posts on his page. Also in 2012, Brea posted several photos from an event at Poly High School, writing, “Preaching at Poly High School! Had an awesome time! Great Food, Fun and Fellowship!”
Wenzek is listed as having been the president of Grace Brethren Church in Norwalk, California, but details about his role with the church and when he was involved there were not immediately available.
5. Wenzek, Who Could Face a Felony Charge, ‘Feared for His Life,’ a Friend Says
Wenzek is being investigated for a possible felony charge of assault with a deadly weapon, the Brea Police Department said. He was taken to the police department for questioning and then released.
Wenzek could not be reached for comment. It is not clear if he has hired an attorney. The Associated Press reports that a woman answered the phone at the address listed for Wenzek, but would not allow a reporter to speak to him and then hung up.
A friend posted on Facebook, “He was on his way to his doctor when a whole bunch of protestors surrounded his car and was spitting on it, beating it and jumping on his hood. He feared for his life and tried to drive away before getting harmed but was briefly arrested.”
The friend, who asked for prayers for Wenzek, wrote that the protesters and media are trying to distort what happened. “Below is a news report that tries to make it sound like he was intentionally trying to hurt people. You can see in the video one man jumping on to his hood. That would scare the heck out of anyone and you would just want to get away from it before you got injured or worse. As far as i know they didn’t arrest anyone that was doing harm to his car or threatening him.”
Wenzek’s friend added, “Dan Wenzek is one of the kindest gentlest people i know and would never intentionally try to hurt someone.”