School bus driver withdraws guilty plea in young girl’s death

  • Tendzin Parsons, 70, of Hawley, appears in Northampton District Court Friday for a plea hearing on a charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide. Gazette Photo/Carol Lollis

For The Recorder
Friday, September 08, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — A Hawley bus driver went to court Friday morning expecting to plead guilty in the death of 9-year-old Summer Steele in an accident that occurred in front of the child’s Plainfield home last fall.

Instead, after listening to tearful and angry words from Summer’s parents and facing a judge who wanted to sentence him to jail instead of probation, 70-year-old Tendzin Parsons withdrew his plea during a Northampton District Court hearing. As a result, Parsons will likely go to trial.

“Who would think your daughter would get killed by a school bus?” the girl’s father, Brent Steele asked in a courtroom filled with the child’s family and friends. “What a waste. That beautiful girl had everything.”

Parsons is charged with negligent motor vehicle homicide in the Oct. 28, 2016 death of Summer, a third-grade student at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield. She died as a result of injuries suffered from becoming caught in the door of the bus while climbing off in front of her home after school, according to police reports.

Her parents saw the accident occur when they stepped outside of their home to greet Summer and her younger sister at the end of the school day. She was pronounced dead at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield shortly before 5 p.m. that day.

Family and friends of Summer filled five benches in the courtroom, wearing shirts bearing her image, bracelets with her name and the color purple in her honor. Summer’s parents and others spoke of their loss in “victim impact statements” intended to inform the judge as he pondered a plea bargain that would have had Parsons plead guilty in exchange for a suspended sentence and four years of probation.

“How do I even begin … to speak about my precious child?” said Amanda Steele. “In many ways, Summer took me with her.”

At times through tears, Steele spoke of the unbearable sadness she has felt everyday for the last 11 months. She spoke of the many firsts she would never see her daughter reach like being walked down the aisle on her wedding day by her father and the family traditions destroyed.

“This is hell on earth,” Steele said. “The ‘should be’s are a long, agonizing list.”

Summer was the girl of their dreams, Steele said. She loved skipping rocks and was a “professional butterfly catcher,” her mother said. In a few weeks, Summer would have turned 10.

“Summer was meant to live and not to be taken away by someone so careless as this man,” Steele said. “This could have been avoided. All he had to do was pay attention to his job.”

Steele told the judge she will never forget the day Summer’s heart stopped beating but hers continued.

Summer’s father Brent Steele told the judge on that day he was right there to see everything happen.

“Life changed in a second,” Brent Steele said. “It’s been hell since the day this happened. There are no words to describe the amount of frustration, pain and confusion. How can something like this happen?”

As Steele spoke, anger in his voice, he glanced over at Parsons to say the words directly to him. Steele recalled his daughter’s screams of “daddy” as the bus pulled away, her telling him she was in so much pain.

“I have not been the same person,” he said.

Family friend Jennifer Pease, Summer’s great uncle Tom Gaffigan and her grandmother, Margaret “Bunny” Doneilo, also told the judge of their lives since Summer’s death.

In addition to those who spoke in court, Judge W. Michael Goggins said he had read more than 20 “thoughtful, beautiful and devastating” written statements from people hurt by Summer’s death.

The Northwestern district attorney’s office had presented Goggins with an agreed upon sentence of 2½ years in jail, which would have been suspended for four years as long as Parsons complied with the terms of his probation.

After a brief recess following the victim impact statements, Goggins announced that he had decided to reject the probationary term and immediately send Parsons to jail for a year if he followed through on his plan to plead guilty. Because Goggins’ sentence was different than that of the agreement presented to Parsons, he was given the opportunity to withdraw his plea — which, after conferring with his attorney, he did.

Goggins told the attorneys that while the agreed-upon plea did struck him as unreasonable, “reasonable minds can disagree on what the sentence should be in a case like this.”

“This is not a crime of intent,” Goggins said. “It’s a crime of negligence, but it’s a crime of based on an act of colossal negligence for which the ultimate price was paid by a beautiful young child.”

‘Classic mistake’

Shortly after the October 2016 incident, Parsons explained to police that he had dropped two children off in front of 43 South Central St. in Plainfield and saw the first child get off the bus and run up her driveway, Massachusetts State Trooper John Riley wrote in a probable cause statement filed in court.

Parsons then told officers he began thinking about his next drop-off and failed to ensure that the second child — Summer — was clear of the doors before closing them and driving away, Riley wrote.

Brent Steele told police the door was shut “before (the child’s) feet were even on the ground,” court records state. The office of the chief medical examiner in Holyoke ruled the cause of Summer’s death to be blunt force injury to the torso.

Police said with the bus motor running and the heat and fan on, it was likely those noises would have impeded Parsons’ ability to hear any yelling or screaming.

“In reflecting on the incident, Mr. Parsons indicated that the ‘classic mistake’ he made ‘according to the book … we drive by’ was that he ‘didn’t double check that she … was five feet away from the bus’ before he pulled away from the stop,” Riley wrote in his report.

Parsons had been transporting elementary-age children from the Mohawk Regional School District and told police he had worked for the bus company, F.M. Kuzmeskus Inc. of Shelburne Falls, since late 2014. He earlier lived in the United Kingdom, where he drove a city bus for approximately two years, he told police. Ferrarone told the court that Parsons, a practicing Buddhist, had taken a vow of poverty and became a bus driver to earn income. He also serves as a caretaker at a Buddhist center in Hawley.

Parsons was first arraigned on the charge on May 12. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Oct. 17. Following Friday’s hearing, Parsons left the courthouse and got into a car waiting for him.