A King County Metro Transit bus driver was fired for repeatedly punching a passenger who’d fallen asleep and then spit in the driver’s face after he was awakened.
The driver, Dennis Echols, 61, told police he “lost it” after being spat on. The Nov. 18 incident was captured on surveillance cameras.
Echols struck passenger Ethan S. McKinney, 23, in the head with an 8-pound rubber wheel block, according to prosecutors. Echols then followed McKinney off the bus, pushed him against a bench, punched him seven times, threw him to the ground and kicked him in the midsection, prosecutors say.
Echols and McKinney have both been charged with fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor.
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Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond called Echols’ actions inexcusable, and the driver was terminated Dec. 4.
Though McKinney spat in Echols’ face, Desmond said in “no way, shape or form would that excuse that kind of action.”
Desmond said it’s not unusual for drivers to have to rouse sleeping passengers. They are trained to contact supervisors if they encounter problems, he said.
Rules for drivers forbid physical encounters with anyone “except to defend yourself from a direct physical attack where you have good cause to believe that personal physical harm or injury may result.”
Desmond emphasized that drivers must follow those instructions even if spat on.
There was nothing in Echols’ record, Desmond said, to suggest he’d “engage in this kind of behavior.”
Court records show Echols was charged with assault in Seattle Municipal Court in 1987 and paid a fine.
However, the case was reopened last year and dismissed, although it wasn’t immediately clear why.
McKinney has a felony conviction for attempted robbery and several misdemeanor convictions. In August he pleaded guilty to escape in the second degree from a detention facility.
Echols, who has filed a grievance, became a driver in 2001. Paul Bachtel, head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, did not return a message. Vice President Neal Safrin said the union would represent Echols in the grievance process, but had no comment beyond that.
The altercation began on the morning of Nov. 18 when Echols drove into the Renton Transit Center at the end of his route, prosecutors say in charging documents. Everybody left the bus except for McKinney, who was asleep in a seat, according to charging papers filed last month in King County District Court.
Echols tried to rouse the man repeatedly, only to have McKinney stir and drop back to sleep, the documents say.
Prosecutors say a review of the bus-surveillance video shows that Echols yelled at McKinney, telling him: “I’m taking a break, get off the bus,” and threatening to strike him with a wedge-shaped block of rubber used as a wheel block.
McKinney responded with profanities, prosecutors say.
The video shows Echols kicking McKinney’s backpack off the bus. Then McKinney stands and spits at Echols.
“The spit landed on the right side of Echols’ face and in Echols’ right eye,” police and prosecutors said.
As McKinney made his way to the exit, charging documents say, Echols’ “nearly instantaneous reaction” was to raise the rubber wedge over his head and swing toward McKinney’s head.
Echols called 911, and McKinney was arrested by Renton police, charging documents say.
McKinney allegedly told police he’d been hung over from the night before and doesn’t remember anything until he was punched.
He claimed that “snapped him out of it,” charges say.
Police reviewing the surveillance videos, however, also noted Echols’ actions and determined the driver was also responsible for the violent confrontation, prosecutors said.
King County prosecutors said both men were arraigned in King County District Court on Wednesday.
Seattle Times news researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org