Owner of Bus Which Exploded During Hurricane Rita Gets Five Years Probation

The owner of the bus that exploded during the Hurricane Rita evacuation, killing 23 elderly evacuees, was sentenced Wednesday to five years of probation for mismanaging his fleet.

As part of his probation, a judge ruled, Global Limo Inc. owner James Maples can no longer work for any bus company. He will be confined for the first year — six months in a halfway house and six months at home with electronic surveillance — though he will be allowed to work.

Maples was acquitted Oct. 3 of the most serious charge of conspiring to falsify driver time logs so drivers could work longer than federal law allows. He was convicted of the two lesser allegations, of poorly managing his fleet and not requiring drivers to fill out vehicle inspection reports.

The maximum prison sentence he could have received was two years.

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Maples was fined $10,000, and his since-dismantled company was fined $100,000 and placed on probation for five years. The company was convicted of all three charges and faced a fine of as much as $500,000 on the conspiracy count and a $200,000 fine on each of the other two convictions.

The sentences stemmed from a trial about management of the bus fleet and vehicle inspections and not the 2005 explosion. The judge told prosecutors the blast was not mentioned in the charges and could not be addressed before the jury.

Maples declined to speak in court, with his attorney telling U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa that Maples faced pending litigation. He didn't speak to reporters outside court except to joke "to take good shots so I look good."

During the 1 1/2-hour hearing, Hinojosa admonished both sides, lecturing Maples that it was "no way to run a business to endanger the trust or endanger the individuals who are putting trust in a carrier." Hinojosa chided prosecutors for seeking two years in prison on two misdemeanor convictions.

The judge noted that the charges probably would not have come about had it not been for the explosion, which was not a factor at the trial.

The six-day trial stemmed from a federal investigation into the explosion, which occurred on a bus carrying Houston-area nursing home patients away from the approaching storm.

The investigation determined that poorly lubricated wheel bearings overheated in the right rear well, igniting a tire. The patients' oxygen tanks exploded as the flames engulfed the bus. Fourteen people survived.

Litigation stemming from the explosion is still pending. Robert Luke, a lawyer for several victims' families, said attorneys have not accepted an $11 million settlement offered in June by Global Limo and BusBank, which contracted the bus.

Lawsuits naming Motor Coach Industries, the bus maker, as well as Global Limo, BusBank, the bus driver and the nursing home have been consolidated in a state court and will likely be tried in fall 2007.

Maples, who played for the NFL's Baltimore Colts in 1963, worked more than 20 years in the bus business, operating companies under several names. In the months since the trial, he has been working for a bus tour company owned by a friend and operating out of Global Limo's former office in Pharr.

Global Limo was shut down two weeks after the accident, and documents show a new name for the company and a new registered agent.

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