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Bus Driver Faces Kidnapping Charges

Crime: More than a dozen schoolchildren from Pennsylvania end up in Maryland, where a man is arrested after surrendering to police.

January 25, 2002|JOSH GETLIN and VICKI KEMPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LANHAM, MD. — A school bus driver carrying a loaded semiautomatic rifle took 13 Pennsylvania children on a bizarre, 160-mile trip Thursday before turning himself in to police in Maryland. None of the children was harmed.

Otto Nuss, 62, is scheduled to be arraigned today on federal kidnapping charges, according to FBI officials. But apart from the driver telling the children he wanted to show them Washington, officials said they were unsure of a motive.

All of the children, ranging in age from 7 to 15, "appear to be in very good spirits," said Peter Gulotta, an FBI agent in Baltimore, noting that the driver even stopped along the way to feed the kids.

"But they have had psychological counseling provided by local authorities here. And I'm sure some of the children were traumatized by being taken from their homes and showing up near Washington, D.C. This wasn't a scheduled trip."

About 20 parents and siblings were reunited with the children Thursday evening in Maryland. They had traveled from Pennsylvania in a yellow school bus, arriving about five hours after Nuss turned himself in. They prayed together as a group, were briefed by an FBI agent and had pizza delivered.

"The children seemed not to be afraid," said Cpl. Robert Clark of the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland. "They were unsure exactly what was going on--they seemed to think they were on a field trip."

State Police, FBI Brought In

The odyssey began shortly before 8 a.m., when an Oley Valley School District bus failed to deliver students to Berks Christian School in Birdsboro, Pa., a rural enclave about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Nuss, who has worked for Quigley Bus Service Co. since September, had picked up the students from a nearby high school. He normally would have completed the daily run to Birdsboro in 15 minutes, officials said.

When he failed to show up by 9 a.m., school administrators tried unsuccessfully to reach him on his two-way radio. At that point, local and state police, aided by FBI agents, began an intensive search of the area in rain and fog. Frantic parents gathered at police headquarters.

The disappearance of Oley Valley School District Bus 22 quickly became a national news story, with a flurry of bulletins on network and cable TV news shows. Yet there was no trace of the bus for six hours, until the vehicle pulled into a shopping center in Lanham near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Nuss got off the bus at 2 p.m. and approached an off-duty Prince George's County police officer in a Family Dollar store, Gulotta said. "He told the officer he had some kids on the bus from Oley, Pa., and he had brought them to see Washington, D.C. He wanted the officer to know that the children's parents should know that the children were OK," Gulotta said.

Officer Milton Chabla began walking back to the bus with Nuss, but when the driver told him there was a loaded gun in the vehicle, Chabla arrested Nuss, putting him in handcuffs, according to Diane Richardson, a public information officer for the county police. Chabla then boarded the bus filled with children and found a loaded M1 Springfield rifle covered by a coat and propped up behind the driver's seat.

Other officers rushed to the scene and quickly determined that the children were unharmed. Authorities notified police in Oley, and parents boarded a bus several hours later to be reunited with their children.

"This began as every parent's worst nightmare," Oley Police Chief George Endy said. "And it ended with parents expressing elation, when they finally learned their children were safe. You can imagine how they felt."

It was harder figuring out Nuss' motives.

He had passed a basic background check before being allowed to drive a school bus, and bus company officials had to screen him to make sure he had no criminal record or record of child abuse before hiring him, Endy said. Officials at Oley Valley School District, which contracted with the bus company, remembered Nuss as a quiet man who seemed to genuinely enjoy schoolchildren.

News a Surprise to Neighbors

Quigley Bus Service officials referred all inquiries to police, and calls to Nuss' home in nearby Boyertown, Pa., seeking comment were not returned. Neighbors told CNN that Nuss had lived with his mother in a farmhouse for five years before moving to Boyertown. They, too, professed surprise at his actions, remembering him as a low-key, private person who never caused trouble.

Before starting work last fall as a driver, Nuss worked at a local pie company and held several other day laborer jobs, Endy said.

Gulotta said Nuss was jailed in nearby Montgomery County Detention Center and will be arraigned on kidnapping charges today in Prince George's County. His case will be prosecuted by the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, but FBI agents said it was unclear when he would be transferred.

Officials at Berks Christian School were visibly shaken by the day's events, and said the school was plunged into a state of shock as the vigil unfolded. As administrators called parents, "some were frantic," administrator Robert Becker said. "Making those calls is very, very hard."

In the end, he said, "We all bonded together. We had a school-wide prayer service, knowing that Christ is always with us and has a plan." Still, Becker added: "I'm furious at what happened here today. I just have no idea what was going on in the mind of the person who did this."

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