Man who stole police SUV and drove it into NJ transit hub has history of violence: Sources

HOBOKEN, NJ — Terrorism concerns have been ruled out, but the man under arrest for stealing a specialized police vehicle and driving it into one of the Tri-state’s busiest transportation hubs apparently has at least one case in his past of carrying out dangerous acts in public places.

Santiago Brito-Avalos, 46, got off an NJ Transit Train in Hoboken around 7:55 a.m. on Monday, according to NJ Transit Police. They say that he then entered a secured parking lot next to Hoboken Terminal and searched for unlocked cars.

He found one, investigators said. An NJ Transit Police Canine Unit SUV not only had its doors unlocked, but it also had spare keys to the ignition in a door console. Brito-Avalos allegedly used the keys to start up the SUV and drive it slowly past commuters.

Two officers ran after the SUV and broke the passenger’s side window to gain access to the driver. By the time they’d reached him, however, he’d driven the front of the vehicle through the doors of the Hoboken Terminal’s waiting room.

“It was weird, just weird,” a witness who did not want to give his name said. "We all pass through here on the way to the ferry. [It’s] just unusual to see a police vehicle crashed in to the doorway."

He, and other witnesses and passengers, all wanted to know how such a potentially dangerous incident could happen.

“You just have to be careful,” commuter Nicholas Martella said. "Cops should lock their cars, I guess.”

NJ Transit confirmed late Monday afternoon that an officer had left the vehicle unlocked. The transit agency also confirmed that investigators did not suspect terrorism.

The suspect, Brito-Avalos, has apparently been in trouble with police before. In June 2016, according to police sources in Suffern, New York, a man whose name and age match Brito-Avalos physically attacked the 74-year-old caretaker at a church, then threw a statue through a stained glass window, causing thousands of dollars in damage. He also charged at responding officers and asked them to shoot him. They eventually used a Taser on him.

In that incident, Brito-Avalos was charged with felony assault and criminal mischief, as well as with misdemeanor assault and harassment charges.

In the Hoboken incident on Monday, the charges were greater in both number and severity.

Brito-Avalos is now charged with a variety of felonies, including burglary of an automobile and burglary of a building, theft, and impersonating a law enforcement officer.

Brito-Avalos is a Mexican national. His immigration status was being investigated after his arrest in Suffern in 2016.