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No charges planned in party bus death

Victim fell down stairwell and the door opened #partybus
Victim gripped the bottom step but fell on the freeway and was run over #partybus
Bus was cited for violations, but none involved the door #partybus

Prosecutors have declined to file felony manslaughter charges against the owner of a party bus after a man fell off the bus and died last year, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said Thursday.

The California Highway Patrol had recommended that murder charges be filed in the death of Christopher "C.J." Saraceno II. Authorities said an earlier CHP investigation found that the bus had multiple defects and had been ordered out of service.

But the district attorney's office said there wasn't enough evidence to support even lesser charges of vehicular manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter against Ayrapet Kasabyan, 42.

The case has been forwarded to the Los Angeles city attorney's office for misdemeanor consideration.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Party bus fatality: In the May 2 LATExtra section, an article about the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office declining to press charges in the death of a party bus passenger said that the incident occurred Oct. 29. It was Sept. 29.

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During a birthday party celebration Oct. 29, Saraceno, 24, was standing by the bus' passenger door, tuning the radio. The bus jerked, passengers reported, and Saraceno lost his balance and fell down the stairwell.

Authorities said the door flew open while the bus was traveling south on the 101 Freeway near Universal Studios Boulevard. Friends tried to grab Saraceno as he gripped the bottom step and a metal handle, but he fell to the asphalt and was struck by several cars.

According to a CHP report, the door was equipped with a faulty air compressor and did not lock properly. Even though the bus had been ordered off the road for safety reasons, it had been used 51 times since the order to cease operation was issued, the CHP found.

"At no time, per Mr. Kasabyan's own records, was there an attempt to properly fix this vehicle," the CHP report stated. "Conversely, the maintenance of the vehicle deteriorated to the point of a death occurred."

But according to Deputy Dist. Atty. John Gilligan, because the order for the bus to stay out of service was unrelated to the defective door, his office could not prove negligence on the part of Kasabyan.

"If the CHP could not detect the defect with their level of expertise, how could our suspect be expected to?" Gilligan wrote in a memo on the case.

William Wawro, a former roommate and friend of Saraceno, said he didn't agree with the district attorney's decision.

"I'm disappointed those charges weren't filed because it's clear they've been negligent in the past," Wawro said. "It feels like an excuse to say 'We can't prove it so we're going to drop it.' "

Because the warning to Kasabyan referred to other problems with the bus, it would be difficult to convince a jury that he should be held responsible for Saraceno's death, said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School.

"Before a jury is going to convict someone on a homicide, I think they're going to want to see that he was on notice," Levenson said. "Since he wasn't on notice with the door, that would be hard to prove."

Saraceno's family has filed a wrongful death suit against Hyros Corp., of which Kasabyan is president.

In a telephone interview, Saraceno's father, Christopher, said he was disappointed.

"We, the family, are saddened by the outcome, but the only thing we can do is rejoice in hope that it's a wake-up call for these bus companies so that it doesn't happen to another family.

"It doesn't diminish our loss, but hopefully it's not in vain," he added.

ryan.menezes@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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