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U.S. shuts down Van Nuys bus company after fatal Arizona crash

Federal officials said Sunday that they have shut down the Van Nuys bus company involved in a crash that killed six people in Arizona as records revealed that the company had skirted government regulation, amassed a poor safety record and was operating off the books.

Tierra Santa Inc. President Cayetano Martinez signed a consent decree Friday acknowledging that his company never had federal authorization required to transport passengers over state lines, according to court documents released Sunday.

That regulation is designed to ensure that bus companies adequately maintain vehicles and test drivers for drug and alcohol use, among other requirements.

U.S. District Judge George King signed the consent decree this weekend, effectively making it an enforceable court order.

“It is absolutely essential that unsafe carriers like this one be taken off the road,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

U.S. attorney’s office spokesman Thom Mrozek said additional documents will be filed Monday in support of the government’s enforcement against Tierra Santa, which is headquartered near Victory and Van Nuys boulevards.

The company’s agreement to end operations does not protect it against potential civil penalties levied by the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is investigating the accident.

Martinez did not return telephone messages left at his office Sunday.

According to authorities, one of Tierra Santa’s buses was carrying 22 passengers from central Mexico to Los Angeles early Friday when it rear-ended a pickup truck in Arizona and rolled down an embankment, shattering its windows and collapsing its roof. The accident occurred on Interstate 10 about 30 miles south of Phoenix. The bus had crossed through a border checkpoint in El Paso.

Two men and four women were killed and 16 people were injured.

Federal officials and documents suggest Tierra Santa officials knew they were conducting business without federal operating authority.

The company applied for official authorization in April 2009, but never replied to requests for more information. As a result, the government denied the application and sent a certified letter to Tierra Santa officials in December informing them, in bold-faced print, that the company was “not authorized to engage in interstate transportation of passengers by commercial motorized vehicles.”

The company continued to run buses between Mexico and California, according to officials and documents. Martinez had previously been shut down by federal authorities, but was able to “reincarnate himself as a new carrier,” according to a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration complaint that will be filed in court Monday.

“Martinez has shown a persistency and determination to continue operating under new entities,” the complaint says. Tierra Santa also had been rebuked repeatedly by transportation officials who conducted roadside inspections in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

In August 2009, a bus was declared “out of service” after an inspector determined that it had serious maintenance problems, including faulty emergency exits. The company also appears to have had a checkered history of maintaining insurance coverage, according to documents.

Among other issues, the investigation will look into how the bus company managed to continue operating despite repeated run-ins with inspectors and poor safety reviews, officials said.

“Investigators are working tirelessly so that we can prevent such a senseless loss of life from happening again,” said Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Administrator Anne S. Ferro, who has proposed stricter rules for screening prospective bus operators.

scott.gold@latimes.com


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