Driver in tour bus crash found fans among gamblers, but had a checkered safety record
By Paloma Esquivel, Louis Sahagun, Esmeralda Bermudez and Richard Winton
Those who boarded the white tour bus on a Koreatown corner looked forward to seeing Teodulo Elias Vides and escaping on one of his casino trips.
Vides, both bus owner and driver, would stand on the sidewalk where Olympic Boulevard crosses Vermont Avenue, greeting regulars. He doled out friendly advice, such as making sure to eat before placing bets that could leave you empty-handed. He was unfazed when someone couldn’t afford the trip on his USA Holiday bus. Pay me later from your winnings, he would say.
“He was always friendly, always jovial,” said Maggie Monterroso, who began traveling to casinos on Vides’ bus nearly a decade ago. “He cared a lot about us.”
On Sunday, Vides and 12 of his passengers died when his bus collided with a big rig on the 10 Freeway as he drove his guests back to Los Angeles after a night of gambling at a casino near the Salton Sea.
The crash, the deadliest in California in several decades, has focused attention on his company’s safety record and on the subculture of independent coach operators who ferry gamblers on a budget to casinos around the region.
Vides, 59, had been previously sued at least twice for negligence after collisions with vehicles, one of which resulted in three deaths. His company received at least six “unsatisfactory” ratings from the California Highway Patrol. Vides had also been cited in several counties for traffic violations.
Vides was in the business for years, driving buses filled with older passengers to casinos across the Southland, his next-door neighbor said. Some nights, he parked the tour bus on the street near his apartment.
Customers said he ran the business with his daughter and that his destinations included Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and San Diego.
According to federal records, USA Holiday is an Alhambra-based company that owns one bus and employs one driver.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board plan to examine Vides’ background, as well as a variety of other factors in Sunday’s early morning crash, including the role of road conditions and lighting, an agency member said Monday.
Vides and his company had been named in a civil suit after a USA Holiday bus crashed into a Honda Civic on the northbound 215 Freeway in Riverside on May 6, 2007. The driver of the sedan, Sylvia Saucedo, and two of her passengers, Maria Llamas and Julio Morales, were killed. Llamas’ relatives sued Vides and the bus driver, Paulino Camacho Ceballos, the following year, alleging personal injury and negligence.
Lawyers for Vides, however, argued that the Honda was traveling at an “unreasonable rate of speed” and that Saucedo lost control of the vehicle and ricocheted off the center divider wall. The case appears to have been dismissed after the plaintiffs failed to respond to discovery requests.
Vides had faced an earlier lawsuit when a USA Holiday bus collided with a car on the westbound 60 Freeway in Riverside in June 2003. Two of the car’s passengers sued USA Holiday as well as Ceballos, alleging the bus was negligently operated and responsible for the crash. The case was settled in 2006. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed in court documents.
In September 2005, Vides was cited in Riverside County for speeding on the highway in excess of 70 mph, according to court records. He had been pulled over in a 1996 white bus on the eastbound 10 Freeway just west of Main Street near Cabazon. He was ordered to attend traffic school but according to the records, traffic school was "not completed as ordered" and his bail of $151.80 was forfeited.
In 2007, Vides was cited by the California Public Utilities Commission for operating with an expired permit.
Records show that Vides was pulled over again in a white bus in May 2011 on the eastbound 10 Freeway, not far from where Sunday’s crash occurred. At the time, he was cited for speeding and driving with a suspended license. He initially failed to appear in court and a bench warrant was issued for him, with bail set at $2,500. A month later, the case was dismissed after Vides showed proof of a valid driver’s license.
Vides also had citations in Santa Barbara County, where he was pulled over for lane straddling twice in 2011, according to court records.
It’s not clear why USA Holiday received “unsatisfactory” ratings from the CHP after 2005 and 2010 inspections of controlled substances and alcohol testing requirements. Detailed reports were not immediately available.
The company also received “unsatisfactory” CHP ratings during inspections of its terminal in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010, according to the agency’s online database. The ratings came in various categories, including maintenance, driver, equipment and terminal.
Jeff Picardi, a supervisor in the CHP Border Division’s motor carrier safety unit, said he could not comment on the details of the ratings without the full reports but noted that there are a number of reasons why the inspections might have resulted in unsatisfactory ratings. Generally, drivers are given an opportunity to correct deficiencies, he said. If an owner continues to be out of compliance, the CHP may make a recommendation to the Public Utilities Commission or to the Department of Transportation for further action.
USA Holiday was last inspected by federal transportation officials in April of last year and received a satisfactory rating, according to FreightConnect, a private data provider. No issues with the coach or driver were reported.
The company drove 68,780 miles in 2015, the most recent data available, federal records indicate.
On Monday, a makeshift memorial grew in the place where Vides once cheerfully met customers. Dozens stopped to leave candles and notes. Some tucked flowers into the trunk of a palm tree.
Rosa Maria Cabello arrived in the early day’s drizzle, desperate for information on friends. She had heard that a woman she knew was among the dead.
“My soul hurts to think she’s gone,” Cabello said.
Cabello, 79, said the long overnight trips to the casino with Vides had given many seniors like her a sense of community, of family.
“Your kids, they forget about you,” she said. “This was our distraction. A place to forget everything and just enjoy.”
The bus had been on its way to Los Angeles from Red Earth Casino in Thermal, near the Salton Sea, when it slammed into the back of a big rig. Most of those who died appeared to have been sitting toward the front of the bus. CHP officials said the bus appeared to have made no attempt to brake as it careened into the tractor trailer shortly after 5:15 a.m.
By Monday evening, officials had publicly identified all 13 people killed in the crash. In addition to Vides, they included Tony Mai, 50; Zoila Aguilera, 72; Concepcion Corvera, 57; Dora Galvez de Rodriguez, 69; Ana Gomes de Magallon, 71; Milagros Gonzales, 72; Gustavo Green, 62; Isabel Jimenez Hernandez, 66; Yolanda Mendoza, 69; Rosa Ruiz, 53; Elvia Sanchez, 52; and Aracely Tije, 63, according to Riverside County coroner’s records.
All were identified as residents of Los Angeles, except Corvera, who lived in Palmdale.
The bus was not equipped with seat belts when it ran into the back of the truck, hurling the victims into the air, officials said. As a result, their fatal injuries were consistent with those caused by striking blunt and jagged objects.
An additional 31 people were injured, including the driver of the big rig. He was identified as Bruce Guilford, 50, a resident of Covington, Ga.
The injured victims ranged in age from 26 to 76 years old; six of them suffered major trauma, according to a list handed out by CHP officials.
On Monday, four patients remained in critical condition at Desert Regional Medical Center, the Coachella Valley’s only trauma center. One patient was in serious condition, another in fair condition and nine patients had been treated and released, hospital spokesman Richard Ramhoff said.
Esquivel and Sahagun reported from Palm Springs; Bermudez and Winton from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Corina Knoll and Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.