Bus driver surrenders, faces kidnap charges after 13 Pa. children driven to Maryland

Friday, January 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OLEY, Pa. (AP) _ Thirteen children were back home after a school bus driver with a loaded rifle took them on a 115-mile odyssey that ended in another state when he turned himself in.

The students, none of them hurt, returned home with their parents early Friday, more than 16 hours after their bus veered off its route and went to Maryland.

Driver Otto Nuss, 63, was taken to jail Thursday night after surrendering to an off-duty officer and was scheduled to appear in court Friday on federal kidnapping charges.

But several of the students aboard the bus said they were not scared. They said they played games, helped Nuss plan the route, and felt at ease when he stopped the bus to treat them to lunch at a Burger King.

``He never touched anybody,'' said eighth-grader Josh Pletscher, 13. ``We were having fun. We were having cars honk their horns.''

The bus picked up the students, ages 7 through 15, at a high school in Oley at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday for their daily six-mile trip to the Berks Christian School in Birdsboro, Pa.

When the bus failed to reach its destination, area residents, a police helicopter and cruisers frantically searched the route in rainy, foggy weather.

Craig Ziemer, the father of one of the children, 11-year-old fifth-grader Ashley Ziemer, called the six hours when the bus was missing ``the most horrible thing I've ever experienced.''

The students on the bus said the driver ignored a dispatcher's efforts to contact him by radio, according to an FBI affidavit from special agent Thomas D. Neeson. Nuss told authorities some of the students wanted to return home, but he told them they could not, the affidavit said.

``He said he wanted to show them Washington, D.C.,'' FBI spokesman Peter Gulotta Jr. said.

The journey ended with the bus parked outside a Family Dollar discount store in Landover Hills, just a few miles from Washington. Nuss entered the store and approached off-duty Officer Milton Chabla, who was wearing his uniform, police said.

Nuss told Chabla he had left a gun on the bus, police said. He said he had taken the children against their will and wanted to turn himself in. ``He wanted the kids to be OK and let their parents know they were OK,'' Chabla said.

Gulotta said the semiautomatic rifle was found behind the driver's seat, covered by a coat.

Some children had seen the gun on the bus and feared the driver was going to kill them, according to the affidavit. They told FBI agents the driver told them not to go near the rifle.

``One of the students, fearing what might happen, wrote 911 in reverse on a fogged bus window,'' according to the affidavit.

After the children and their parents were reunited Thursday at a Maryland police station, all were bused back to the parking lot of the public high school in rural Oley.

Speaking to reporters after their return, children on the bus said Nuss asked them to help plan the route to Washington on a map.

``It just didn't seem like he was kidnapping us,'' said ninth-grader Tyler Rudolph, 15. ``He told us we all needed a wake-up call and that we were going to learn something. And he was going to learn something, too.''

Pletscher said Nuss never touched the gun during the trip and that when a child noticed it he said it was ``a symbol to bin Laden.''

Authorities said Nuss had worked since September for the Quigley Bus Service, which contracts with the Oley Valley School District. Brian Quigley, co-owner of the company, said the company was cooperating with authorities.

``We're really very happy everybody is all right,'' he said, declining further comment.

School officials said Nuss had not driven a school bus before this year, but had passed a criminal background check and a child-abuse check.

There were ``no hints of anything like this in any way, shape or form. It was completely out of the blue,'' said Robert Becker, administrator of the Berks Christian School.

Cindy Calcagno, assistant transportation director for the school district, said she spoke with Nuss at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday and he seemed fine.

``I had no inclination there, and nothing from the children either,'' she said. ``He loved the kids.''