DALLAS — The owner of a Houston bus company has been indicted on federal charges stemming from the 2008 Texas crash that killed 17 people on their way to a religious conclave, authorities announced Wednesday.
Angel de la Torre of Houston and an associate are charged with making false statements on federal forms and other offenses stemming from the crash in Sherman, 60 miles north of Dallas. The indictment was returned on May 30, authorities said in a news release, and de la Torre and his associate were taken into custody when the indictment was unsealed.
The indictment charges de la Torre and his company, Angel Tours, with one count of conspiracy to make false statements, four counts of making false statements and one count of operating a commercial motor vehicle after being placed out of service.
It was not immediately known whether de la Torre, 64, had an attorney. Phil Sellers, a Houston attorney who represented de la Torre in civil litigation stemming from the crash, said he isn't representing him in the criminal case.
Fifty-five members of Houston's Vietnamese Catholic community were headed to an annual conclave in Carthage, Mo., when the bus plunged over a highway bridge just after midnight on Aug. 8, 2008.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was caused when a retreaded tire on the right front axle was punctured by an unknown object. The retread itself wasn't cited as the cause, but the NTSB noted that the tire was affixed to the front axle illegally, that Angel Tours didn't have the authority to leave Texas and that the company that inspected the bus wasn't equipped to judge whether it should be on the road.
Yen-Chi Le, whose mother was among those killed, said she was pleased to see the indictment, the first significant criminal action to result from the crash, but was puzzled by the timing.
"The fact that they waited almost five years before issuing an indictment isn't ideal," said Le, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston who has become a well-known advocate for improved bus safety. "But hopefully it will be a deterrent for other (bus) operators who think infractions won't be noticed."
Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston, said she was unable to provide details about the length and nature of the investigation.
The indictment alleges that de la Torre and Carlos Ortuno, 52, made false statements on government documents seeking motor carrier authority. It also alleges that they operated a commercial motor vehicle after it was placed out of service because of an unsatisfactory safety rating. The rating followed an inspection that uncovered numerous record-keeping and safety violations.
Each of the charges relating to the false statements carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Continuing to operate a commercial motor vehicle after it was placed out of service carries a sentence of up to one year in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The NTSB found that the bus driver had used cocaine at some point before the accident. However, he wasn't charged with a crime because the cocaine was found in his urine, not his blood, making it likely he wasn't impaired at the time of the crash.