Split Verdict In Hurricane Rita Case

Emergency crews investigate the scene where a bus caught fire and exploded on northbound Interstate 45, Friday, Sept. 23, in Wilmer, Texas. The bus carrying elderly evacuees from Hurricane Rita caught fire and was rocked by explosions early Friday on a gridlocked highway near Dallas, killing as many as 24 people, authorities said. The bus, with about 45 people on board, had been traveling since Thursday. AP

The owner of the bus that exploded and killed 23 people during the Hurricane Rita evacuation was acquitted Tuesday of one safety violation charge but was convicted on two lesser counts.

James Maples, 65, was found not guilty of conspiring to falsify logs but convicted of poorly maintaining his fleet and not requiring drivers to fill out vehicle inspection reports. His company, Global Limo Inc., which was also on trial, was found guilty on all charges.

"We thought that was a victory, a victory to the Good Lord," said Maples, a former professional football player who appeared relieved by the outcome.

None of the charges was directly related to the September 2005 bus accident, which was only vaguely mentioned in testimony. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa prohibited prosecutors from mentioning the accident, saying it fell outside the scope of the charges and would prejudice the jury.

Global Limo faces a $500,000 fine on the conspiracy count and a $200,000 fine on each of the two other convictions. Maples faces up to a year in federal prison and a $100,000 fine on each of his two convictions.

Sentencing is set for Dec. 14.

The trial stemmed from a federal investigation into a Global Limo bus that exploded and burned while stuck in traffic on Sept. 23, 2005, killing 23 elderly patients too frail to escape. The patients' oxygen tanks exploded as the flames engulfed the bus.

Maples' operations, U.S. Attorney John Kinchen said, were "essentially a ticking time bomb. During the period at issue, Jim Maples lit the fuse each time he sent these buses out."

Prosecutors attempted to show that Maples compelled drivers to log entries saying they were "off duty" at times they were resting in a seat on the bus while another driver was at the wheel.

Regulations state that a driver can be off duty and remain on the bus only is if he is in a sleeper compartment, but none of the Global Limo buses had one. Two former drivers said itineraries they were given did not allow stops for eight hours of sleep.

Testimony conflicted on whether Maples told drivers to falsify their hours. A government inspector said Maples told him he only looked at the logs for payroll purposes.

Driver Juan Robles, the driver in the accident, said Maples told him to "always mark eight hours" off duty. Robles, a former illegal immigrant, was cleared of charges in return for cooperating with the prosecution.

But driver Salvador Avalos said Maples told him to use the correct "on duty, not driving" designation when Avalos slept on a bus seat during Hurricane Katrina evacuations.

Two former Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors testified for the defense that violations noted on 2002 and 2004 safety audits were common and that Maples was still given a satisfactory rating, the agency's highest.

But they testified under cross-examination that Global buses sometimes went on the road despite dangerous problems and that while drivers may have told Maples of problems or noted them on forms, there was no evidence that post-trip inspections were consistently performed.

Victims and relatives of victims reached an $11 million settlement in May with both Global Limo and BusBank, the travel broker that hired it.
  • Alfonso Serrano

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