Pennsylvania prosecutors on Monday charged a Big Red Bullet bus driver with 33 counts including vehicular homicide, saying the Bronx man had cocaine in his system when the bus crashed last month, killing a recent Cornell alumna.
Charles D. Dixon, 50, had told police that he “fell asleep at the wheel,” but prosecutors said in charges filed Monday that traces of cocaine were found in Dixon’s bloodstream when he was tested at a local hospital following the crash on Oct. 14. They also said the Cornell alumna who died had texted 911 just minutes before the crash, warning of Dixon’s erratic driving.
The second-degree felony charge of homicide by vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Dixon was also charged with homicide by vehicle, 12 counts of aggravated assault by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment, among other charges.
It was unclear on Tuesday night whether Dixon was in custody. A phone number for Dixon, who does not have a lawyer listed in court documents, did not ring and went directly to a message saying the owner was unreachable. A lawyer hired by Big Red Bullet, Nigel H. Greene in Philadelphia, declined to comment when reached by phone on Tuesday evening.
Rebecca Blanco M.B.A. ’17, of Vacaville, Calif., was killed when the bus — travelling from Ithaca to New York City on a Sunday night — swerved off the road and crashed into several trees near Scranton, Pennsylvania, just after 9 p.m. Blanco was a senior communications manager at Snowe, a household goods company in New York City.
Blanco texted a 911 operator 13 minutes before the crash saying she was worried about Dixon’s driving, according to documents filed in Lackawanna County District Court.
“I’m on a Big Red Bullet bus going from Ithaca to New York City,” Blanco texted at 8:48 p.m., according to charging documents. “We are 10 mi outside of Scranton. I’m highly concerned that the bus driver is unable to drive. We’ve almost gotten into two accidents, veering off the road twice. Once entering the grassy divide. He’s swerving into other lanes and seems to have trouble staying awake.”
The 911 center operator contacted police and told Blanco they may want to call her.
“I’m in the front I’m not sure I can talk,” Blanco responded.
Minutes later, police arrived at the scene of the crash on Interstate 380, where the bus had veered off the road, crumpling its front against a grove of trees. Blanco was pronounced dead at the scene of multiple traumatic injuries.
Trooper Bob Urban, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Police, told The Sun last month that Blanco “happened to be in the spot” most affected when the bus hit several trees next to the highway.
A man named Ben also contacted 911 at 8:59 p.m. and said he saw a charter bus driving erratically on the highway, taking up two lanes and swerving onto the shoulder.
Dixon told police that he had fallen asleep several times during the trip and that the last thing he remembered before the wreck was a female passenger checking to see if he was all right.
Dixon had been driving for Big Red Bullet for about a month prior to the October crash. He told police after the crash that he would typically get a break between trips while driving the four- to five-hour route between Ithaca and New York City but that he didn’t always get to take a break on Sundays.
Several previous Big Red Bullet passengers told The Sun after the crash that their drivers had taken up to three trips a day and driven in excess of 12 hours without a break, even though both federal and state regulations prohibit bus drivers from driving for more than 10 hours in one day.
Police took Dixon to Moses Taylor Hospital after the crash, where his blood came back positive for benzoylecgonine — a compound formed as the body metabolizes cocaine — and trace amounts of cocaine.
After the crash, a motor carrier enforcement operator inspected the bus — a 2018 tour bus manufactured by Prevost — and found that a third of the bus’s service brakes were defective. A Pennsylvania State Police sergeant said in an affidavit that the bus should have been placed out of service if more than a fifth of its brakes were defective.
Federal investigators told The Sun last month that they were looking into Big Red Bullet’s compliance with safety regulations.
There were 11 other passengers on the bus when it crashed, all of whom sustained at least minor injuries. These included broken neck bones, bruising, facial fractures, a broken jaw, a broken hand, broken fibulas and an amputated pinky toe.
All passengers were released from local hospitals within a day of the crash except one who remained in critical care for several more days before being released.
Julianna Debler M.B.A. ’19 J.D. ’19, a close friend of Blanco’s since their time together at Cornell, described Blanco as “the happiest and friendliest person you’d ever meet.”
Big Red Bullet is one of several private bus companies that takes students and Ithacans to and from New York City. It has no affiliation with Cornell University. Ali Nasser M.Eng ’10 M.B.A. ’15 founded the company in the fall of 2015.
Dixon’s case is currently awaiting a preliminary hearing. Below is the full list of charges filed against Dixon.
- Homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence (one count)
- Aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence (one count)
- Homicide by vehicle (one count)
- Aggravated assault by vehicle (12 counts)
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance (one count)
- Involuntary manslaughter (one count)
- Recklessly endangering another person (12 counts)
- Driving on roadways laned for traffic (one count)
- Careless driving (one count)
- Reckless driving (one count)
- Unlawful activities (one count)