Judge Hears From
Student And Then
Sends Grand Jury
Brenda Gray Case
BY KEN LITTLE
JONESBOROUGH -- Moments before a Washington County school bus carrying 39 David Crockett High School students careened out of control and overturned Sept. 20, bus driver Brenda K. Gray said something to the students on board.
"She asked if we wanted to lose our stomachs before we go over the hill," 14-year-old bus passenger Shannon R. Warren testified.
The student said that Gray made the statement just before the full-size bus topped a hill on Mount Wesley Road.
Warren and two Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers took the stand Tuesday for the prosecution during a preliminary hearing for Gray.
CHARGES BOUND OVER
After about an hour of testimony, Washington County General Sessions Court Judge Robert G. Lincoln found enough probable cause to bind the charges against Gray over for consideration by a Washington County grand jury.
He set a Jan. 22 Criminal Court date for Gray.
Gray, 54, of Jonesborough, did not testify during the hearing and declined to comment on the case outside the courtroom. She remains free on $50,000 bond.
She was charged in October with eight counts of reckless aggravated assault and 31 counts of felony reckless endangerment, one charge for every student on the bus at the time of the crash.
At least 26 students were hospitalized after the crash.
She is also charged with misdemeanor counts of speeding, reckless driving and failure to exercise due care.
Warren, wearing a brown David Crockett High School t-shirt with the message "We Stand Together," told Assistant District Attorney General Michael Rasnake she and friends were playing a "high-five" game before Gray asked her question.
"I don't remember flipping over," said Shannon, who suffered hairline fractures to her back and leg and was airlifted from the scene by helicopter to Johnson City Medical Center.
Phillip Ratliff, the assistant public defender representing Gray, asked high school freshman Warren if she had "been over the hill" before on the bus.
"Yes," she responded.
Ratliff asked if Gray had any previous "issues" on the bus.
"Not that I remember," Warren said.
Warren said she was sitting in the fifth seat behind the driver. She said when the bus hit the first downhill curve, several students sitting next to her fell to the floor.
"Then we went off to the left side of the road and that's all I remember," Warren said.
When Warren came to, the bus was on its side.
"It took five or 10 minutes [to get out] because there were people on top of me who wouldn't move," she said.
Warren told Ratliff she didn't see Gray after the crash.
TROOPER TAKES STAND
THP Trooper William Shelton, who arrived about 15 minutes after the 3 p.m. bus crash, described seeing the bus on its side and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel tending to injured students.
"There were multiple children that were injured, students on the school bus that was passengers," Shelton said.
He noticed one seriously injured student, Cheyenne Bunton, with head injuries who was lying in the roadway. She had "a severe laceration to the head," Shelton said.
Bunton and her parents were in the courtroom Tuesday. Gray's family sat several rows in back of them.
With emergency responders arriving at the scene and many injured students, "The scene was very chaotic," Shelton said.
Several minutes after his arrival, Shelton spoke with Gray.
"She advised me she was the bus driver [and] she was traveling down Mount Wesley Road and was distracted by some children," he said.
Shelton said Gray told him that the bus went off the narrow, winding road, "came back across and the bus turned over."
He said Gray was helping students get out of the overturned bus when he saw her.
Gray suffered chest pains soon afterward and was taken to the hospital, Shelton said.
'A TEMPORARY BUS'
Under cross-examination by Ratliff, Shelton said "numerous" Washington County sheriff's deputies were already at the wreck scene when he arrived.
The full-size bus lost control on a downhill grade after Gray topped the hill, Shelton said.
Shelton interviewed most of the students who were on the bus, but some of those interviews were at the high school days after the crash, he told Ratliff.
The 1997-model bus being driven by Gray was not the usual bus assigned to that route, Shelton told Ratliff.
"It was determined through investigation that it was a temporary bus. Her normal bus was out for repair," he said.
WELL OVER SPEED LIMIT
Shelton told Rasnake in testimony that the posted speed limit on Mount Wesley Road is 30 mph.
The next person to testify for the prosecution, THP Trooper James Fillers, is a member of the THP Critical Incident Response Team who headed up the crash investigation.
Fillers said that the school bus was traveling at a speed range of between 52 and 60 mph when Gray lost control and the bus overturned.
Fillers took measurements at the scene and collected other evidence before he estimated the speed of the school bus, he said.
Under cross-examination, Fillers told Ratliff the school bus crash at Telford was only the second school bus crash he has investigated during his career.
The first was the incident in April on Holder Road in Greene County, where a 12-year-old Chuckey-Doak Middle School student was killed.
Through his line of questioning, Ratliff questioned the validity of Fillers' training to make an accurate determination of the estimated speed of the bus at the time of the crash.
Judge Lincoln asked Shelton to clarify some testimony, including how many students were injured in the bus crash.
Eight students had "serious bodily injury" such as broken bones, broken sternums and facial lacerations, Shelton said.
The other 31 on board the bus suffered "varying degrees of injury" such as concussions, black eyes, scrapes and bruises, he said.
"Everyone was injured to some degree," Shelton said.
'WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR'
Outside the courtroom, 16-year-old Cheyenne Bunton was still wearing a neck brace from the crash but said she is feeling better.
Her father, Charles Bunton, said he was satisfied with the outcome of the preliminary hearing.
"That's what I was looking for," he said.
Cheyenne's condition is gradually improving, but she must get another CT scan to determine if further surgery is needed, Charles Bunton said.
The Buntons have filed a lawsuit against the school district for damages in the accident.
Among those at the hearing was lawyer Tony Seaton, whose Johnson City law office represents the families of 20 of the students on the bus.
"We're just monitoring what the district attorney's office is doing," Seaton said.
State law puts a cap of $700,000 on what can be paid out in total damages to the students.
A check for $700,000 was deposited last month with the Washington County Circuit Court Clerk's office to eventually be distributed to the 39 David Crockett High School students who were on the bus.
The check and a complaint called an "interpleading on behalf of Tennessee Risk Management Trust for the use and benefit of the Washington County Board of Education" was filed by Earl Booze, school board attorney, who is also acting in a capacity representing the state risk management trust.
The statute of limitations for filing a civil complaint in connection with the bus crash is one year.
After that time elapses, a hearing will be scheduled and a judge will decide how the $700,000 will be divided among the crash victims.
Seaton said many of his clients have recollections similar to Warren's about what Gray said before the crash.
"We've heard almost identical things," he said. "There are numerous witnesses who will corroborate the bus driver saying, 'Do you want to lose your stomach?''' Seaton said.
Prospective clients continue to call Seaton's office, he stated.
"Most of the physical things are clearing up," he said, but many of the crash victims suffer from forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, he added.
"They're terrified of getting on the bus," he said.