On Thursday, May 18, 26-year-old Richard Rojas deliberately drove his maroon Honda Accord through three blocks of a Times Square sidewalk, injuring 20 people and killing an 18-year-old tourist before crashing into a pole. As Rojas’ car came to a standstill, he emerged with glassy eyes and slurred speech. He was fleeing the scene — swinging his arms and screaming incoherently — when police finally arrived. Some thought he was drunk; others suspected K2, a synthetic marijuana compound, to be the catalyst for his actions. Toxicology tests soon revealed that Rojas had marijuana laced with PCP in his system. But this wasn’t just a case of a mentally stable person suddenly losing their mind after taking a drug: A picture of Rojas as a man struggling with mental illness — and using drugs and alcohol to cope — has slowly begun to emerge.
Days after mowing down nearly two dozen pedestrians, Richard Rojas told the New York Post that he knew there was something wrong with him, but couldn’t find a place that would treat him quickly enough.
“I was trying to get help,” Rojas said through tears. “I wanted to fix my life. I wanted to get a job. Get a girlfriend.”
Mental illness cannot excuse or explain away the appalling cruelty Rojas demonstrated during his murderous rampage. Nearly one in four people struggle with mental health problems, and most of them never harm others. But one haunting question remains — if Rojas had received professional help, would he still have committed this horrible crime?
A Problem Left Untreated
Long before the events of that day, Richard Rojas was just another man living in the Bronx. His childhood was filled with bike rides around the borough and afternoons in auto shops working on cars. He dreamed of one day graduating from college, getting his own apartment and starting a clothing line. In 2011, Rojas enrolled in the Navy to help pay for his schooling and explore the country. It was during his station at a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida that Rojas’ mental health quickly began to deteriorate.
After a violent incident in 2012 involving a cab driver and several police officers, Rojas pleaded guilty to failure to pay a just debt, drunk and disorderly conduct and communicating a threat. He served three months in a North Carolina Navy brig as punishment for his crimes. Once his sentence was over, Rojas received an “other than honorable” discharge and was sent back to the Bronx.
While the Rojas family says Richard struggled with mental health issues since childhood, his condition grew worse than ever once he moved back to his mother’s New York apartment. Delusions that the government was out to get him started to take hold of his thoughts. Rojas began to believe that routine government interactions, including parking tickets, taxes and police stops, were all part of a plan to control him. He drank and used drugs often — possibly to quiet these thoughts — and became increasingly anxious and isolated.
As Rojas’ condition continued to decline, he found himself in legal trouble once again. In 2015, he was arrested in Manhattan for driving while intoxicated. The week before his Times Square rampage, a man came to the apartment where Richard was staying to notarize some documents. Richard Rojas grabbed him by the neck and threatened him with a knife, believing that the notary was trying to steal his identity. Rojas was charged with menacing and criminal possession of a weapon and let go with a minor harassment plea. The paranoia and aggression that hinted at larger mental health problems were left unaddressed.
Pushed Over the Edge by PCP
Toxicology tests revealed that Richard Rojas smoked marijuana-laced PCP shortly before his deadly Times Square drive. This dangerous drug likely had a significant impact on his mental state. A dissociative sedative and anesthetic, PCP is well-known for its hallucinogenic properties. Ingestion can leave individuals feeling detached from the world around them and make them more prone to delusional thoughts and aggressive acts. This drug — coupled with Rojas’ poor mental state — climaxed in the tragic events that took place at The Crossroads of the World.
Image courtesy of Umar Abassi from the Associated Press.
Echoes of a Broken System
While the motivations for Rojas’ actions in Times Square are still unclear, it appears these events were the culmination of his mounting paranoia, escalating aggression and continued drug usage. An attempt to end his life and quiet his thoughts. “You were supposed to shoot me,” Rojas reportedly told police on the scene. Tragically, his violent actions left dozens injured, one dead and a city deeply shaken.
This shocking event speaks to the complicated ways that mental health disorders and drugs interact: Mental illness can fuel drug use, and drug use can exacerbate already present psychological issues. Rojas knew he had a problem and sought out help, but it didn’t arrive soon enough. In a New York Post interview that took place on a Saturday from a Rikers Island visiting room, Mr. Rojas claimed that he reached out to a mental health counselor at a local veteran’s center the same week of his crime: “He said he’d call me on Monday…Monday hasn’t come yet,” Rojas lamented.
“He went through a real tough time. Don’t make him out to be a terrorist or something,” Harrison Ramos, a friend of Richard’s, told the New York Times. “He served his country and when he came back, nobody helped him. That’s my friend. I care about him, and it hurts.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed Ramos’ concerns, revealing that the Rojas family said their son “demonstrated mental health issues going back to childhood that, like so many other such situations in our society, went unaddressed, even during the time he was in the U.S. military.”
Pushes to increase outpatient care and decrease inpatient treatment in the state of New York have reduced hospitalizations for mental health by 60 percent and increased imprisonment by 70 percent. Instead of taking the time to assist the people in society that need help the most, state and local officials resort to the quick fix of incarceration. Without professional help, many struggling with mental health issues seek out drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. The horrific events that took place in Times Square demonstrate just how disastrous this paradox can be. How many more people will suffer — and possibly harm others — before they get the help they need?
At The Recovery Village, we understand the intimate link between addiction and mental health. It’s not too late to get help. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or co-occurring disorders, contact one of our intake coordinators today.