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Bus Driver on Trial in Montebello Tot's Death

June 05, 1988|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

The vehicular manslaughter trial of a Montebello bus driver opened in East Los Angeles last week with testimony from a woman who said she saw her granddaughter get caught in the doors of a municipal bus and dragged to her death.

George C. Schacht, 56, is charged with two misdemeanor counts in the May, 1987, death of Sylvia de Luna, 3. If convicted, he faces up to two years in jail. The trial in East Los Angeles Municipal Court is expected to last about a week.

In an opening statement Thursday, Deputy Dist. Atty. James Dabney said Schacht was negligent because he failed to check his mirrors to be sure it was safe to drive away and because he failed to stop even though he heard alarmed pedestrians screaming and banging on the side of the bus.

"This loss of life could have been simply and easily avoided and prevented had George Schacht exercised ordinary, prudent, reasonable care," Dabney said.

Defense lawyer F.A. de la Pena decided not to make an opening statement Thursday, saying he did not want to reveal his strategy.

But outside court, De la Pena said Schacht is innocent: "It's a very unfortunate situation. I wish it wouldn't have happened, but it did."

Sylvia de Luna fell into a coma after the May 5, 1987, accident and died of multiple injuries 10 days later. The accident occurred shortly after Sylvia, her grandmother and a neighbor's child boarded the bus near the family's Montebello home.

A key prosecution witness was the victim's grandmother, Rosalie de Luna, who testified that she was baby-sitting the children and was on her way to make a mortgage payment when the accident occurred.

The bus arrived at a stop on Whittier Boulevard, near Oakford Drive in East Los Angeles, and passengers began getting off. The grandmother testified that she stepped partly out of the rear door, holding her neighbor's 2-year-old son with one hand and the victim with the other.

The grandmother said she moved the boy to the curb while Sylvia stood on the bus steps, waiting to be helped down. The bus doors first closed around Sylvia's torso, then opened briefly, the grandmother testified. Then, as she tried to pull her granddaughter clear, the doors shut, catching the girl's leg and dragging her along the pavement.

"I grabbed her by the body," De Luna said. "Then (the bus) took her away . . . and she was being dragged. I was screaming, 'Open the door!' "

A California Highway Patrol accident report said the bus dragged the girl 25 feet.

At the accident scene, Schacht told the investigating officer that he heard people banging frantically on the side of the bus but thought they were would-be passengers trying to get him to stop so that they could board.

Montebello officials took no disciplinary action against Schacht. However, the veteran bus driver took an unpaid leave of absence from October to mid-February, said Richard Torres, Montebello director of transportation.

Schacht now drives a city dial-a-ride van, which provides transportation mostly for the elderly and handicapped, Torres said.

A Superior Court lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from Montebello and $5 million in punitive damages from Schacht is pending, said Lawyer Miguel F. Garcia, who represents the De Luna family.

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