Judge orders trial for Utah bus driver accused of molesting girls
West Jordan • The bus driver held the 5-year-old girl in his lap, nuzzled her, hugged her, stroked her hair.
His affections, captured on camera, were grandfatherly, John Martin Carrell told investigators.
But a judge said Monday they could also be seen as inappropriate and criminal.
It will be for a jury to decide.
Third District Judge Bruce Lubeck ordered Carrell to stand trial on 33 counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child for allegedly molesting two 5-year-old Sandy girls who rode his bus.
The ruling follows a two-day preliminary hearing last month at which prosecutors presented video tape and witnesses that supported their claims that Carrell had taken advantage of "some of the most vulnerable people in our community."
Carrell, who drove a bus for the Canyons School District and who was supported in court Monday by his family, has maintained his innocence.
"The strength of the case can be argued both ways," defense attorney Ron Yengich told the judge. "But the reality is that Mr. Carrell intends to stand and vigorously clear his name."
Carrell is accused of touching the girls inappropriately while buckling and unbuckling their seat belts on his bus route to and from Sandy's Altara Elementary School.
The judge, who reviewed the surveillance footage "carefully, many times" before making his ruling, said it was clear that Carrell spent significantly more time with the two alleged victims than other children on the bus.
"In each instance with [the first alleged victim] it took four times longer, and very often much longer than that," Judge Lubeck said. "Other than a couple of times when he looked at the color of fingernails and such did he have any real interactions with any of the other children."
When Carrell would place the girl on his lap, or in between his legs in the driver's seat of the bus, Lubeck said, he would also raise her backpack to rest on his right knee in what seemed to be an attempt to conceal his actions.
"I find no reason for him to pick up a backpack and hold it up on his right knee that was comfortably sitting on the floor," Lubeck said. "A reasonable inference is that he was touching her."
Carrell faces charges in two separate cases involving two different little girls. Both were 5-years-old at the time of the alleged abuse, which extended from February to late April.
He was first charged in May after the first girl mentioned the alleged abuse to a relative, who contacted police.
On July 14, a second case was filed charging Carrell for acts that allegedly occurred with a different child on his bus in March and April. According to charging documents in the second case, the second girl had been acting out, and her father went to police after learning that Carrell had been charged with sexually abusing the other girl.
Lubeck dismissed one count in that case a charge of attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a child because he said although Carrell could be seen moving toward the child on the bus, it wasn't enough to show he intended any inappropriate contact.
The video tape is the primary piece of evidence in this case, as the children are too young and unable to testify.
According to Kevin Robson, an attorney who represents the child's family, Carrell exhibited an unhealthy obsession with the children.
"What we see in the videos, and what the families see in the videos, are an obsessive interest in two very young girls," Robson said.
Carrell will appear in court again Sept. 9 for arraignment.
Carrell was being held at the Salt Lake County jail in lieu of a total of $5 million cash-only bail. But on Monday, the judge reduced the bail amount to $500,000 $250,000 for each case adding that if Carrell is released he must be on home confinement and have no contact with children, including any in his family.
Yengich pointed to Carrell's clean criminal history and noted that Carrell has a total of 27 children, stepchildren and grandchildren. He's never been accused of any inappropriate contact with any of them.
Students on the bus are secured with a seat belt that is similar to a booster seat, one that goes over the shoulders and latches between the legs, testified Lorraine Miles, the school district's special education route coordinator and Carrell's supervisor.
The seats have been a source of discomfort for bus drivers due to the district's policy against touching, Miles added.
Officials testified that school bus drivers can high-five, knuckle-bump, and help kids into seats, but have no other contact.
Carrell resigned after he was put on administrative leave on April 24 in response to the initial abuse allegations.