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Mistrial Called in Montebello Girl's Death

June 19, 1988|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

Witnesses gave two versions of how a 3-year-old girl came to be crushed between a curb and the wheel of a Montebello city bus.

When jurors couldn't decide which was right, a mistrial was declared last week in the vehicular manslaughter case against driver George C. Schacht.

"There was evidence saying she was on the sidewalk and evidence saying she was (caught in the doors of) the bus," said jury foreman Joseph Chestnut, a bank manager who lives in Alhambra. The five jurors who voted against conviction "just didn't feel she was on the bus at the time."

Schacht is charged with two misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of Sylvia de Luna. The Montebello girl fell into a coma and died of multiple injuries 10 days after the May 5, 1987, accident.

A prosecutor alleged during a two-week trial in East Los Angeles Municipal Court that Schacht had made an unsafe start and operated his bus negligently when the accident occurred. Two witnesses testified the girl was dragged by the bus after its rear doors closed on her leg as she tried to exit.

Different Version

A key witness for the defense, however, said she saw the child standing safely on the sidewalk before the accident.

The jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of conviction on a count that alleged Schacht made an unsafe start, and 7 to 5 for conviction on a count accusing him of negligence. Each charge is punishable by up to one year in jail.

Judge Gilbert Rudy Ruiz scheduled a retrial for Aug. 22. In the meantime, Schacht continues to drive for Montebello.

The trial was colored by wrenching testimony that, at times, left relatives of the victim in tears and the 56-year-old defendant withdrawn.

No One Satisfied

And no one seems satisfied with the outcome.

"Any time you get 12 people, it's a crap shoot," Deputy Dist. Atty. James Dabney said. "There's no reason for us not to retry it. Most of the concerns the jurors raised could be dealt with." A final decision on whether to retry the case is pending, Dabney said.

Defense lawyer F.A. de la Pena said: "It would have been a disappointing outcome if it had been guilty. He (Schacht) has lived a hell for a year and to have to do it again would be traumatic."

Schacht declined to comment on the trial.

The day of the accident started out routinely enough, according to witness Rosalie de Luna, who said she was baby-sitting Sylvia--her granddaughter--and a neighbor's young son.

The Montebello woman set out to make a house payment and took the children with her. They boarded Schacht's bus and got off at a stop on Whittier Boulevard, near Oakford Drive in East Los Angeles. The accident occurred there. Sylvia apparently was smashed between the rear wheel of the bus and the curb, according to testimony.

Dabney tried to prove that Sylvia's leg was caught in the doors of the bus and that she was dragged by the vehicle. Schacht would have seen the girl and avoided the accident, Dabney said, had he taken proper precautions, including carefully checking the bus's numerous mirrors.

Schacht's lawyer maintained that the evidence in the case did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sylvia was caught in the bus doors. Defense testimony implied that the girl may have gotten off the bus and then fallen between the bus wheel and a curb, leaving Schacht blameless.

The grandmother testified that she had helped her neighbor's son off the bus and was aiding Sylvia when the bus doors closed on the girl's body. The doors opened briefly and then closed again on the child's leg, the grandmother testified. Rosalie de Luna said the bus pulled away and dragged the girl out of her grasp.

That testimony was corroborated by Alma Miranda of Los Angeles, who was waiting at the bus stop when the accident occurred.

Saw Incident

But the prosecution's case was seriously damaged by the testimony of Royette Adams, a worker in a nearby office of the county Department of Social Services. Adams had left the office with some co-workers and was on the sidewalk going to buy some chicken for a Cinco de Mayo luncheon when she looked toward the nearby bus stop.

Adams testified she saw Sylvia standing on the sidewalk after she apparently had exited the bus. Adams said she never saw the girl's leg caught in the bus door and assumed she had fallen back into the bus. Adams said she was distracted and never saw the girl fall.

Witnesses testified that the grandmother and other pedestrians began yelling and banging on the side of the bus to get Schacht to stop the bus.

Schacht testified he did not stop because he thought the people only wanted to belatedly board the bus. He said he saw several people exit at the stop, but never saw the little girl trapped by the bus doors.

A Superior Court lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from Montebello and $5 million in punitive damages from Schacht is pending.

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