Darrell Brooks found guilty on all 76 counts in Waukesha Christmas Parade murders, ending weekslong trial

Jim Riccioli
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

WAUKESHA - Almost a year after a devastating attack on a hallowed city tradition, a jury convicted Darrell Brooks Jr. of killing six people and injuring dozens of others by driving through the 2021 Christmas parade. The victims ranged in age from 8 to 81.

After deliberating about 90 minutes Tuesday night before it was sequestered, the jury told the court it had verdicts about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow began reading them shortly before 11 a.m., starting with the first-degree intentional homicide counts. It took her about 25 minutes to read the guilty verdicts on all 76 charges.

As the judge read, a relative of Virginia Sorenson, a member of the Dancing Grannies who was killed, put a small container of her ashes on the bar separating the gallery from the rest of the courtroom.

Outside the courtroom, people wearing blue Waukesha Strong sweatshirts had gathered ahead of the verdicts announcements, heads bowed in silent prayer.

A container holding the ashes of Virginia 'Ginny' E. Sorenson, one of the Dancing Grannies killed in the Waukesha Christmas Parade, sits on the ledge between the gallery and the courtroom as the verdict is read during Darrell Brooks trial in a Waukesha County Circuit Court in Waukesha, Wis., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Brooks, who is representing himself during the trial, is charged with driving into a Waukesha Christmas Parade last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more.

Brooks, 40, who had represented himself at trial, didn't react much as the verdicts were read. He mostly put his head in his folded hands, with his elbows on the table.

When she was finished reading the verdicts, Dorow thanked and excused the jury, then set a Monday hearing to discuss when to schedule sentencing. She said she would allow victims who want to make impact statements via Zoom to use that technology.

Community reacts

City of Waukesha officials welcomed the trial's end. “I am thankful that the jury found the defendant guilty on all counts,” said Mayor Shawn Reilly. “We can now re-focus on taking steps forward as a community and continue the healing process."

“The victims' families as well as our first responders continue to deal with the lasting effects of the horrors of that day," said Police Chief Dan Thompson. " We are grateful for the support that has come from all over the world, and we ask you to continue to keep all those involved in your prayers.”

A statement from the city read, in part, "As a community, we still have a long road ahead filled with difficult days. This will be especially true as we approach the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. However, as we have experienced the past year, we know that when we stand together, we remain Waukesha Strong."

Lynn Gaffey, owner of Almont Gallery in downtown Waukesha, was standing inside her store as Brooks drove into the Dancing Grannies. "It was a horrifying thing to see,” Gaffey said. She watched a live stream of the verdicts Wednesday.

Lynn Gaffey owner of Almont Gallery standing outside her store in Downtown Waukesha.

“I felt there would be no way that he could get anything but guilty,” she said. She said it was hard to have spotlight back on Waukesha, but said it was important the trial was held here. "I wanted people that experienced it to be the ones that are judging it."

Joette Barta was watching the parade from her business, Nice Ash Cigar Bar. She recalled an eerie mood the next day, when the street was littered with chairs, hats and gloves left behind as people fled the terror. She was bothered that Brooks never apologized or showed real remorse. She was also frustrated by his behavior at trial.

Joette Barta owner of Nice Ash Cigar Bar. Outside of her bar in Downtown Waukesha

"I'm just irritated at the amount of time, energy, and money that was wasted,” Barta said. “I know you got to give him a fair trial, but allowing him to represent himself caused it to be how much longer than it normally would have been?”

Laurie Hogeland knew several of the families who lost loved ones in the attack. She was outside the courthouse after the verdicts were read. “Their lives mattered. Justice was served,” she said.

District Attorney Sue Opper, other officials, and victims held a news conference after the verdicts. She called it satisfying that Brooks "has been held accountable," but said there is “much healing ahead.”

Six people died and at least another 61 others were injured when a red Ford Escape SUV driven by Brooks tore through the holiday parade on Nov. 21, 2021. The attack left in its wake what police called a "chaotic" atmosphere as authorities and others scrambled to help victims over a four-block stretch while also searching for the driver.

Brooks' trial represented the end of a long legal process that included dramatic shifts, beginning with charges filed two days after the parade and continuing with pretrial hearings just days before the trial began. The four-week long trial was replete with disruptions and delays from Brooks, who decided just days before the proceedings began that he would represent himself.

Four-week trial was often chaotic

The trial, which began Oct. 3, was never a smooth process, frequently breaking down into arguments between Brooks and Dorow.

Much of the disagreements stemmed from Brooks' decision to waive his right to an attorney and represent himself, which Dorow had warned in advance of the trial that he would do "at (his) own peril," noting he would have to abide by unfamiliar laws and court processes.

But the tussles were also tied to Brooks' repeated attempts to present himself as a "sovereign" citizen, which Dorow and prosecutors repeatedly called a "thoroughly debunked" legal theory in which defendants challenge the jurisdiction of the courts. Even after Dorow issued a written ruling on the court's jurisdiction, Brooks continued to ask for "proof" of jurisdiction.

As a result of the sometimes heated arguments with Brooks, Dorow on several occasions removed him to an adjacent courtroom, usually to allow her to finish stating her findings for the record without interruption. Dorow said today's technology afforded her an option to have him participate remotely without violating his right to be present during proceedings.

It's unknown if that's one of the issue Brooks will bring forward on appeal.

Charges changed over time

Brooks was charged with six counts of first-degree intentional homicide, 61 counts of recklessly endangering safety, six counts of hit-and-run causing death, two counts of bail jumping, all felonies in connection to the parade tragedy, and one count of misdemeanor battery.

But those charges didn't come all at once. Initially, Brooks faced five homicide counts, with a sixth added following the death of 8-year-old Jackson Sparks of Mukwonago several days after the parade. The charges ballooned in mid January, when the 61 reckless endangerment charges were added. At one point, he faced 83 charges.

Six charges were eliminated in pretrial proceedings after Dorow concurred Brooks could not be charged with both intentional homicide as well as homicide by vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance.

Another count was dismissed by prosecutors, who explained in court that one of the two domestic violence charges involving his ex-girlfriend might not stand due to no overt sign of physical injury.

That left 76 charges, all of which the jury was asked to consider individually during their deliberations.

Effects felt nearly one year later

Much has changed since the 2021 parade.

One major adjustment was the implementation of aggressive security measures designed to keep any unauthorized vehicles out of future parades. Most of that was accomplished with portable barriers designed to tear up the underside of any vehicle driving through them. Also, police now routinely create a perimeter that is cleared of vehicles ahead of any event.

The 2022 Waukesha Christmas parade will be held two weeks later, a plan which is expected to continue each year, according to city officials. The date, the first Sunday in December, in part will accommodate police and other critical staff, who will no longer have to struggle with Thanksgiving week holiday schedules that can make an emergency responses more difficult.

In 2023, the city also expects two memorials — one along Main Street at the Five Points intersection and the other in Grede Park off Wisconsin Avenue close to end of the parade route — to honor and remember those stricken in the parade.

LaRisa Lynch, Quinn Clark and Bruce Vielmetti of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Jim Riccioli at (262) 446-6635 or james.riccioli@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jariccioli.