A former Orange Unified School District bus driver pleaded guilty via Skype Friday to a collision that injured 11 students.
Gerald Douglas Rupple, 28, pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts of child abuse and endangerment and a single felony count of perjury. He also admitted four sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily injury.
A person submitting a plea via video conference was a first for any Orange County or state courtroom, officials said.
Rupple is too ill following a double lung transplant to travel from his residence in Arizona to California. He has been staying at a motel near the hospital because his home in Ajo is an hour away.
Rupple is taking drugs to help his body accept the transplant, but his physician, Dr. Rajeev Saggar, assured Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson that his patient was mentally healthy enough to make his plea and that the medication would not affect his judgment.
Orange County Superior Court officials had to set up cameras in the courtroom and in the defendant’s hospital room at the Banner University Medical Group in Phoenix to hold the hearing via a teleconference call. Rupple’s attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, traveled to Phoenix to be with her client as he made his plea.
A sentence has not been agreed on. The maximum punishment is 26 years and four months, but there has been informal discussions of Hanson putting a 10-year lid on any punishment. Rupple could also qualify for probation.
Rupple wore a surgical mask at times during the hearing.
The judge said the unorthodox hearing was worked out to get the case out of legal limbo, where it’s been because Rupple has been too ill to travel.
“It’s important there be a resolution to these criminal charges,” Hanson said. “The victims in this case are children — they and their parents have a right to a resolution of this case.”
Before the lung transplant, Rupple was diagnosed by Dr. Tony Hodges with “a rare and terminal illness known as pulmonary arterial hypertension,” according to court records.
Rupple lied about his medical history when applying for the bus driver’s job, prosecutors said. Goodman has previously said that her client relied on diagnoses from physicians who told him it was safe for him to drive.
Rupple was driving a bus in Anaheim Hills holding 11 El Rancho Charter Middle School students on April 24, 2014, when he lost consciousness while the vehicle was traveling about 50 mph. The bus swerved off the road into several trees, and four students sustained significant injuries such as broken bones, bleeding on the brain, a shattered spine and a toe amputation, prosecutors said.
In January of last year, the Orange Unified School District reached a $10 million settlement with the families of students injured in the crash.