BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — Bus driver Ernst Klimeck was sentenced Thursday to four years in state prison on charges stemming from a bus wreck that killed 21 elderly Southern California passengers returning from a sightseeing and gambling trip to northern Nevada.
The sentence imposed by Mono County Superior Court Judge Edward Denton was the maximum under terms of a plea-bargain in which Klimeck, 48, pleaded no contest last May to six manslaughter charges.
Judge Denton had the option of sending Klimeck to state prison or county jail. The judge said he felt prison was warranted, although he added that Klimeck probably would be sent to a minimum-custody facility.
Denton also noted his concern about the seriousness of the May 30, 1986, accident, the second-worst bus wreck in the nation's history.
He said that Klimeck is "a pretty good guy" and under other circumstances might have qualified for probation.
But given the magnitude of the bus tragedy, Denton said prison was warranted because "he was the sole professional bus driver. These people were totally dependent on him and he failed, he failed in a criminal fashion."
The judge also said he had some concerns about Klimeck's driving record. In the three years before the wreck, Klimeck had received at least eight speeding tickets and citations for other traffic violations.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Klimeck's 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. The board concluded that excessive speed caused the wreck in a mountain canyon about 90 miles south of Reno.
The Starline Sightseeing Tours coach was returning to the Los Angeles area from a trip to Lake Tahoe, Reno and Carson City, Nev., with 40 passengers, most of them from a Santa Monica retirement home.
Klimeck, who lives in the Los Angeles area, suffered neck and back injuries in the accident. He had been free on $15,000 bail until being ordered last July to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville. He was remanded to that facility at the conclusion of Thursday's sentencing.
In April, 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.