Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
It was a wild ride.
That’s one way to describe what 25 children experienced last fall when, authorities say, their school bus driver picked them up after having a few too many. Although he made all his stops, 49-year-old Duane Skeet swerved from “side to side” of the highway, hit a tree and almost flipped the bus in western New Mexico.
“At times, children were thrown back and forth inside of the bus, although none suffered bodily harm,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. “Skeet’s bus route covered approximately twenty-five miles with eight stops … at which children were dropped off, fortunately without injury.”
Tuesday morning, Skeet pleaded guilty to felony child abuse. He faces up to three years in prison.
Authorities say the incident occurred on Sept. 24 when Skeet was employed as a school bus driver on the Navajo Nation in Chi Chil Tah, which is 30 miles south of Gallup.
According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Skeet drank three beers and took allergy pills before reporting to work at Chi Chil Tah Jones Ranch School.
Agents say the children, ages 5 to 12, were waiting outside the school when Skeet showed up late. He drove off without closing the school bus doors.
A concerned driver called the school principal after seeing the bus swerve off the highway and back on again. The principal called the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office before going to look for the bus, “to no avail.”
According to the complaint, it wasn’t long before the school began receiving “numerous calls” from parents whose children had been dropped off by Skeet.
“They were terrified and crying, they ran off the bus to safety,” an agent wrote.
Agents say the children told their parents Skeet was driving drunk, almost drove off a bridge, sideswiped trees and hit an embankment all while the kids were “crying and screaming for help.” The glass doors on the buses were shattered, and tree branches littered the inside of the bus, agents say.
When students noticed that Skeet “appeared to be falling asleep,” some of the kids asked him if he was OK.
“He said, ‘Yes,’ ” an agent wrote.
One mother jumped into her car and caught up to Skeet at his last stop, the complaint says. She confronted him and took the key out of the ignition as the remaining three children on board “ran off the bus.”
When authorities arrived, Skeet smelled of alcohol, had bloodshot eyes and was swaying. A breath test showed his blood alcohol level was well above the Navajo Nation’s presumed level of intoxication.
Skeet told agents he drank three tall cans of Coors Light and took allergy pills that morning but went to work because “we are short on bus drivers, so I had to do it.”
Skeet told agents he was “ashamed, terrible, horrified” and had “difficulties in his personal life.”
Asked how the alcohol may have affected his decision-making, Skeet dug a little deeper.
“I don’t know what took me down that route, we’re all different, we believe in different things, according to my belief, it was set for me to go down that route,” Skeet told agents. “No matter what, no matter how strong he is, he’s going to end up in that …”