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The Bus Stops Here

But should it? That's what witnesses to a November shooting would like to know.

As Erin Ault rode RTD's route 15 bus on the evening of November 29, 1998, he heard what sounded like a muffled popgun. Seconds later, other passengers on the bus began to scream at RTD driver Daniel Boyer, pleading with him not to stop. Ahead, close to a bus stop near the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Peoria Street, one man was lying in the street; another stood over his body. Ault remembers seeing a handgun in the second man's hand.

Instead of driving on, however, Boyer pulled up to the scene, opened the doors and let a man board the bus. It turned out to be a friend of the victim, who yelled for the driver to get help. The passengers were yelling, too--for the driver to leave. But the bus continued to idle as two more shots were fired.

The driver kept saying, "'I've got to stop' or 'I'm going to stop,'" says Ault. "We were trapped on the bus. It was terrifying. It didn't sound like real gunshots. He was shot and laying on the ground as we pulled up. I couldn't see him getting shot, but he was down below the windows, and we didn't want to press our faces up against the windows."

At the time, Ault, an executive assistant with the Colorado Association of School Boards and a regular bus rider, was too terrified to think about anything other than getting out of there. But later he began to wonder if RTD had violated a safety policy by putting all the passengers at risk.

In order for a policy to be violated, however, it has to exist in the first place--and RTD has no such policy. There are no instructions--written or unwritten--that RTD drivers are supposed to follow when they encounter dangerous situations at stops along their routes.

According to RTD spokesman Scott Reed, drivers are trained to avoid scenarios that would endanger the lives of passengers. But that training program does not include an exercise that places the driver behind the wheel of a bus when a crime is occurring at a bus stop. And while the RTD bus operator's manual lists passenger safety as a driver responsibility, it offers no guidelines for drivers to follow if they find themselves in a situation similar to the one Boyer did.

"There's not a specific written policy," says Reed. "It's impossible to come up with a specific policy on procedures to cover any possible eventuality that one may encounter out there. In training, they discuss not to enter an unsafe situation. It is covered somewhat generically. One of the things they do discuss is that you don't want to be in a situation where you're driving a busload of passengers into a dangerous situation."

Ault contends that that's exactly what Boyer did, but Reed defends the driver's actions. "If it were clearly an obvious, threatening situation, then it would be better to avoid the area--we'd expect the operator to continue on. But that wasn't the case here," he says. "It was simultaneous. He was already stopping as the crime was occurring. The bus operator felt it was safe to stop. The person [shooter] was not adjacent to the stop, and they stopped just short of the site. He stopped because he didn't know there had been a shooting. He just saw a man on the ground. He then noticed the gunman, and two more shots were fired into the ground."

Aurora Police Department spokesman Mark Hellenschmidt offers a similar account of the incident. "The driver's attention may have been focused on the victim," he says. "He opened the door and realized the gunman is in the area, and closes the door and then radios dispatch. This helped tremendously. He didn't make a normal stop, because he saw the victim down."

But Brandon, a friend of Ault's who asked that his last name not be used, remembers the situation differently. "The doors were open the entire time," he says. "We were right there."

"We pulled up right next to him," Ault agrees. "The guy was laying right outside the doors. I don't remember the doors closing. Once we pulled up, they were always open."

Even if Boyer didn't see the shooting or hear the gunshots, his passengers saw and heard enough to know that they wanted to leave, and they told him so. "Just go, just go," Brandon says he repeatedly told Boyer. Instead, the driver waited for the police to arrive.

Passengers are not the only ones critical of RTD's policies--or lack thereof. Former RTD boardmember Ben Klein says he's always believed that the agency's safety and security programs need close examination. "I wouldn't feel safe riding now," he says. "The whole safety system at RTD is in shambles. A passenger should be worried. It needs to be evaluated and run by professionals. It's scary. I think they don't have a safety program. I've heard bus drivers say they're afraid."

Two months after the shooting, Ault is still steaming. "When somebody is on the bus and is saying don't pull over or don't stop--if their policy is to stop, and stop two feet from a crime, it should change," he says. And he's considering filing a lawsuit against RTD to make sure the agency does change its procedures.

Last week the incident finally wound up in court--but not because of any action by RTD. Eighteen-year-old Vern Xavier Sittingbear was arraigned in Adams County Court on January 28 for the shooting death of 27-year-old Aurora resident Ali Sparks.

Meanwhile, Ault's still waiting to hear from RTD. "I want them to say this is what we're going to do, that we'll protect you," he says. "If they put it in writing that they won't stop, I'll feel safer."

And if they won't put that in writing, Ault suggests that RTD post this sign in its buses to give the public fair warning: "We're going to pull over and endanger your life if you ride with us."

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