By Linda Kor –
A community expecting closure to a terrifying incident is feeling re-victimized as media coverage from Norway portrays what many view as an angry crime spree that occurred in Winslow last year as a simple misunderstanding that was blown out of proportion, resulting in a miscarriage of justice.
The incident surrounds John Larsgard, 33, a Norwegian citizen who has lived in the U.S. for many years and the wrong turn he made in a community in the midst of a celebration. It was Sept. 24, 2011, and the City of Winslow was hosting its annual Standin’ On The Corner Festival, an event that brings hundreds, if not thou-sands, of people from throughout the state to the small community for a celebration of music, friends and family.
Larsgard and his mother, Liv Larsgard, were en route from California to Chicago along Interstate 40 early in the day when the vehicle they were driving displayed indicator lights showing that it was experiencing a problem. The Larsgards exited into Winslow, where the vehicle was eventually taken to Dalton Motors on Second Street for repairs. Needing a rental vehicle, the Larsgards then were taken to Flagstaff by a local cab service, then returned to Winslow to retrieve belongings from their vehicle, with John driving the rented Toy-ota Camry.
By the time they returned to Winslow it was late afternoon, and the sidewalks were lined with vendors sell-ing goods and people milling about the streets enjoying the festival. Unfamiliar with Winslow’s streets, Larsgard became confused as to where the repair shop was located, and despite receiving directions from local residents, turned down a one-way street heading the wrong direction as he spotted the repair shop a block away.
It was at that moment that events began to escalate out of control. Vendors and passersby began yelling to Larsgard that he was traveling in the wrong direction and needed to turn around, but intent on his objective, he continued to move westward on the eastbound street toward the shop. Resident Cathy Galvan was busy selling food for a fundraiser at a stand on the corner where Larsgard turned and witnessed the event. “I was yelling that they needed to turn around for their own safety, but he kept driving forward and yelled back that he was just going to ‘creep his way to Dalton’s,’” she recalled.
As he reached the shop another resident, Theresa Gonzales, who had a hot dog stand along that same block across from the repair shop, also yelled to Larsgard that he was traveling the wrong way. According to her witness account, as Larsgard began to turn into the shop’s lot, he leaned out the window and yelled back to Gonzales, “I’ll (expletive) show you the wrong way, I’ll kill you!” At that point, according to Gonzales, Larsgard repositioned his vehicle and accelerated backwards across the sidewalk and two lanes of traffic toward the stand where she and her young children were standing.
Gonzales and her children screamed as she grabbed them out of harm’s way. The vehicle stopped just short of the stand, pulled forward again, then reversed once more,, accelerating so fast that Galvan could hear the screech of the tires from the end of the block. The vehicle raced backwards, jumped the sidewalk, blowing out a tire and striking the canopy of the stand, once again barely missing Gonzales and her children.
“I was at the other end of the block and I could hear the screech of the tires as he hit the gas. I remember thinking he was going to kill someone and began running toward the stand,” recalled Galvan. As people began screaming and running both to and away from the scene yelling for him to stop, Larsgard appeared to became even more enraged. “I will never forget his face. His eyes were bulging and his face was beet red. He put out his middle finger at us and looked just furious,” stated Galvan.
As people yelled for Larsgard to stop the car he once again moved forward, heading through Dalton’s parking lot and out the other side with his vehicle careening eastbound toward the festival. Michael Mendoza, the owner of M&J Smoke Shop located next to the stand where Larsgard just fled, and the father of the children Larsgard had nearly struck, had come out of the shop yelling for Larsgard to stop his vehicle, then began giving chase on foot along with other observers.
“We just wanted him to stop before someone was killed. After the car came through the other side of the shop’s lot, he began to drive crazy toward the road barricades while people were screaming and trying to run from him. It was like something you’d see in a movie. It was surreal,” recalled Galvan.
As Larsgard, with his mother still a passenger, came back around the block to Galvan’s stand, he pulled into a parking lot across from her and once again put the vehicle in reverse in order to back up. By now, numerous 911 calls had been made to the police department from people reporting a man was trying to run down people with his vehicle.
It was at this point that Mendoza caught up with the vehicle as it was paused in the parking lot. According to Galvan, who witnessed the incident, Mendoza attempted to open the car door, but when it wouldn’t open, Mendoza swung his fist through the window, striking Larsgard in the face and breaking his nose. “Michael yelled at him, ‘You tried to kill my family!’ He had tried the door, but it wouldn’t open, it was the only thing he could think to do to get him to stop,” said Galvan.
