Bus driver who killed La. fire chief in crash sentenced to 15 years
Denis Amaya Rodriguez was convicted of negligent homicide for killing a firefighter and two other men in a 2016 bus crash
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
LAPLACE, La. — The bus driver convicted of negligent homicide in January for a 2016 crash on Interstate 10 in LaPlace that killed an on-duty firefighter and two other men received the maximum 15-year prison sentence on Monday.
Denis Amaya Rodriguez, a Honduran immigrant who was in the country illegally, also was fined $5,000.
Judge J. Sterling Snowdy of 40th Judicial District Court said Amaya deserved that sentence for failing to protect passengers in his care as well as creating immense misery for the families and communities of the three men he killed: St. John the Baptist Parish Fire Chief Spencer Chauvin, Vontarous Kelly and Jermaine Starr.
Amaya, whose attorney blamed the disaster on the company that hired him to drive the bus, told Snowdy that he never meant to kill anyone and didn’t feel guilty of committing any crime, but he said he would accept the judge’s decision.
“In my heart, I feel very bad for this moment,” Amaya, 38, said in Spanish. “It’s painful for me as well, even if (others) don’t believe it.”
Chauvin’s widow, Jennifer, and other family members sat in the front row of Snowdy’s courtroom in Edgard for Monday’s hearing. At one point, they and others in the gallery watched a video showing Chauvin’s son, Jude, and daughter, Jade, talking about their father.
The children recalled daily soccer matches with their dad, who would also enjoy taking them to the aquarium, the insectarium or his fire house.
When the video ended, Jennifer Chauvin took the witness stand and described how painful it was to wake up Jude, then 7, on the morning of the accident and tell him that “Dad is never coming home again.” She said the pain worsened when her family had to celebrate Jade’s fifth birthday the day after her father’s funeral.
“No matter what sentence is imposed on you today, our sentence will always be greater,” Jennifer Chauvin said to Amaya, glaring at him as she spoke. “We were given a life sentence: to live without Spencer.”
During Amaya’s three-day trial, prosecutors portrayed him as someone who should not have been driving at all because he was in the country illegally and did not have a driver’s license.
They said Amaya was rushing to beat traffic the morning of Aug. 28, 2016, when he barreled into a parked firetruck that had stopped to assist with an earlier crash.
The collision tossed Chauvin, 36, into a swamp 40 feet below I-10 along with two other firefighters who suffered severe injuries but survived.
The other two men who died, Starr, 21, and Kelly, 33, were in a car that Amaya also hit with the bus.
The bus was driving a group of people from Metairie to Baton Rouge to look for flood-recovery work. Starr and Kelly, both of Mississippi, were also hoping to join clean-up efforts in the Baton Rouge area.
Amaya faced up to five years in prison for each man that jurors convicted him of killing through negligence.
Amaya’s lawyer, Shannon Battiste, has said the defendant was not to blame because he was given a woefully ill-equipped "party bus." Calling it a “death bus” during the trial, Battiste said the vehicle had wrap-around seating, dancing poles, and brakes whose back chambers were of different sizes, making them dangerous.
Prosecutors put on evidence that the brakes were in working order. But Battiste still questioned why the boss of the company that owned the bus, Christian Lombardo, was not also charged.
Several legal problems still loom for Amaya, who had previously been cited half a dozen times for driving without a license.
He faces the likelihood of deportation proceedings whenever he completes serving his sentence. A slew of other charges filed against him following the fatal wreck also remain pending, prosecutor Henri Dufresne said in court Monday.
They include traffic violations and the negligent injuring of more than 30 other people, most of whom were on the bus.
Numerous civil lawsuits filed in St. John Parish and Baton Rouge seeking damages over the crash named Amaya and Lombardo’s company as defendants.
Lawsuits also targeted the company that Amaya’s passengers were hoping would hire them. That company — Wallace, Rush, Schmidt Inc. — filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court last year. It was registered to Arkansas state Rep. David Wallace, St. Tammany Parish Constable Eddie Schmidt and Howard Gerald Rush III of Denver.
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