An Orange County Superior Court judge Monday indicated she will allow a former Orange Unified School District bus driver to plead guilty via a video-conference call to passing out behind the wheel in 2014, triggering a crash that seriously injured four students.
Attorneys will return to court March 23 to discuss the logistics of the hearing in which Gerald Douglas Rupple would plead guilty from Arizona, where he lives, because he is too ill to travel. It is expected that at that hearing his attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, would be by his side, along with a doctor who would attest to the defendant's suitability medically to make the plea.
Judge Sheila Hanson wants Rupple to be present for the sentencing, so a date for that is unknown due to the defendant's health.
Rupple recently underwent a double lung transplant, but despite his body rejecting the organs he has twice "rallied," Goodman said.
Hanson has previously stated she would put a "10-year lid" on his sentence if he pleads guilty. He may be eligible for probation as well.
There was some question as to the legality of the video-conference call plea, but Hanson seems satisfied that it's OK and that she will take the plea that way. Prosecutors do not oppose the defendant's pleading guilty from out of state.
Rupple underwent the double lung transplant "several weeks ago," Goodman wrote in a motion filed Nov. 20, and "is prevented from traveling by virtue of his tenuous physical condition," but he is "of sound mind and body and fully capable of executing the waivers to entering a plea" in person.
"So delicate is his physical condition" that the defendant is living in a motel near a hospital because his home in Ajo is an hour away, according to Goodman.
Before his lung transplant, Rupple was diagnosed by Dr. Tony Hodges of the Banner University Medical Group in Phoenix with "a rare and terminal illness known as pulmonary arterial hypertension," she said.
Rupple is charged with 11 counts of child abuse and endangerment and one count of perjury for allegedly lying about his medical history when applying for the bus driver's job, with sentencing enhancements for causing great bodily injury.
Goodman has said that Rupple relied on diagnoses from physicians who told him it was safe for him to drive.
Rupple was driving a bus in Anaheim Hills holding 11 El Rancho Charter Middle School students on April 24, 2014, when he lost consciousness while the vehicle was traveling about 50 mph. The bus swerved off the road into several trees, and four students sustained significant injuries such as broken bones, bleeding on the brain, a shattered spine and a toe amputation, prosecutors said.
In January of last year, the Orange Unified School District reached a $10 million settlement with the families of students injured in the crash.