Ex-Mansfield bus driver found not guilty of terroristic threats

FORT WORTH -- A former Mansfield school bus driver was found not guilty Tuesday afternoon of three counts of making terroristic threats for pulling a pocketknife and threatening to cut the wrists of three sixth-graders whom he had accused of leaving cookie crumbs on his bus.

The jury of five men and one woman deliberated for a little under two hours Tuesday afternoon before reaching their verdict in County Court No. 3.

William Phillip Allen III was fired and charged with making terrorist threats in connection with the Dec. 17, 2008, incident outside Mary Orr Intermediate School.

"I'm remorseful for what I did," Allen said after the verdict was returned. "I had to answer to what I did. I did that and the jury spoke."

Allen said he was joking when he pulled the knife out, but the three girls, now 12, told school police officers that they took the driver's threats seriously.

The misdemeanor trial for Allen, now 68, began Monday before County Court No. 3 Judge Billy Mills. Had be been found guilty, Allen faced up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

He said it's unlikely that he will ever drive a school bus again and said he would not try to seek compensation for lost pay.

All three girls, now students at Western Hills Middle School, testified Monday that they had just boarded the bus for the trip home when Allen told them to get off -- his normal practice when he wanted to discipline students out of hearing range of others.

Outside the bus, Niya Barber said Allen told them that he had found cookie crumbs on the bus and asked if they had left the crumbs, or knew who did.

Allen then pulled out a pocketknife and said that if they didn't tell him who left the crumbs, he was "going to start cutting some wrists," Barber testified.

She said she reminded Allen that she didn't ride the day before, and he let her back on the bus.

Blake Lewis and Kendal Hill, who remained outside the bus, told essentially the same story. But they added a few details that they said happened after Barber left.

Both said they didn't believe that Allen was joking, even though they considered him a nice, easy-going man. He had been their driver for about 1 1/2 years.

"I was really scared," Hill said. "He never acted like that before."

Lewis said that Allen might have considered the incident a joke. "But it wasn't a joke to me," she said. "I was confused and scared."

Allen testified Tuesday that he joked with his student bus riders every day, sometimes threatening to duct tape them to the seat or strap them atop the bus for the ride home.

But said he had never showed them his knife until the day he pulled the three girls off the bus to question them about cookie crumbs he found on the bus that morning. He said eating on the bus is a major rule violation that he needed to stop because a student could choke while eating.

He said he had joked with his own children, grandchildren and a few neighbor children for years about cutting off a finger that was hurting or other incidents in which he showed them his knife. His wife, daughter and two grandchildren confirmed that testimony

Allen testified that he was merely trying to get the attention of the girls, who had violated the no food rule several times.

He said he figured the drama of the knife would get the girls' attention because "it's absurd. No one would ever think that I'd cut off their wrists," although he acknowledged that that is what he told them.

Allen reiterated the videotaped statement he made the day after the incident

"It was a big mistake on my part," he said. "I had the right motive -- safety. But I used the wrong method. It was a poor decision on my part."

In addition to his family, the defense called several school bus drivers and dispatchers, who testified that Allen was very caring to the children and joked a lot with children and adults. But they said referring student misbehavior through channels, not pulling a knife, was the appropriate action.

The defense also called a parent who said her daughter loved Allen when she rode the bus in kindergarten because he made the trips fun. Questioned by prosecutors about the use of a knife on unruly children, the woman said that would depend on the situation and how many times the students had been warned.

In earlier testimony, Jennifer Howell, a special education teacher who was on bus duty that day, said she thought something might be wrong when she saw Allen talking to the girls.

Howell said she approached the group and asked Allen if anything was wrong. She said she never saw a knife and that Allen told her he was talking to the girls about eating on the bus and that everything was fine.

As she walked away, Howell said she heard Allen say, "Next time, I'm going to call the police on you."

Allen then told the girls to return to the bus, they said.

Defense attorneys Patrick Curran and Dan Cleveland repeatedly asked the girls why they rode the bus home that day or why they didn't get off at an earlier stop if they were afraid of Allen.

All three girls said they had no other way to get home and they thought they'd be safe once they got there.

When she got home, Hill told her mother, who called Mansfield school police. Hill made the first statement to police that night. She told Officer Roger Polsen the names of the other girls, who gave statements over the next two days, Polsen, said.

Police Investigator Robert Wood said Allen gave a voluntary statement the day after the incident.

Prosecutors Ana Hernandez and Tiffany Hansen played a 30-minute videotape in which Allen acknowledged pulling the knife and telling the girls he was going to cut their wrists, but insisted he never intended to hurt them.

"I joked with these girls all the time," he told officers. "They know me well enough to know that I am kidding. There was never any malicious design.

"It was a stupid choice on my part to do that. I wish I hadn't done it. It's disheartening, because I love these kids."