HOUSTON – The owner of a Houston bus company who was charged after a 2008 crash that killed 17 passengers on their way to a religious retreat has avoided prison after a federal judge sentenced him to three years of probation in a plea agreement.
The daughter of one of the victims said she was "completely disappointed" and angered by the sentence given last week to Angel de la Torre, the owner of Angel Tours.
"lt's like Mr. de la Torre got less than a slap on the wrist for taking 17 lives," Yen-Chi Le said Tuesday.
Le's 62-year-old mother, Catherine Tuong So Lam, was one of 55 members of Houston's Vietnamese Catholic community who had been heading to an annual conclave in Carthage, Missouri, when the bus plunged over a highway bridge near Sherman, 60 miles north of Dallas, on Aug. 8, 2008. The accident injured 38 others.
Marina Douenat, de la Torre's attorney, declined to comment on the case.
In a statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston said the judge had reviewed a pre-sentence report in the case and "handed the defendant a sentence within the U.S. sentencing guidelines."
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was caused when a retreaded tire on the right front axle was punctured by an unknown object. Although the retread itself wasn't the cause, the panel noted that the tire was affixed to the front axle illegally, the bus company didn't have the authority to leave Texas after failing an inspection three months earlier, and the company that inspected the bus wasn't equipped to judge whether it was roadworthy.
De la Torre, Angel Tours, and an employee, Carlos Ortuno, were indicted in 2013 for making false statements.
In March, prosecutors dropped the charges against Ortuno and de la Torre pleaded guilty to a charge of operating a commercial motor vehicle after an unsatisfactory rating, which carries a sentence of up to a year in prison. Five other charges that each carried sentences of up to five years were dropped.
At his sentencing hearing Friday, de la Torre was sentenced to three years of probation, fined $500 to be paid in installments over 30 months, and 55 hours of community service. Charges against his company, which is no longer operating, have been dropped.
Le, a 37-year-old researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said the medical and funeral costs for those who were killed or injured have totaled more than $3.7 million, while "the person responsible for all that grief and heartache has to pay $25 for (30) months."
The U.S. Attorney's Office statement said it "secured a conviction on the most readily provable offense in a court of law."
Le, who became an advocate for improved bus safety after the accident, said she had hoped the case would show other bus companies there are consequences for violating safety standards.
"With the lightness of the sentence, it's not a deterrent at all," she said.
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