A former Orange Unified School District bus driver involved in a collision that injured several middle school students five years ago apologized to the victims and their parents in court Friday.
Gerald Douglas Rupple, 29, pleaded guilty last June to 11 felony counts of child abuse and endangerment and a single count of perjury for lying about his medical history when applying for his bus driver job.
He also admitted four sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily injury. Before Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson hands down Rupple's sentence on June 7, she heard from the defendant's physician, his nurse and his sister.
The judge also listened to victim impact statements from two parents of El Rancho Charter Middle School students who were in the bus when it crashed on April 24, 2014, in Anaheim Hills. Rupple, a double lung transplant recipient, wore a surgical mask in court.
The defendant, who had been allowed to enter his guilty plea last year via Skype, choked back tears as he apologized to the students and their parents.
"I want to say I'm sorry to the parents and kids and for my actions on the bus that day," Rupple said. "I now have a 3-year-old and I know how they feel now."
Rupple also cried when the two mothers made statements to Hanson. Rupple's physician, Dr. Rajeev Saggar, testified that his patient would face a significant risk to his health if sent to prison. Rupple "has been a very good steward" of his organ donation, the doctor said, telling the judge that a prison commitment would be "catastrophic to his survival."
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Rupple's nurse, Francesca Anderson, testified that he has expressed remorse about his actions that led to the bus crash. She also said Rupple has been active helping out in support groups she runs for organ transplant recipients. Janet Gordon told the judge that the crash has had a "lasting effect" on her family. "Our lives were changed and not for the better," she said.
Gordon criticized Rupple for continuing to drive the students despite experiencing a "medical emergency." Gordon, however, said she had forgiven him. Another mother, Keri Pintches, recalled how her son called her at work about the crash. Pintches, who worked for the school district, said she rushed to the crash scene. Pintches said Rupple enjoyed a good reputation as a bus driver.
She said if officials knew of his medical condition, they would have found another job for him in the district.
"I can't begin to describe the horror of that afternoon," Pintches said. "It was just the most horrific sight I've ever seen."
Pintches recalled how many of the 11 students who were aboard the bus, including her son, waited until first responders could extricate Rupple from the wreckage because they cared so much for him and were worried.
"The kids were devastated," Pintches said. "They waited to find out he was alive, that he was going to be OK ... The worst thing is they loved you ... and trusted you implicitly."
Rupple's attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, told the judge that during a break in the hearing that her client recognized the parents in court and knew the names of their children. Rupple was too ill last year following transplant surgery to travel from his residence in Arizona to California for his plea hearing. He had been staying at a motel near the hospital because his home in Ajo is an hour away.
Orange County Superior Court officials had to set up cameras in the courtroom and in the defendant's hospital room at the Banner University Medical Group in Phoenix to hold the hearing via a teleconference call. Goodman traveled to Phoenix for last year's hearing to be with her client as he made his plea. The judge said the unorthodox hearing was worked out to get the case out of legal limbo, where it's been because Rupple has been too ill to travel.
Before his double lung transplant, Rupple was diagnosed by Dr. Tony Hodges with "a rare and terminal illness known as pulmonary arterial hypertension," according to court records. Prosecutors said Rupple lied about his medical history when applying for the bus driver's job. Goodman has said that her client relied on diagnoses from physicians who told him it was safe for him to drive. Rupple lost consciousness while the vehicle was traveling about 50 mph. The bus swerved off the road into several trees, and five students suffered injuries such as broken bones, bleeding on the brain, a shattered spine and a toe amputation, prosecutors said.
In January 2017, the Orange Unified School District reached a $10 million settlement with the families of students injured in the crash.