Driver in Deadly Bus Crash Arrested

The 52-year-old may have been on drugs at time of crash

Quintin Watts had a lengthy criminal record, a history of substance abuse and a string of motor vehicle offenses. Even his mother says he wasn't a good driver.

Yet on Sunday he was behind the wheel of a busload of senior citizens and Laotian immigrants traveling to an American Indian casino north of Sacramento. Eight people were killed and 30 others injured when the bus ran into a ditch and overturned.

Now authorities are investigating the possibility that the 52-year-old Stockton man may have been on prescription or nonprescription drugs. He was arrested Monday as he lay critically injured in his hospital bed.

The accident was at least the eighth serious crash in the U.S. in the last three years involving buses carrying people to and from casinos.

Investigators said the bus had an invalid license plate, and they were also looking into whether Watts had proper permits to operate the vehicle.

Records show Watts had been cited for speeding and other violations that resulted in loss of his license for nearly two years. He regained his driving privileges last January.

His mother said he had wrestled with drug and alcohol problems, was jailed several times on drug charges and had smashed a car carrying a friend into a tree a few years ago, though neither was seriously hurt.

He was a longtime truck driver, but had been unable to find a trucking job since being released from jail, said his mother, Chaney Mae Watts.

His mother said she believed the crash came on her son's first day behind the wheel of the bus after several training trips watching the owner drive. She and her husband told their son they were uncomfortable with him driving a vehicle that carried people instead of cargo.

"He wasn't the best driver," she said. "He knew we didn't want him to drive."

A witness said the bus carrying the driver and 42 passengers to Colusa Casino Resort drifted off a rural two-lane road before the driver "overcorrected" and swerved back. It overturned and rolled completely over, ending up on its wheels facing the opposite direction.

Watts' criminal record dates back to 1981, when he served state prison time for receiving stolen property. He also served time in 1996 for check fraud and credit card theft. Beginning in 1998, he spent over a year in prison for possession of marijuana for sale and possession of a destructive device.

His latest state term was for possession of a firearm by an ex-felon. He was paroled in December 2007 after almost six months in prison, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

John Poyner, district attorney for Colusa County, said it will be at least two to three months before the full accident reports are in and any charges are filed. Blood test results are not expected for two to six weeks.

Families flooded hospitals looking for relatives who may have been involved in the crash.

Yvonne Haynes, 35, of Merced, got a phone call Sunday night from her brother Tou Xiong, 29, saying there had been a bus accident. They started calling hospitals looking for their mother.

Finally, at 3 a.m., the siblings found their mother at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Mai Cha, 74, has a broken rib, face and right wrist. With tubes in her mouth, she cannot speak, said Haynes.

Their aunt also was an injured passenger, 67-year-old Ge Vue of Sacramento. Her son, Xou Xiong, 26, said his mother described the crash to him.

"All of a sudden the bus swerved and then it felt like the driver tried to come back to the road and that made it worse," Xou Xiong said. "She said as soon as she felt the impact, she flew to the back. That's all she remembered. She got up and tried to look for my aunt and saw her laying there with another lady on top of her.

"She was shaking her, pulling her hand. She was trying to talk to her and she wasn't responding," Xiong said.

Tou Xiong said his mother and aunt had boarded the charter bus nearly every two weeks for the past two years to play at the casino.

"The riding conditions, most of the time they said it was unsafe," Tou Xiong said. "They say it's crowded and people sat in the aisles."

Despite those conditions, Tou Xiong said, "I just think they never expected this to happen."

Seng Her, the refugee project coordinator at the nonprofit Sacramento Lao Family Community Inc., said family members and adult children of the immigrants had raised concerns in the past about the chartered bus trips to the casino, which they said targeted senior Laotians living in Sacramento.

The bus fare for a day trip to the Colusa Casino Resort was cheap, around $10 at the most, and the casino gave passengers free slot play, according to family members and friends of the passengers.

Pa Phang, 37, whose father-in-law was killed, said she and her husband also discouraged their parents from taking the casino-bound buses.

Authorities identified the dead as Daniel E. Cobb, 68, of Sacramento and Modesto; and Lou Her, 68; Muang Saephanh, 68; Khou Yang, 67; Meuay Saelee, 74; Fin Saechae, 64; and Ma Vang, 60, all of Sacramento. Family members also identified Xee Vang, 87, of Sacramento.

Authorities said they were investigating if Cobbs Bus Services owned the bus, but refused to say why they focused on that company. They also wouldn't say if Cobb, who died in the crash, was the owner of the company.

A man outside a home that is the primary listing for Cobb's business in Sacramento said the family was not ready to make a statement and declined further comment.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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