Judge finds bus driver guilty
BY PORTSIA SMITH
The driver of the Sky Express bus that overturned and killed four passengers on Interstate 95 in May 2011 was found guilty Thursday of involuntary manslaughter.
Kin Yiu Cheung, 38, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced in Caroline County Circuit Court on Jan. 23.
At the end of the nearly four- hour trial, Judge Joseph J. Ellis told Cheung he found his conduct “to be so gross and wanton” that he had to find him guilty of all four counts.
Cheung did not take the stand during his trial, but his own attorneys admitted that he fell asleep while driving.
Defense attorneys Taylor Stone and Murray Janus argued that Cheung was involved in a tragic accident, but was not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
“Was there negligence? Yes. Was he wrong? Yes. But was this criminal negligence? No,” Janus told the judge.
“He admits that he fell asleep,” Stone said, “There is no evidence that Mr. Cheung should have known that he was sleepy.”
Caroline Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Spencer argued that Cheung knew he was too tired to be behind the wheel and ignored the danger to his passengers.
“The first time he realized he had trouble driving, he has a duty to pull over and he didn’t,” the prosecutor said.
Spencer presented 16 witnesses, who all gave similar accounts of what happened in the early hours of May 31, 2011.
The nearly nine-hour, low-fare bus ride from Raleigh, N.C., to New York City is a regular trip for Karrica Finch, who works in New York. She said Cheung’s driving became “extremely sloppy” after a bathroom stop in South Hill. A state police affidavit said the bus’ restroom was broken.
“It was almost like you were on a roller-coaster ride,” said Finch.
Another passenger, Ronald Harris, who has been a bus driver for more than 15 years, said that as soon as he got on the bus he knew something was wrong. He said the driver was angry with passengers and when the bus stopped, he tried to keep them from getting off to go to the bathroom.
Harris said as the ride continued, Cheung kept changing lanes and driving erratically.
“He was speeding up, slowing down, speeding up then slowing down. This was on Interstate 85 going on to 95,” he said. “The way he was changing lanes, we felt how he was swaying the bus.”
Dionne Henry, who was seated in the second row, said she noticed how he was hugging the steering wheel and drinking lots of coffee. Several other witnesses mentioned that he had purchased several cans of Red Bull energy drink.
Front-seat passenger Shirly Dai, who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, said Cheung spent a lot of time on his cellphone. She overheard him complaining that he didn’t get enough rest.
Truck driver Rick Hicks testified that he noticed the bus going unusually slow between the Doswell and Carmel Church exits in Caroline. He said he called 911 after he saw the bus swerving in and out of the center lane and apparently tapping its brakes.
That went on for about four minutes before he saw the bus flip, he said.
Finch said she had just sent her employer an email saying she was going to be late for work when she heard the sound of the bus going over rumble strips on the road’s shoulder. She testified that she looked up and saw the driver slumped over to the right side.
“I could hear people screaming, ‘He’s dead. We’re gonna die. We’re gonna die’,” she said. “Then he jumped up and jerked the wheel to the left.”
Finch said at that point she hit her head and was knocked unconscious. When she woke up, other passengers were escaping through a window, but she was trapped inside by the seats.
Dai, the front-seat passenger, said she had fallen asleep and was awoken by the rumble strips. She said she closed her eyes again as the bus overturned.
“When I opened my eyes, I was outside of the bus,” she said.
LiDenne Cromartie said she climbed out of the overturned bus and then tried to help others get out. That’s when she saw Cheung, she said.
“The bus driver said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I fell asleep’,” Cromartie said before bursting into tears.
Of the 58 passengers on the bus, 53 were taken to hospitals for treatment. Killed were Karen Blyden–Decastro, 46, of Cambria Heights, N.Y.; Sie Giok Giang, 63, of Philadelphia; Josefa Torres, 78, of Jamaica, N.Y.; and Denny Estefany Martinez, 25, of Jersey City, N.J.
Virginia State Trooper Andrea Vowell was the first responder to arrive on scene. “The bus was still rocking as I rolled up,” she said.
Cheung’s urine tested negative for drugs and alcohol, Vowell said. Although his log book was not up-to-date, it was within the legal 24-hour limit.
Neither Cheung or his wife, Qun Lin, reacted when the guilty verdict was announced. He kissed her on her eye before he was taken away in handcuffs.
Most of the witnesses declined to comment afterward, but three did quickly speak with The Free Lance–Star. Finch, Harris and Karina Torres, the goddaughter of one of the victims, said they were happy with the verdict.
“I feel that it’s what was deserved,” Finch said.
Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419