Pa. kids safe after bus ordeal

In 160-mile journey, driver says he wanted to show students D.C.

January 25, 2002|By Michael James and Stephen Kiehl | Michael James and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

With a hidden semiautomatic rifle and mysterious intentions, a school bus driver took 13 Pennsylvania students on a 160-mile trek into Maryland yesterday, before abruptly surrendering to police and ending six hours of anxiety for parents whose children had never arrived at school.

None of the children on the bus, originally bound for Berks Christian School in Birdsboro, Pa., was injured during the ride. It ended with the driver, Otto L. Nuss, pulling over at a Prince George's County shopping center and announcing to an off-duty police officer "that he had taken a bunch of children from Pennsylvania against their will."

By nightfall, a second Pennsylvania school bus was en route to Prince George's County, this time a police-escorted vehicle full of mothers and fathers eager to be reunited with children who had as many questions about the abduction as everyone else.

"Everyone's in disbelief, but we feel our prayers helped today," said Kris Sensenig, whose 10-year-old daughter, Alexis, attends Berks Christian School. Sensenig, whose daughter was not on the wayward bus, said she had been hearing stories of hysterical parents all day - "but now they're pretty ecstatic, they're almost partying at this point."

Nuss, 63, of Boyertown, Pa., was being held last night in Prince George's County, awaiting federal kidnapping charges, officials said.

The loaded rifle was hidden under a coat behind the driver's seat. Nuss told police about the weapon after approaching an off-duty Prince George's County police officer about 2:15 p.m. at the Landover Hills strip shopping center.

"He told the officer he had some kids on the bus from Pennsylvania, and he brought them here to see Washington, D.C.," said Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman. "He wanted their parents to know their children were OK."

As for the children, Gulotta said: "They expected to go to school today as usual, and they made a different turn. The next thing they knew, they ended up here in Prince George's County."

The day started out like any other for the 13 students, ages 7 to 15. Nuss, who five days earlier had volunteered to shovel snow from the school parking lot to prevent children from slipping, picked up the students at 7:45 a.m. from their regular bus stops.

But instead of driving them to the school, in a bucolic valley near Reading, Nuss headed south - leaving school officials wondering what had happened to a group of their students.

"We had several kids that were missing from the same area, so we had a good idea something wasn't right," said Josh Monda, youth pastor at the school. The students ranged from first- to 10th-graders.

The route Nuss took to get to Maryland is unclear, as is the demeanor of the students while they were being driven around for hours. But one of the students wrote "911" in reverse on a fogged window, an FBI affidavit said. FBI officials said it appears from a receipt found on the bus that Nuss stopped at least once along the way to buy food for the children.

School officials had been desperately trying to reach Nuss on a two-way radio in the bus but got no response. Parents and residents near the school began searching the area for the bus, which some feared may have run off the road into any of several wooded areas along Nuss' route. A police helicopter and several Pennsylvania State Police cruisers were also called in for the search, conducted in heavy fog and rain.

But the bus, driving along the highway with the letters "Oley Valley Schools" written on both sides, eventually surfaced shortly after 2 p.m. at the shopping center in the 6700 block of Annapolis Road. Nuss apparently spotted a Prince George's County police car in the parking lot of the Family Dollar discount store, pulled the bus over and told the children to wait, said Cpl. Diane Richardson, a county police spokeswoman.

He went inside the store and approached off-duty officer Milton Chabla, who was moonlighting at the Family Dollar as a security guard.

"The bus driver saw the Prince George's police officer and told him that he had taken a bunch of children from Pennsylvania against their will," Richardson said. "As they walked out to the school bus, he told the officer he had a loaded rifle on the bus."

Chabla handcuffed Nuss and called other police to the scene. One officer arrived with a cellular phone, which he gave to several children so that they could call their parents and the school to let them know where they were, Richardson said.

"They were upset," Richardson said. "They had a lot of questions, and they wanted to know what was going on and what was going to happen to them. ... When the bus driver took a different route, they had gotten a little concerned. He didn't say or do anything to them."

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