An Arlington County grand jury yesterday concluded that the blame for an April school bus crash in the county that killed two children should be shared by both drivers involved in the collision.
The grand jury indicted James Wallace, 42, the driver of a commercial trash truck, and Pamela Sims, 37, the bus driver, on identical charges of misdemeanor reckless driving. Sims also was indicted on a misdemeanor count of "failure to pay full time and attention."
The indictments came three months after the school bus -- carrying 15 children to Hoffman-Boston Elementary School -- collided April 18 with the truck at Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road. Lilibeth Gomez, 9, a third-grader, was killed, and Harrison Orosco, 7, a second-grader, suffered a severe head injury and died two days later.
Although yesterday's charges suggest that both drivers were at fault, they do not explain how the crash occurred. Authorities would not describe what sort of reckless behavior either driver is accused of, saying they would present the evidence in court.
The drivers are not charged in the children's deaths, just the crash. To pursue a felony manslaughter case, prosecutors would have to show gross negligence, such as driving while intoxicated.
"I am keenly aware of the significant public interest surrounding this incident," Arlington County Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden said in a statement. "But ethical rules prevent me or members of my office from publicly discussing the facts and evidence in this case."
Sims, who has been on paid leave since the crash, declined to comment yesterday. Wallace could not be reached.
According to Virginia law, someone driving "recklessly or at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person" is guilty of reckless driving. The charge carries a maximum punishment of a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Failure to pay full time and attention carries a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail and a $100 fine.
Lilibeth's brother, Jorge, 15, said yesterday that his family isn't concerned with the court case. He said that his sister's photo hangs in the living room and that their house is quieter these days.
"It doesn't make a difference," he said, adding that he misses his sister. The two frequently played soccer together in the front yard of the family's Arlington home.
The charges in the crash came after a lengthy investigation by Arlington police, Virginia State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators quickly ruled out major mechanical problems and determined that neither driver was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. They spent weeks examining the wreckage and interviewing witnesses, and they even staged a reenactment of the crash.
"This was one of the most complex accident investigations the Arlington County police have ever conducted," said Arlington police spokesman Matt Martin. "We used every tool at our disposal to figure out what happened out there."
An NTSB spokesman said the agency's investigation is not complete.
The collision occurred about 8:40 a.m. on a Monday as Wallace, a driver for AAA & Rainbow Recycling and Trash Removal, was headed east on Columbia Pike. Sims, who was westbound on that road, was preparing to make a left turn onto South Courthouse Road. The traffic light was green, police said.
Sims, who has been a school bus driver for 11 years, suffered lacerations on her face and a deep cut on her head. Wallace's kneecap was shattered, and his leg was broken. In addition to the two who were killed, 13 children were injured.
Both drivers had been cited for minor traffic infractions in the past.
Sims has two speeding tickets on her personal driving record. She was involved in a fender bender in 2003 when she was driving a school bus, but no charges were filed, Arlington school officials said. Reached by telephone at her Arlington home yesterday, Sims declined to discuss the indictments or the crash. "I don't talk about it," she said.
According to court records, Wallace has citations for failure to obey a highway sign and speeding on his personal driving record. He has not received a ticket for a moving violation in his 18 years as a trash truck driver, according to William Flower, a spokesman for AAA & Rainbow. In 1992, he was cited because his truck was overweight.
Flower said Wallace continues to be employed by AAA but has not returned to work because he is in physical therapy. He said the company is awaiting the results of a report by the NTSB. "We'll be reserving judgment until the NTSB findings are complete," Flower said. "Our driver had an excellent history and continues to be an excellent driver for us."
Schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos declined to comment on the charges. She said that sometime during the last few weeks of school, the children at Hoffman-Boston planted a cherry tree in memory of Lilibeth, Harrison and a schoolmate who had died of an illness.