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Grief, Greed and the Lawyers : Aftermath: The school bus tragedy was just the beginning. Then lawyers moved in and divided a Texas town.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

First, the tragedy. Then life’s seamier side crept into this impoverished dot of a town on the Texas border. Enter the ambulance-chasers.

This was the site of one of the worst school bus crashes in history. As a bright yellow bus, packed with about 80 students, was making its way to the nearby town of Mission last September, it was hit by a soft drink truck and plunged into a water-filled gravel pit. Twenty-one students were killed and dozens more were injured.

As news of the accident spread across the lower Rio Valley, residents raced to lend a hand.

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“The day of (the accident) and immediately afterward was the community at its best,” said Paul Rodriguez, a local bank president. “It was an incredible outpouring.”

But for one thing. Rene Guerra, the Hidalgo County district attorney, said something disturbed him about the bystanders on that terrible morning: a great many of them were lawyers.

“I said to myself, ‘Some of those guys are not here as onlookers,’ ” Guerra recalled in a recent interview.

Guerra had reason to worry. The litigation was almost certain to be very lucrative: The owner of the truck was Coca-Cola, a company that is almost the definition of deep pockets.

As time went on, there would be stories of lawyers trying to sign up clients at funeral homes. There would be other stories of letters of condolence being sent to bereaved parents, along with a business card and a contract for them to sign.

In one of the poorest regions of the nation, the smell of money, big money, came wafting over the land. Even some of the rescue workers-- including police officers and volunteer firefighters-- joined in the suit against Coca-Cola.

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“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Rodriguez, referring to the growing disgust in the community over the plethora of lawsuits being filed.

It broke the fire department as well. A melee broke out recently between volunteer firefighters who had joined the suit and those who had not. The Alton fire chief responded by disbanding the force.

On Thursday 16 of the 21 wrongful death suits were settled for $4.5 million each. One other settlement was reached some months ago and four more are still being negotiated. And the image of a community that gave of itself has been lost in the flurry of lawsuits.

The atmosphere is redolent with charges that lawyers violated their own code of ethics--and state law--in their efforts to sign up clients.

So far, Guerra has charged five people--four of them lawyers--with “barratry,” the legal term for ambulance-chasing, and said other lawyers may be charged with the misdemeanor later.

“You’re going to find few people with clean hands in this mess,” said Aaron Pena, a lawyer defending two community workers in a slander suit stemming from their accusation that another attorney had committed barratry.

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As a measure of what a litigious battlefield Alton has become, the community workers, in turn, filed a slander suit against the lawyer suing them.

“Everybody is sue-happy,” said Guerra.

The bus went over the edge of the pit and into the water at 7:40 a.m. As word spread, the heartbreaking scene of parents learning their children were dead was repeated over and over.

One mother had to be taken by ambulance from the crash site after she saw the bodies of her two teen-age daughters being pulled from the bus. Another blamed herself because she had insisted her son go to school that morning.

At the local school, two lists of students were compiled: one for the living, the other for the dead.

And almost immediately, the lawyers’ contest began. The object was to get the parents of the dead and injured to sign on the dotted line of a contract.

Community leaders are quick to point out that not all lawyers were ambulance-chasers. Nevertheless, Mauro Reyna III, one of the lawyers charged with barratry, says his office was deluged with calls in the aftermath of the bus crash, all of them lawyers looking for a piece of the action.

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“There were guys from New York to California trying to run these cases,” said Reyna, who has pleaded innocent to the charge. (“Running a case” is lawyerly parlance for stealing a client.)

“A couple of days later, we started hearing about lawyers at wakes and lawyers at funeral homes,” said Guerra. “Some lawyers have the attitude of ‘If I become a millionaire, I don’t care if they take my license.’ I think that is the unfortunate attitude we have now.”

Several days after the accident, Ruben Sandoval of San Antonio arrived on the scene as staff lawyer for the League of United Latin American Citizens. With 110,000 members, it is the largest and oldest Latino organization in the United States, but also one beset by internal bickering. With him was Jose Garcia de Lara, the national president.

If Sandoval is to be believed, the two men were there as do-gooders, to warn people about lawyers who are sharks, who will charge a huge percentage of suit settlements and actually do little work. The grand jury, however, later concluded there was evidence Sandoval had his own reasons for being there: to solicit business, and that he was a shark himself.

Sandoval knows how to grab headlines. He has taken on, and won, his share of civil rights lawsuits. One San Antonio lawyer called him “the most courageous lawyer I know who takes on cases that others wouldn’t.” Another prominent lawyer, however, called him a “lawyer of modest ability” who farms out his cases to other lawyers in exchange for 50% of the fees.

Sandoval and de Lara made a fairly big splash when they went to the valley. They warned of unscrupulous lawyers and asked where the money was that had been pouring in from all over the country for the families of the victims.

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At this juncture, the story takes two paths.

In Sandoval’s version, he took on a case after returning to San Antonio, but only after taking extraordinary measures to ensure he was above reproach every step of the way. His client, Carmen Cruz, whose daughter was killed in the bus accident, says he did nothing wrong; other family members say the same thing.

The other version, provided by two regional LULAC officials, is that Sandoval came to the valley with the express intent of soliciting cases almost certain to make him a millionaire. One of the workers, Noe Torres, said Sandoval asked him point blank to help him sign up cases, something Sandoval vehemently denies.

Sandoval contends that many local lawyers were intent only on lining their own pockets, and that they went to great lengths to prevent him and other non-valley practitioners from signing clients.

As proof, he offered tape recordings of conversations that he said he had with local lawyer Mark Cantu. The talks occurred as Sandoval and another lawyer, James Perkins, were taking over the Cruz case from Cantu.

In one conversation, the voice purported to be Cantu’s said he would fight to keep the Cruz contract and would seek to have Sandoval indicted for barratry. “You’re outgunned over here,” the taped voice said. “You’re in our country here.” Cantu could not be reached for comment.

So it goes in the valley, where there have been more suits and threats of others. The one that still rankles the community most was the suit filed by the rescue workers.

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In a suit filed last March, one policeman and seven volunteer firemen sued the soft drink company, claiming that negligence on the part of Coca-Cola has led to their suffering injuries, pain, loss of physical capacity and loss of earning power.

Volunteer fireman Jose Gerardo Solis alleged that he was damaged as he swam to the bus, administered first aid to injured students and helped them to shore. He then dived into the bus and helped pull out those who were trapped there.

“All have had a variety of psychological problems,” said their lawyer, Steve Hastings of Corpus Christi. He said all knew families of the dead children and that they had been treated for illnesses caused by the filthy water in the pit.

Hastings said two of the original 10 plaintiffs--both policemen--had withdrawn from the suit after being threatened with the loss of their jobs.

Alton Police Chief Javier Guerrero denied there was any threat to the two, but said he did point out to them that their case was somewhat weak, since one didn’t arrive at the scene until mid-afternoon and the other’s role had been serving Gatorade to rescuers.

“They decided to drop it themselves,” said Guerrero.

And what of Ruben Perez, the truck driver, the young man who is the only one in all this to face criminal charges?

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“He’s become kind of a background issue,” said Rodriguez, the bank president. Guerra, the district attorney, agrees. “We have sort of forgotten about the criminal case,” he said. “If you asked when we were going to court with the truck driver, I couldn’t tell you.”

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