A South Texas company whose bus exploded and killed 23 nursing home residents as they fled from Hurricane Rita has been convicted of failing to maintain its buses and follow inspection regulations, and conspiring to lie on drivers’ logbooks.
A jury of eight women and four men also convicted Global Limo Inc., owner James Maples on the maintenance and inspection charges, but acquitted him on the most serious count – conspiring to lie on logbooks so drivers could work longer than federal law allows.
The bus company based in Pharr was shut down about two weeks after the Sept. 23, 2005, explosion on a freeway near Dallas. None of the charges were directly linked to the bus fire.
While the convictions could bring up to two years in prison and more than $1 million in fines at the Dec. 14 sentence, Maples and his family took the verdict as a win.
“We thought that was a victory, a victory to the Good Lord,” said Maples, a former NFL player who emerged from the courthouse smiling, his wife and daughter on each arm.
“We fought this battle on our knees,” said his wife, Kathleen.
Maples’ attorney, Charles Banker, said being acquitted on the conspiracy charge was what they’d hoped most for, as “he had basically confessed to the other two counts.”
Maples remains free on $75,000 bond until sentencing. He told the judge he was not currently working.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kinchen said the government was limited in what they could charge but he hoped family of those who died in the bus fire found solace in the five guilty verdicts.
The case hadn’t gone as Kinchen had planned.
The five lines in the indictment that mentioned the accident were struck by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, who referred to their placement as “back door,” “inflammatory” and a “public relations play.” Hinojosa told the prosecution they could have included the bus fire, perhaps as part of the conspiracy, rather than just mention it in the introduction.
Kinchen said he felt hamstrung because the bus fire occurred during the hurricanes, when federal motor carrier regulations had been lifted to free up buses for evacuations. He said after the verdict he had hoped to use it as part of an overall case of an operation that was a “ticking time bomb.”
“During the period at issue, Jim Maples lit the fuse each time he sent those buses out,” he said.
He said he disagreed with the judge’s assessment of the indictment.
“There was no evidence that the bus fire was caused by false logs, so it could not have been part of the conspiracy,” he said.
He had planned on introducing a post-accident investigator who said the fire was caused by failure to lubricate the wheel bearings. But with the fire excluded from the trial and the judge deriding that the witness is employed by the bus manufacturer, the investigator was never called to the stand.
A federal investigation found the bus fire started when a wheel bearing overheated in the right rear well, igniting a tire. The fire spread to oxygen canisters in the bus’ cabin, causing them to explode. Those who died in the fire were too frail to escape the bus on their own; 14 others survived.
Prosecutors used 2002 and 2004 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration audits, driver testimony, and repair shop diagnoses to try to show that Maples’ priority was not safety but “keeping the wheels rolling.”
But they were apparently unable to convince jurors that Maples as an individual was active in getting drivers to fill out time spent resting on buses as “off duty.”
Regulations state that the only way a driver can be off duty and remain on the bus is if he is in a sleeper compartment; none of the Global Limo buses had one. Two former drivers testified that they were often given itineraries that did not allow stops for eight hours of sleep.
But only driver Juan Robles, who was driving the bus when it caught fire and was a material witness for the government, has said Maples told him to do their logs that way.
The defense tried to discredit the former illegal immigrant by bringing up a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction and saying Robles now has a work permit and an interest in saying what the prosecution wanted.
“He’s a thief is what he is,” Banker said in closing arguments. “He’s a thief and a liar.”
Jurors deliberated an hour Monday before asking for a repeat of the instructions on “reasonable doubt.” They deliberated about five more hours Tuesday before reaching their verdict.