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Driver charged in Merced County bus wreck that killed 4 people

Authorities investigate the scene of a charter bus crash on northbound Highway 99 between Atwater and Livingston on Tuesday.
(Scott Smith / Associated Press)

Prosecutors have filed vehicular manslaughter charges against a Los Angeles bus driver in connection with an early-morning crash in Merced County last year that killed four people and nearly sliced the bus in half.

The Merced County district attorney’s office Monday filed four felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and five misdemeanor vehicle code violations against driver Mario David Vasquez.

Vasquez, 58, was behind the wheel of a bus that crashed on Aug. 2, on Highway 99 near Livingston. The bus struck a highway signpost near Hammatt Avenue. The pole split the white bus down the middle, tearing through the vehicle, authorities said.

In addition to the four deaths, several people were seriously injured and had to have limbs amputated, prosecutors said.

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The bus originated in Mexico and had stopped in Los Angeles the night before the crash, California Highway Patrol Officer Moises Onsurez said last year. It made a stop in Livingston and was headed on to Pasco, Wash., Onsurez said.

The bus was owned by Autobuses Coordinados USA, which has an office in East Los Angeles. A man who answered the phone listed for the business told a Times reporter that it was now a travel agency but stated that “the lawyers are taking care of it.”

“Don’t waste your time,” he said.

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CHP investigators found that although Vasquez was not using his cellphone at the time of the crash, phone records showed he used it numerous times while driving the 49-passenger vehicle, including a call a few minutes before the collision, Merced County Dist. Atty. Larry D. Morse II said in a statement.

Fatigue is believed to be a “major factor” in the crash, Morse said.

Authorities said Vasquez’s log book, which is required for commercial drivers, indicated that he slept 6.5 hours the previous day but that cellphone records contradicted that, showing he actually slept fewer hours, Morse said.

Surviving passengers said Vasquez looked tired or drowsy during the drive, and multiple drivers on Highway 99 contacted investigators after the crash to say they had seen the vehicle weaving shortly before the accident, prosecutors said.

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Vasquez was licensed as a California Class B commercial driver and had driven buses for about 30 years, prosecutors said.

Vasquez sustained major injuries and was hospitalized after the crash.

The misdemeanor charges stem from Vasquez’s alleged falsification of his daily log book, failure to keep accurate records and violating laws relating to maximum driving time for commercial drivers, prosecutors said.

“Given their size and the potential dangers 18-wheelers and buses pose for other motorists, commercial drivers are appropriately held to the highest standards for safety under state law,” Morse said in a statement. “Mr. Vasquez’s extreme fatigue, violations of commercial regulations and repeated use of a cellphone while entrusted with the care of passengers demonstrated a gross dereliction of the duty he owed not just to his passengers, but to every motorist on Highway 99 that morning.”

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The bus involved in the crash has been cited for at least seven violations over the last two years, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records that identify the charter bus by its license plate number.

During an inspection in Oregon on Feb. 5, 2015, Autobuses Coordinados USA was cited because the bus driver had a suspended commercial driver’s license, records show.

A roadside inspection in California on April 28, 2016, yielded three violations. The vehicle had a defective or no brake-warning device, prohibited aisle seats and other maintenance problems, records show.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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Twitter: @haileybranson

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UPDATES:

11:25 a.m. This story was updated throughout with new information from prosecutors.

This story was originally published at 9:50 a.m.

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