BANGOR, Maine — Kathy LaForest did not know the loud sound she heard was a .357 Magnum handgun being fired, but she did know that something was amiss on the BAT Community Connector bus she was driving Wednesday afternoon, and she immediately pulled over to address it.
The small, 30-seat city bus was heading north along State Street near Judy’s bar around 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, loaded with 20 or so passengers. Near Pine Street, police say, Milford resident Jason Robinson, 24, who has a lengthy criminal record, somehow fired the loaded weapon.
The bullet easily blew a sizable hole through the side of the metal bus toward the rear, just below a window, but caused no injuries.
During the confusion that followed the weapon discharge, passengers “said it was a firecracker,” LaForest said.
A woman who was riding the bus, who declined to provide her name, said that it was Robinson who said it was a firecracker. The armed man later told police that he was showing off the weapon to passengers in the back of the bus when he accidentally fired the weapon while attempting to put it back in his coat pocket. He said he was heading to Old Town to sell the weapon, the police report states.
Robinson already was standing by the time LaForest had stopped the city bus.
“He was already heading up the aisle,” she said. “I told him to get off the bus.”
Robinson departed, and began heading down State Street toward the city’s downtown.
“I turned around to make sure my passengers were OK and there was a real strong smell of gunpowder,” LaForest said.
That’s when her passengers told her the noise was from a gun.
After doubting the news, “they said, ‘Come look at the hole,’” the bus driver said.
When LaForest saw the hole, which she described as larger than a quarter, “I thought, ‘Oh dear God in heaven,’” she said.
Gregory Bouchard, another rider, said he was impressed with how LaForest handled the situation, but added he was not impressed with the passengers who knew that Robinson had the gun.
Only when the armed man had departed the bus, “did the people in the back volunteer that it was a gun and that he had been showing it off and telling others that he was going to sell it,” Bouchard said in an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News.
Bangor police and a Maine State Police trooper searched the area where the suspect had gotten off the bus, even using a canine to no avail. About an hour after the shooting, however, Robinson got on another bus heading toward Orono-Old Town and was recognized by a passenger, who had been on the earlier bus when the weapon was discharged. That passenger used his cell phone to call police, said BAT Superintendent Joe McNeil. The bus was stopped in Orono around 6 p.m. and Robinson was arrested without incident.
“It was really wonderful that he was caught and is in custody,” LaForest said.
Robinson was charged with felony reckless conduct with a firearm and carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, and was being held at Penobscot County Jail on Thursday for an outstanding warrant for failure to appear for a criminal mischief charge from Oct. 3, 2008.
He is scheduled to make an initial appearance today at the Penobscot Judicial Center. If convicted of the reckless conduct with a firearm felony, Robinson could face up to five years in prison, and a fine of up to $5,000.
Robinson has a number of criminal convictions, mostly for theft and criminal mischief and violating conditions of his release, according to prior articles in the Bangor Daily News.
Bail on the two gun charges has been set at $1,000 combined, and $202 for the failure to appear warrant, a jail official said.
LaForest has been driving a bus for three years and was filling in on Wednesday for the normal Orono-Old Town driver. She was behind the wheel again on Thursday, filling in for the Capehart route driver, she said.
The shooting was a random act, she said, adding that she’s just happy that no one was hurt, especially since the bullet exited the side of the bus.
“That was a serious caliber weapon he had,” she said.
The situation was tense enough and would have been worse if LaForest had known the man was armed, she said.
“I’m glad I didn’t know,” LaForest said. “Things might have gone differently if I thought it was a handgun. It all worked out for the best.”
“It was the bus ride from hell, I guess,” she said.