Saturday, October 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> Bus driver did right in hijacking

Leader staff writer

The driver of the Pinewood Elementary School bus hijacked by a Jacksonville man Thursday morning had recently completed training that included instruction on what to do in that situation.

The hijacker, Nicholas John Miller, 22, is in the Pulaski County Jail on a $338,165 bond. He pleaded not guilty in Jacksonville District Court on Friday.

There was a security camera on the bus, thanks to Pulaski County Special School District recently spending $500,000 to install cameras and GPS on all of its buses.

The district a few months ago also hired a director of safety and security — Mark Warner, a certified law-enforcement officer with 16 years of experience — and a second security coordinator.

“We’re extremely proud of our bus driver. She remained calm, engaged the hijacker and kept the kids calm…She kept him calm,” said Deb Roush, spokeswoman for the Pulaski County Special School District.

A recognition ceremony for the driver, 51-year-old Shelia Hart, is set for 1p.m. Wednesday at the bus depot on Redmond Road in Jacksonville. Roush said Hart was unavailable for an interview because she took some personal leave and probably wouldn’t return before Wednesday.

The mayor, city council and the woman who called 911 have been invited to the ceremony.

No one was hurt in the incident. Roush said that parents of the children on the bus were notified immediately. “It was handled very effectively with a positive end, which we are very thankful for,” she added.

Miller has been charged with felony vehicle piracy, 12 felony counts of kidnapping, two felony counts of aggravated assault, felony fleeing, misdemeanor driving while intoxicated-drugs and misdemeanor reckless driving.

Miller, armed with a knife, first tried to steal a car from a woman he saw at 1010 N. First St. in Jacksonville.

The woman, Karlena Lipari, told him she didn’t have a car. He said it would be in her “best interest” to give him her car, according to a police report. She repeated that she didn’t have one.

Lipari then saw four children about to get on the school bus at a regularly scheduled stop nearby. She kept them from boarding it, but Miller got on the bus.

He showed the knife to Hart, who has been taking kids to and from school for 20 years.

Miller told her to drive from the scene and Hart complied, according to the report. Later, he started driving the bus.

Lipari, the woman Miller had approached near the bus stop, called 911.

Jacksonville police caught up with the bus at the 3700 block of North First Street near Little Rock Air Force Base. At speeds around 40 mph, Miller was followed from there to Hwy. 367, John Harden Drive and Hwy. 5 in Cabot — where the 20-minute, nine-mile chase ended.

During the chase, the bus struck a guard rail support on Hwy. 367, ran a stop sign and ran a red light by turning left.

Cabot police put out a spike strip on Hwy. 5/Mountain Springs Road. Miller slowed down and veered off the road, coming to a stop, when he saw it.

He told police there were people after him, according to the report. He said hijacking the bus was only way for him to get away and save his life, it continued. He said he had not planned to hurt any of the 11 elementary-age children or the bus driver.

Roush, the spokeswoman for PCSSD, said the parents of the children on the bus met with a crisis team at the Jacksonville Police Department. The deputy superintendent, assistant superintendent, a counselor and the principal were members of that team.

Not only were those affected by the hijacking contacted; all of the district’s parents received a notification about the incident.

The parents of the kids on the bus were called a second time after Miller was arrested to see if they or the children needed anything, including counseling, Roush said.

Pinewood Principal Melanie Churchill rode the bus Friday, Roush said. “She held their hands and got them on the bus.”

Parents have told the principal that they were glad to be informed of the hijacking, Roush added.

She said that it was too early to tell if the district would change anything about its safety and security procedures.

Roush said Jacksonville police told the district that the handling of the incident was excellent.

And this was not Miller’s first run-in with them.

He was arrested for the May 28 breaking and entering of a vehicle and theft of property. A Sherwood Police Department-issued $400 shotgun and $400 in cash were stolen. Fingerprints were found at the scene.

Miller wasn’t prosecuted for the theft charge but pleaded guilty, as part of a plea bargain, to the breaking and entering charge. He was sentenced to two years of probation that would have ended on Sept. 25, 2015.

Miller was arrested on Aug. 6 after a syringe with residue was found in his car during a traffic stop.

His most recent arrest was Oct. 8 for terroristic threatening and third-degree domestic assault. Miller’s wife said she went to pick up some money from him to help pay for diapers and food their son needed, according to the police report.

He took their son out of the car seat when she arrived, went inside his residence at 1000 Richard St. and began to change the baby’s diaper, she said.

His wife told police that his behavior was odd and she believed “he was high on methamphetamine, which is his normal choice of drugs,” according to the report.

Miller’s wife said she would not let him see their son if he was going to stay on drugs. That is when they began to argue and his wife decided to leave with the baby.

She told police Miller threw a dirty diaper at her face and then pushed her into the living room. He then grabbed her by the neck and threatened to choke and kill her, his wife said.