O.C. Bus Firm Shut as Threat to Child Safety

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The California Highway Patrol on Friday arrested the owner of a Placentia tour bus company that allegedly shuttled more than 1,200 children around Southern California without a proper license and used fatigued drivers--one working 29 straight hours--to do it.

Willard Weyand, 60, of Anaheim was arrested without incident just after noon Friday at the offices of America West Stages, Highway Patrol Officer Angel Johnson said.

Authorities maintain that as part of an East Coast-based tour network, Weyand's company shuttled students from 15 Southern California school districts on dozens of potentially dangerous bus runs to Los Angeles International Airport.

Authorities also took into custody Friday one of seven bus drivers wanted on criminal misdemeanor charges of falsifying drivers' logs and other violations. Arrest warrants were outstanding for the other six, Johnson said.

The state's Public Utilities Commission has ordered the tour bus company shut down.

The shutdown order comes in the wake of a July 31 bus crash near Palm Springs which killed seven people, and a second bus accident in New York last month that left 31 injured after the driver apparently fell asleep.

CHP officials said the arrests are part of a new crackdown on the bus, shuttle and limousine industry, in which they say drivers often risk tragic accidents by working long hours and falsifying log books to cover up violations.

"What we're out there trying to do is prevent the same type of tragedy that happened" elsewhere, Johnson said.

Authorities took the unusual action of bringing criminal charges against Weyand and the seven drivers after a three-month investigation of the bus company, which normally charters tours for adults to resorts such as Las Vegas, CHP officials said.

Neither the company nor the drivers carried SPAB--School Pupil Activity Bus--certificates, a state requirement for transporting schoolchildren. SPAB holders must follow more rigid safety guidelines than other operators, CHP Sgt. William Snell said.

Snell said at a news conference that he got an anonymous tip in June from a person who questioned whether America West Stages was properly licensed to be shuttling students.

CHP officials then learned the bus company was contracted by the Washington-based Lakeland Travel agency to shuttle students from Orange County, Bakersfield, Moreno Valley and Palm Springs to and from Los Angeles International Airport during Easter and summer trips to the East Coast.

Officer Paul Pines then drove to Los Alisos Intermediate School in Mission Viejo on June 29 and discovered after the tour bus arrived that the driver did not have a SPAB license or log book, both required by law, officials said.

The following Monday, investigators searched the tour bus company's records and found that the unidentified driver had returned to the bus company's terminal, slept only three hours, and was back on another shift.

It was also learned that another unidentified driver had driven a busload of children from the airport to Bakersfield after working more than 24 hours straight. By the time he dropped the students off at school, he had worked 29 straight hours, Snell said.

By law, drivers must have eight hours of rest between shifts. The shifts may not be more than 16 hours long, with no more than 10 hours of straight driving time, Snell said.

The district attorney's office decided to file 110 charges against Weyand and the drivers for missing SPAB certificates, falsified and missing log books, and excessive hours, among other allegations.

Authorities said they had delayed Weyand's arrest until Friday because he had suffered a recent heart attack. CHP officers called paramedics to the scene of the arrest as a precautionary measure Friday to check on Weyand's condition before he was booked into jail.

"This appears to be a very serious case," said Bill Schulte, director of the Public Utilities Commission. "We may take stronger action against America West Stages. We still have them under investigation."

Weyand was being held at Orange County Jail on $25,000 bail. He faces a Monday arraignment in Municipal Court in Fullerton on 81 misdemeanor counts of failing to regulate the safe operation of tour buses, Johnson said.

The arrested bus driver, Alfred Lewis, 52, also of Anaheim, was being held on $2,500 bail and faces an unspecified number of misdemeanor charges, including falsifying records and excessive driving time, Johnson said.

Lewis, arrested as he was preparing to drive a Las Vegas Fun Bus out of the lot, said before he was taken into custody that he did not recall shuttling any students to the airport.

"I have so many runs, I don't know what I did," Lewis said.

CHP records show that in 1990, the agency inspected 752 of the estimated 800 tour bus terminals operating statewide. Of that number, the licenses of 27 carriers were suspended. In the first six months of this year, 18 operators have had their licenses suspended.

Johnson said that while many bus companies receive non-criminal citations, "this is one of the few arrests of this type we've actually made."

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