The driver of a school bus on which an autistic 19-year-old was left alone last September pleaded not guilty Monday to a felony charge of dependent adult abuse resulting in the young man's death.
Armando Abel Ramirez, a 37-year-old San Bernardino County resident, is due back at the Bellflower courthouse on May 27 in connection with the death of Hun Joon "Paul'' Lee, who was found on the floor of a parked bus on the afternoon of Sept. 11.
All of the windows on the bus were closed and the temperature that day was near 90 degrees, prosecutors said.
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According to Whittier police, Lee rode the bus to a transition program at the Sierra Education Center near Sierra Vista High School about 8:30 a.m. that morning and should have boarded it to return home by 4 p.m. When he didn't get home on time, his mother called the school district, which contacted the Pupil Transportation Cooperative, leading to his discovery by the driver.
Investigators determined that Lee had not been able to verbally communicate and needed special care.
Ramirez -- a substitute driver for Lee's bus who was working a split shift -- apparently believed Lee had gotten off the bus to go to school that morning, but the driver did not walk to the back of the bus or look over his shoulder to check if anyone was left in the vehicle at the end of his morning shift, according to prosecutors.
He returned the bus to the bus yard, filled out paperwork, left for home and returned for work that afternoon, when he was notified by a dispatcher that Lee was missing, prosecutors said.
Ramirez went back to the bus, found Lee unresponsive and called for help, authorities said. Paramedics performed CPR, but Lee was pronounced dead at the scene.
If convicted as charged, Ramirez could face up to nine years in state prison, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Lee's parents, in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Pupil Transportation Cooperative in December, say their son never got off the bus at school and the driver returned to the bus depot, "locked it and left'' with Lee still inside.
The lawsuit alleges the company employees failed "to do a mandatory and routine sweep of the subject bus prior to exiting, especially considering that there were only three children on the subject bus who were of special needs."
The bus operator also failed "to document or confirm (Lee's) arrival at school," failed to escort him off the bus and "neglected to pay attention to (Lee) for an extended period of time during the bus ride and failed to recognize, respond to or assist (Lee) in any manner,'' the lawsuit alleges.
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