BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — The driver blamed for the nation's second-worst bus accident pleaded no contest Wednesday to six manslaughter charges stemming from a crash that killed 21 elderly passengers.
Ernst Klimeck, 48, could face up to four years behind bars under terms of a plea bargain approved by Mono County Superior Court Judge N. Edward Denton. The judge scheduled sentencing for July 22.
Denton also granted a prosecution motion to drop all remaining charges against Klimeck, who has been free on $15,000 bail.
In the half-hour court session, Klimeck responded, "Yes, your honor," repeatedly as Denton questioned him to ensure that he understood that the plea could result in a jail or prison term.
Klimeck refused to talk to reporters, but his attorney, Robert Courtney, portrayed him as remorseful and still upset badly enough to visit a psychiatrist and said that his client "suffered serious psychological problems from the accident."
"He is accepting his responsibility as the driver of the bus and for the safety of his passengers," Courtney said outside the courtroom. "He feels terrible about it."
Klimeck pleaded innocent May 4 to 21 counts of felony manslaughter, 21 misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter counts, and one count each of driving without a proper license, driving left of a solid yellow line and driving on the wrong side of the road.
In keeping with the terms of the driver's plea bargain with Deputy Dist. Atty. George Booth, Denton dismissed 15 of the 21 felony manslaughter counts and all of the remaining charges.
Klimeck was driving a Starline Sightseeing Tours coach that plunged off U.S. 395 into the frigid Walker River on May 30, 1986. The bus was returning to Southern California from a gambling and sightseeing trip to Lake Tahoe, Reno and Carson City, Nev., with 40 passengers. Most of the dead were residents of a Santa Monica senior citizens home.
The National Transportation Safety Board ruled out mechanical failure and concluded earlier this month that excessive speed caused the wreck in a mountain canyon about 90 miles south of Reno.
The NTSB concluded that the bus was traveling between 65 and 68 m.p.h. as it entered an "S" curve where a posted warning sign advised 40 m.p.h.
Late last month, the bus company's insurance carrier announced a $5-million settlement of damage claims filed by survivors of the accident and relatives of those killed.
The crash was the nation's second-worst. The worst occurred in 1976, when 28 students and a teacher from Yuba City High School were killed as their bus went off a freeway ramp near Martinez, Calif.
Klimeck, who lives in the Los Angeles area, suffered neck and back injuries in the accident and hasn't worked since, according to Courtney.