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Mother: Man charged in Sunnyvale crash that injured 8 has PTSD from Army service

How PTSD can affect us

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor discusses tragedies that can affect us in different ways. Some might react to stress immediately, others not until later.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor discusses tragedies that can affect us in different ways. Some might react to stress immediately, others not until later.

He climbed into his Toyota Corolla sedan, picked up meals for his Bible study and headed out to join the group. Within minutes, eight people lay injured in the middle of a busy Sunnyvale intersection. One, a 13-year-old girl, remains in critical condition.

Two days after the horrific collision, Isaiah Joel Peoples, 34, a Department of Defense finance auditor with Sacramento ties and no criminal history, sits in a Santa Clara County jail cell charged with eight counts of attempted murder.

Sunnyvale’s police chief said Thursday his investigators still don’t know why Peoples raced through a busy crosswalk and the eight people who crowded it. But Sunnyvale police Chief Pham Ngo said Peoples did it deliberately, accelerating before he hurtled into the crowd.

“We still do not know what his motives were,” Ngo said at a Thursday news conference. “The only thing we can confirm is that on the day in question he had picked up some food and was on his way to deliver the food to his bible study group.”

In Sacramento, Peoples’ mother said she may have an explanation.

“He’s never been a problem child. He’s never been arrested. Why he did it, I’m sure he had a blackout from the PTSD,” Leevell Peoples said. “He doesn’t even know what happened, I bet. The boy is just coming back from a seizure of some sort, I know this. He’s not crazy.”

The PTSD

In a lengthy interview Thursday with The Sacramento Bee, Peoples talked about her Army veteran son’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return from Iraq. “Episodes,” she called them. He blacked out once, in 2015, after his Army stretch, she said. Years earlier, while a stateside soldier in New York, he was in a training class when he couldn’t stop shaking.

As a sergeant leading drills at a California post, he collapsed in front of his platoon, she said.

Leevell Peoples said her youngest son “made up his mind to go into the Army” in 2004. “He went to talk with (the recruiters) without me present. They got him in there by himself,” she recalled Thursday.

Dad, she said, was firmly against it. Mom wanted Isaiah to talk it over with her first, told him, if he did go to the recruiting office “don’t sign anything.” He signed and said boot camp was just months away.

“I said, ‘You didn’t.’ He said, ‘Yes, I did. I signed the papers. I’m going to boot camp in two to three months,” Leevell Peoples said. “He was just getting out of high school. He was at Heald College and as soon as you come back, now you’re going to Iraq?”

“He left for the Army in 2005. He was a sharpshooter, you know, riding on top of Humvees. He came back in 2006. He came back here with PTSD. He was shaking in class. He came back to California a sergeant. He was leading drills and he passed out in front of his platoon,” Peoples continued. “He went on a tour to Japan or Korea. After that, he said, ‘They’re going to discharge me from the Army because I have PTSD.’ I didn’t know what that was.”

Leevell Peoples said her son wanted to return to the Army. He tried to re-up in 2017 before taking the job that led him to Sunnyvale. The Army wouldn’t take him, his mother said, because of his disorder.

But in the interim, he returned to school here in Sacramento, first at Sacramento City College, then at Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in business administration with an accountancy emphasis. He was a member of Delta Sigma Pi, a business organization at the campus, and photos on his social media accounts depict a low-key lifestyle, smiling groups of college classmates, a photo at a hiking path’s trail head.

“We’re aware of the fact that there’s information that (Peoples) had PTSD,” Ngo said, but said police were still working Thursday to confirm that.

Peoples’ mental health issues, confirmed or not, meant little to one of his victims Thursday. Miguel Balbuena, 15, was struck by the speeding car. His pain and anger remain raw, he told San Francisco television station KPIX.

“No it doesn’t excuse. Because if he’s bad from the mind, he has to go to a doctor and see how they can help him. Not by doing this,” Balbuena said.

‘Life is never gonna be the same’

On social media, Peoples’ family and friends talked openly of PTSD and the possibility Isaiah Peoples suffered from the condition, while offering words of support. One posted an illustration with the words, “PTSD – You never know what people are fighting underneath that smile.”

Joshua Peoples, Isaiah’s older brother, posted simply “Life is never gonna be the same now.”

It was Joshua who told their mother what happened Tuesday night. Leevell is battling cancer and had been scheduled for a round of chemotherapy, but she stayed home and turned in early. She awoke in the middle of the night, at 3 a.m., turned on the news and “heard about the person who ran over all those people.” By then, reporters had long tracked down Joshua, asking if Isaiah was his brother. Leavell was on the phone later that morning when Joshua called.

“He said, ‘This is important. You’ve got to get off the phone,’” Leavell said. “He never says that. The next thing you know, the phone’s ringing off the hook like crazy.”

Leevell Peoples’ youngest son was behind the wheel. Witnesses said he muttered “Thank you, Jesus,” as he was pulled unhurt from his wrecked sedan crumpled against a tree. Ngo said Thursday a “disassembled and inoperable shotgun” was recovered from the trunk of his car,” but no other weapons were found during a search of his apartment.

‘He was the cool one’

Peoples had been in Sunnyvale a little less than two years, his mother said. He moved to the South Bay for a defense job in nearby Mountain View, sharing a place at first with roommates, then getting his own place – a studio apartment. Peoples is single, has no children, he didn’t need much: “Just a place to lay my head,” he’d say.

But he’d found a couple of friends. His mother’s friends lived nearby, too, where a home-cooked meal often awaited.

And, as Sunnyvale police chief Ngo told reporters, he’d found a Bible study group.

He was always a loner, even as a child, but not a sad sack, his mother said.

“Isaiah is a very intelligent, smart, funny guy – but he was very quiet, more like a loner as a child,” Leevell Peoples said. “My house was filled with (his siblings’) friends, but he was the cool one. He would say, ‘I’m staying here with mom.’”

But church and faith were always close at hand.

Peoples was born in San Francisco, raised in Hayward and Union City in the East Bay before the family moved to Sacramento while he was still a youth. Isaiah’s father was a minister before he died in 2011. Isaiah and his siblings were brought up in the church, first, his father’s in their native Bay Area, later as an adult in Sacramento, at Grace Missionary Baptist, where Isaiah was a deacon, Leevell Peoples said..

“He was going to be ordained through the Baptist faith,” Leevell said. Both Isaiah and older brother Joshua are active in the church, but Isaiah was always early, a holdover from his Army days.

“He was in the Army – he was that way. He’d work out like he was still in the military,” she said. “He was never in trouble. He never got a spanking as a child. He wasn’t a bad kid. He’s still not a bad kid,” she said. “No way in hell – if a hell exists – would he hurt anyone.”

Isaiah Peoples remains in held without bail at Santa Clara County Jail. He will be arraigned noon Friday in Santa Clara Superior Court.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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