She stated that the vehicle then suddenly flew backwards, heading toward a group of people including Shayna Patterson’s young daughter, who was in a stroller directly in the path of the vehicle. Patterson ran to move her daughter from harm’s way, and received an injury to her knee and elbow as she fell to the ground.
The car turned sharply in another direction and resident Theda Curley, seeing that other children were in the path of the vehicle, ran forward to protect them. Larsgard’s vehicle struck Curley, running over her foot, and as she pushed away from the vehicle she fell to the ground, fracturing two ribs, displacing her hip and damaging her shoulder. “When the vehicle knocked me down he was so close. I could see the rear tire and it missed my head by just inches,” recalled Curley.
Larsgard’s rampage didn’t end there. He moved forward once again and headed back the direction he had just came from, leaving the road and jumping over a cement block, damaging the passenger door and undercarriage. As he continued around the corner police arrived and discovered Larsgard in the next block, trying to once again reverse the vehicle, which by now was disabled due to the damage it had sustained.
“It was the most terrifying experience of my life,” stated Galvan, who had also had to jump behind another vehicle to avoid being struck by Larsgard’s vehicle. “I’ve never seen so much anger. I’m so grateful no one was seriously hurt, but we were all traumatized and know it could have been a much worse outcome.”
Larsgard’s family and the Norwegian media have portrayed him as a foreigner lost in a strange land and the victim of an overreactive mob. A website has been developed in his name seeking funds to assist with Larsgard’s appeal process, media coverage from across the world has repeated his claims to innocence, and numer-ous discussion boards have surfaced on the Internet discussing the fallibility of the American justice system and the persecution of foreigners in a community that in reality thrives on visitors from throughout the world. The outrage has even led to death threats to Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon and his family.
“We were shocked that only one side of this story was being told and in such a way as to make it seem that we were out to harm him. We love the tourists who come to our community and nothing like this has ever happened before,” stated Galvan.
Speaking on his own behalf, Larsgard stated that he was just trying to get to the repair shop, and had no idea anyone was frightened or that he had struck anyone with the vehicle. “I had at no time any intentions of committing any crimes or offenses…. I feel sad that people think I would do what people said I did,” he stated during his sentencing.
A look into Larsgard’s past indicates that this hasn’t been his first brush with the law. Although never convicted of a previous crime, he has been accused of involvement in other cases in which he used a vehicle to intimidate and terrorize people.
Information provided during the trial shows that Larsgard came to the US while still in high school, claiming that he was bullied in his home country of Norway.
Court transcripts indicate that while attending the University of South Alabama in 2001, a former instructor filed a complaint against Larsgard, stating that he tailed her vehicle bumper to bumper for approximately 10 miles, forcing her to take evasive action, including running a red light, but she was unable to get away from him. In her account, the instructor stated that she could see him laughing in her rear view mirror. He denied the incident and the college completed a threat assessment on him due to his bizarre behavior.
In another incident the following year, Larsgard was expelled from the college due to threatening and aggressive behavior, including an accusation that he was using highly dangerous chemicals from his chemistry class as part of a suspected terrorist plot.
In a more recent incident that sounds eerily similar to the one in Winslow, Larsgard has been accused of running over a bicycle in Los Angeles last year after taunting the cyclist several times with his vehicle. That case is still pending.
While incarcerated at Navajo County Jail, his behavior resulted in his assessment as a medium to high risk to re-offend, and he was deemed a risk to officers following an incident in which he told a nurse that he had planned to fake an illness in order to go to the hospital, take a nurse hostage and escape.
Despite his claims of innocence, following a seven-day jury trial Larsgard was found guilty in Navajo County Superior Court on April 24, of one count of endangerment and six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to 2.25 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) for endangerment, 3.5 years in the DOC for each of two counts of aggravated assault and 7.5 years in the DOC for each of four counts of aggravated assault, with credit for 213 days served on each count. The sentences will run concurrently, meaning he will serve a 7.5-year prison sentence, followed by a term of community supervision equal to one day for every day served. He was ordered to make restitution in the amount of $8,100.17. Larsgard was sentenced by Judge John Lamb, with Deputy County Attorney Joel Ruechel as the prosecutor and Criss Candelaria as the attorney for the defense.
The incident has left Galvan with mixed feelings. “I guess I’m OK with the sentencing. At least he’ll be off the streets. I’m really just hoping that once he’s released he’ll be deported back to Norway. It’s been really upsetting to have this be portrayed the way the media has done,” she said.
Whether Larsgard will receive the support of his homeland as he plans for his appeal has yet to be deter-mined. The story has become headline news in Norway and throughout the U.S. as much of the media promotes Larsgard as a misunderstood foreigner subjected to an unjust criminal system.