By SVETLANA SHKOLNIKOVA


Northjersey.com


Hudy Muldrow, the Paramus school bus driver whose attempt to make an illegal U-turn on Route 80 killed a fifth-grade student and a teacher in 2018, was sentenced Wednesday to as long as a decade in prison.


Muldrow, 79, will serve a minimum of five years and nine months when accounting for parole eligibility, Judge Stephen Taylor ruled at the end of a packed, hours-long hearing at the county courthouse in Morristown.


“It’s a severe sentence imposed for severe circumstances and severe conduct,” Taylor said. “I’m sentencing Mr. Muldrow for an extreme act of recklessness that caused significant, significant harm to so many individuals.”


The sentencing followed a series of emotional, tear-filled statements from friends and family members of the victims, who packed into a historic courtroom in Morristown normally reserved for government ceremonies.


“My heart’s destroyed because of one careless act of a man,” said Lorena Vargas, whose 10-year-old daughter Miranda died in the crash. “Every single night I relive that horrible day. That day I died as well.”


Muldrow slumped in his seat for much of the proceeding, looking down. When it was his turn to speak, the Paterson man offered an apology.


“I’ve suffered. I have a family, I have kids, grandkids, and throughout my life I’ve been helping kids," he said. "I did everything that I could to help people. I’m sorry. I have a lot of remorse and I loved those kids that I was driving."


Muldrow pleaded guilty in December to “driving the bus sideways” across three lanes of the highway after missing the exit in Mount Olive for the historic Waterloo Village, where the group was heading on field trip in May 2018.


The accident killed Vargas and teacher Jennifer Williamson, 51, and left some 40 other passengers from East Brook Middle School injured. Muldrow admitted to trying to turn around in a grassy median reserved for official use, when the bus crashed into a dump truck and flipped over. The impact tore the bus cab from the chassis and also injured the truck driver.


Williamson’s brother Doug spoke of his sister’s love for teaching and the fifth-graders she mentored.


“The reason she was such a good teacher was because she loved what she did. She connected with people,” he said. “I know Jen would want me to move on and forgive but I just can’t.”


Several students who were on the bus also addressed the court, many crying as they spoke. They called the accident a defining moment in their young lives. Sophia Russo said she is still haunted by the smell of burned rubber and smoke and the sight of emergency responders attempting to revive Vargas.


“I had to learn how to be happy again,” she said. “Nobody understands how tragic this accident is for us. The accident changed me forever and I’ll never be the same Sophia ever again… I’m going to have to live my life and cope with what happened and the trauma that it caused for me.”


Muldrow's son, Ronnie Murphy, asked the judge for mercy.


“It’s unfair to take a part out of somebody’s life and judge them,” he said. “My father has never done anything on purpose to hurt nobody ever.”


The majority of the fifth graders, teachers and parents aboard the bus have filed motions of their intent to sue, seeking damages for deaths or injuries that resulted in long hospital stays. Most of the complaints would hold the Paramus school district liable for hiring Muldrow and allegedly failing to provide oversight of the school’s transportation.


Muldrow’s license had been suspended 14 times since 1975, including a suspension less than six months before the crash, according to state driving records. While the most recent suspension and five others were for unpaid parking tickets, Muldrow has also received eight speeding tickets, one ticket for careless driving and a summons for unsafe operation of a motor vehicle.


The state Department of Education notified Paramus schools superintendent Michele Robinson in December 2017 that the state Motor Vehicle Commission had revoked Muldrow's bus driver endorsement, contradicting Robinson’s statement after the crash that she was not aware of anything disqualifying in his record. The endorsement was restored in January 2018, allowing Muldrow to again operate school buses.


The school district has denied liability in court filings.


Muldrow was indicted on dozens of counts and set to stand trial in January before accepting a plea deal in December. His attorney unsuccessfully attempted to move the trial out of Bergen, Morris and Sussex counties last year, arguing that a barrage of “carnival-like” publicity and public vitriol would deny the bus driver an impartial jury.


Muldrow pleaded guilty in December to two counts of second-degree reckless vehicular homicide, five counts of fourth-degree vehicular assault by auto, one count of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child and a disorderly persons assault by auto summons.


The crash left Paramus reeling and then rallying under the motto “Paramus Strong.” It also spurred a wave of legislation to boost school bus safety. Three months after the accident, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law requiring new school buses to be equipped with shoulder restraints and three-point seat belts to reduce the risk of injuries in a side-impact collision.


Other laws increased medical exams for older drivers, mandated biannual safety classes for drivers and school bus aides, required the state Department of Education to notify local authorities when a driver’s license is revoked or suspended and mandated a 90-day suspension of a school bus driver’s endorsement if the driver accumulates three or more moving violations in a three-year period or six or more penalty points.


In May 2019, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer re-introduced the Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act — "Miranda's Law" — in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a system that would automatically notify school districts and school bus operators of driver violations.


Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M.Knapp said “The pain and suffering caused by this defendant are immeasurable and will continue forever. The mass casualties and carnage caused by his criminal acts required the New Jersey State prison sentence imposed by the court today. We sincerely hope that the courageous surviving victims, mostly children, and their families will be able to accept this small measure of closure and solace for their collective and individual loss.”


Knapp acknowledged the members of the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Investigation Unit – North Squad, the New Jersey State Police Crime Scene Investigation Unit, the New Jersey State Police Troop “B” Totowa-Sub Station and Criminal Investigations Office, the Mount Olive Township Police Department, and the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office Major Crimes Unit who contributed to the successful prosecution of this matter.


New Jersey Herald staff contributed to this report.