A former Orange Unified School District bus driver involved in a crash that seriously injured several middle school students five years ago was spared jail time Friday and placed on five years of formal probation.
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.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson cited Rupple's lack of criminal record and said the double lung transplant recipient, who wore a surgical mask in court for hearings, poses no safety risk to the community. Hanson suspected a 210-day jail sentence until July 26 to allow the defendant to apply to the Orange County sheriff for home confinement, saying his health puts him at risk if he's sent to jail.
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He was given credit for 136 days in custody and was instructed not to drive while on probation. Rupple wiped away tears as he expressed remorse, as he did the last time he was in court on April 26.
"I want to thank you for everything you've done," Rupple told the judge, who accepted his guilty plea a year ago via Skype because he was too ill to travel from his home in Arizona at the time. "And I want to reiterate what I said before that I'm sorry. The kids will never be 100 percent."
Rupple's attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, asked Hanson for probation for her client, saying any time in custody "could be tragic... and would result in his death given his terminal condition."
She said Rupple, who underwent the transplant after being diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, "cooperated fully" with authorities "from the beginning" and during proceedings in a civil suit stemming from the April 24, 2014, crash in Anaheim Hills.
The school district in January 2017 reached a $10 million settlement with the families of the students who were injured when Rupple lost consciousness behind the wheel of the bus, which was traveling about 50 mph when it swerved off the road into several trees. Goodman acknowledged that the injuries to about five of the 11 El Rancho Charter Middle School students on the bus that day were "very serious," but Rupple "didn't realize at the time he suffered from this terminal illness... He believed it was safe for him to drive a bus."
Goodman said he relied upon his doctor to say it was OK for him to drive a bus. Rupple concealed his illness from the DMV "to keep his job. That's the extent of his culpability," she said.
The defense attorney said that even after all these years, Rupple can recall the names of all the children he served. If Rupple knew his impairment would risk the safety of the children, he wouldn't have gotten behind the wheel, she argued.
Deputy District Attorney Jake Jondle countered that Rupple was experiencing some sort of discomfort before the crash that was so visible that one of the children in the bus asked if he was OK.
"He knew he was suffering some kind of episode," Jondle said. "He does not pull over or call for help."
Hanson told the defendant, "You are here today because of this crime and the actions you took. You did injure 11 separate middle school children."
The most serious injuries included broken bones, bleeding on the brain, a shattered spine and a toe amputation. While the other children "were not seriously hurt," the judge said, all of them "endured the trauma that will (be) with them the rest of their lives."
At the hearing in April, some of the parents told the judge how the crash affected them, including Janet Gordon, who said it 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," but 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 school 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 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."