Students trusted bus driver on surprise trip toward D.C.

Youngsters saw gun, but didn't try to flee

kidnapping charged

January 26, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

BIRDSBORO, Pa. - The school bus driver ducked into an Old Country Buffet to use the bathroom, and Josh Pletscher saw his chance. He lifted a tan jacket lying behind the driver's seat. There really was a loaded semiautomatic rifle underneath.

Driver Otto Nuss, 63, was still inside. Here was a chance for Pletscher and 12 other students from Berks Christian School in Birdsboro to flee the man who had inexplicably taken them toward Washington instead of to school - a man who friends say was mentally ill and off his medication.

But the students settled back in their seats and let the adventure roll on.

They had a second chance to get away, when Nuss led them all inside a highway rest stop somewhere in Delaware for a fast-food lunch. But no one tried to run or thought there was a need to.

Josh, 13, caught a glimpse of a "bus missing" headline on CNN. "Huh," he thought. "Somebody else is lost."

While parents and much of the nation agonized over the missing bus Thursday, several children on board said the six-hour, 160-mile drive that finally ended in Maryland felt a lot like an ordinary, if unexpected, school outing. They signaled passing truckers to blow their horns. They got sleepy and tried to snooze. They got annoyed when other kids poked them.

"It was kind of like a field trip," said Stephanie Ehrhart, whose 7-, 8- and 10-year-old daughters were on the bus. "They called it an adventure."

The kids' remarkable calm could be chalked up to the innocence of childhood, or an outsized sense of safety in the town of Birdsboro and its tight-knit, 202-student K-12 Christian school. But students said they trusted Nuss, their driver since fall, who sometimes shared stories about his billy goat and, over the playful protests of older students, encouraged the little girls to sing Christian songs while traveling to and from school.

"He's not going to do anything," Veronica Ehrhart, 8, recalled thinking, even after she noticed the gun from her front-row seat. "I just thought, `Why would he have a gun?'"

Nuss' friends said yesterday that trust was not misplaced, despite the strange odyssey they, too, were struggling to understand.

Still, he faces federal kidnapping charges that could carry a life sentence.

During a brief appearance in federal court in Greenbelt yesterday, Nuss said he was "not totally involved" in the episode. He did not elaborate.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day asked Nuss whether he suffered from mental illness or impaired judgment. "No, sir, I'm not insane," Nuss said.

Nuss later appeared in federal court in Philadelphia, where he was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and jailed pending a detention hearing Friday.

"It's a sad case, not a sinister one," said Daniel W. Stiller, an assistant federal public defender in Maryland assigned to Nuss.

Teresa Derr, 60, a friend for 40 years, yesterday described Nuss as quiet Army veteran who rarely dated but did socialize with a group of friends. As a young adult, she said, he'd even jitterbug, slow-dance and two-step at dances held at the local fire hall. More recently he has taken trips out West to hunt big game and attended Christ Lutheran Church in Barto, where Pastor Paul Bartlett called him "a kind and gentle man."

But he has been troubled with depression, Derr said, that precipitated a breakdown at her house in the early 1970s. Nuss became disoriented and started "imagining things that were going to happen," she said, without elaborating.

"It was like he wasn't Otto anymore," she said.

Derr said she took Nuss to Reading Hospital, where he checked himself in for psychiatric help. "Ever since then, I was under the assumption he needed to take his medicine for the rest of his life," she said.

But in November, she said, he told her he quit taking the medication. "He thought the doctors were keeping him on the medicine just to get the money," she said.

With the that medication, friends said, he'd been OK. He worked for 42 years at the Mrs. Smith's Pie Co. in Pottstown until it closed a few years ago.

He lived as an adult with his parents on the Boyertown farm where he'd grown up. After they died he sold the family farm and built himself a rancher across the road from the old homestead.

While people across the country were gripped by the drama of the missing bus, the incident shocked people in two communities just northeast of Reading - Birdsboro, the one-time steel town where the school sits; and Nuss' hometown of Boyertown, which hadn't made a splash in the national news since 1908, when 170 people died in an opera house fire.

At the school yesterday, students, teachers and parents praised God for the safe return and prayed for Nuss.

"It's just a miracle that God touched the bus driver's heart," said Sara Riccardelli, 7, a second-grader who, like others back at the school, spent Thursday praying for her missing classmates.

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