They got on a party bus. They never made it home

Jimmy Larsen
Jimmy Larsen Courtesy of Kimberly Larsen

They climbed aboard party buses expecting a safe and fun-filled evening with friends. They never made it home.

One never experienced being a teenager. Some never got to finish college. Others left behind children — one only 6 weeks old.

In many of the tragedies, a party bus door or window unexpectedly opened, sending riders tumbling to the pavement. After one death, a jury convicted an owner of involuntary manslaughter for knowing about mechanical problems with the door but failing to fix them. After others, lawmakers debated how to crack down on the industry.

In many cases, the bus or driver — or both — shouldn’t have been on the road.

James Larsen, 27

Jimmy Larsen followed a strict rule about consuming alcohol, his family said.

“There was no drinking and driving, ever. He was very adamant about that,” said his mother, Kimberly Larsen. “He knew how important it was, and he also knew, from just a basic financial standpoint, you can’t lose your license and you can’t be stupid these days.”

So when it came time to celebrate a friend’s birthday last month, Jimmy Larsen — a University of Missouri graduate — and about two dozen others rented a party bus to escort them around the Chicago area.

As the 2012 Freightliner sailed north on the Tri-State Tollway in Deerfield, Ill., Larsen stood to adjust the radio volume. The bus went around a curve. Larsen lost his balance, plunged down the stairs, out the door and onto the highway, according to Illinois State Police. The 27-year-old died after an SUV struck him.

Police cited the bus driver for not being licensed to carry passengers. The June 3 incident remains under investigation by federal and state authorities.

Kimberly Larsen filed a wrongful death lawsuit on June 8 against the two companies she believed owned and operated the party bus.

The attorney for one company called Larsen’s death “a freak accident” and a tragedy, “but not negligence on our part.”

Larsen believes otherwise.

“All I want out of this, if there’s nothing else, is that this brings about awareness and that we mandate change,” she said.

Jimmy Larsen, of Libertyville, Ill., was a skilled swimmer, pet lover and English major at MU who aspired to be a screenwriter, his mother said.

“I could not have been more proud,” she said. “He was a responsible young man. The kids who were on the bus, they confirmed that he was actually sort of the designated driver for the birthday person. They were literally within 10 miles of being home, and he was going to drive the birthday person home.”

She said her son was “a proud Mizzou grad.”

“You get them through college, you think they are safe,” she said, her voice breaking. “But you just never know.”

Jamie Frecks
Jamie N. Frecks of Edwardsville

Jamie Frecks, 26

The bachelorette party on the Midnight Express had been underway only about 10 minutes when tragedy struck.

In a matter of seconds, an infant lost her mother. And 15 women riding on the party bus with Jamie Frecks experienced the unimaginable.

The group had boarded the bus May 4, 2013, loading a cooler and heading to Westport. After stopping at a QuikTrip for ice, the bus continued northeast on Interstate 35.

Frecks, 26, was standing with her back to the side double doors when the bus hit a bump while rounding a curve. The doors popped open, and Frecks plunged onto the interstate and under oncoming traffic near the Southwest Boulevard exit in Kansas City, Kan.

Some of the women later told investigators it looked like the Edwardsville woman was “sucked out” into the darkness. Multiple vehicles struck Frecks, who died at the scene.

Investigators found that the bus — a converted wheelchair-accessible van — was operating illegally.

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It had no U.S. Department of Transportation number, which is required by law and would have triggered safety inspections; the “door ajar” warning system was not working; and the company did not carry the $5 million in liability insurance required for passenger vehicles of its size. The bus also had faulty brakes, a leaky exhaust system and defective emergency exit windows.

Federal regulators issued an “imminent hazard” order that prohibited Midnight Express from operating until it addressed an “appalling” and “egregious” disregard for safety. The order said the company’s “operational structure and safety management controls are so utterly deficient as to substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately.”

Prosecutors declined to file charges, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue a criminal case. Frecks’ family filed two wrongful-death lawsuits against Midnight Express and its operators, one on behalf of Frecks’ daughter and the other on behalf of her estate.

“Companies that transport passengers for hire must follow regulations designed to protect public safety,” attorneys for the family said in a statement when filing the lawsuits. “... Hopefully, this case will highlight the importance of those regulations and ensure that other companies comply with safety requirements so that future tragedies are prevented.”

One of the corporate defendants settled for an undisclosed amount. The case against the other defendants resulted in judgments of $6.78 million, part of which came from Midnight Express’ insurance coverage. Frecks’ family then sued the insurance company and broker for not getting the bus company the amount of insurance required by federal law. That case was resolved, the terms confidential.

David Morantz, one of the lawyers representing the Frecks family, was stunned to learn that dozens of illegal party buses remain on the road today.

“This is very frightening,” he said. “A lot of these buses are bought second- or third-hand, and they come with long vehicle histories and a lot of mechanical issues. And those are some of the potential safety hazards that an inspection is supposed to spot and prevent them from being on the road.”

In the case of the bus Frecks rode, Morantz said, “Had an inspection been done, I’m almost certain the inspection would have said, ‘This bus is not roadworthy and it cannot carry passengers.’ Something very simple that would have prevented this tragedy.”

Frecks’ daughter, Emma, now is 4 years old, with long blond hair and blue eyes. Friends and family members say she’s looking more and more like the mother she’ll never know.

Emma’s dad, who was Frecks’ fiance, is raising her. His Facebook page brims with pictures and videos of their daughter, whom he calls “this beautiful angel,” “Daddy’s girl” and “Daddy’s world.”

There are scenes of Emma and Daddy at a Royals game. Emma dressed as a pink bunny for Halloween. Emma making goofy faces, riding on Daddy’s shoulders, finger-painting on the bathtub wall, hanging out at Disney on Ice.

But through the joyful times, the pain lingers.

“We all love and miss u everyday,” Frecks’ fiance wrote on the first anniversary of her death. “It’s been a year now that u have been gone but u have never left us and never will cuz I know u r here guiding our steps and u always have been and always will b 4ever in our heart and soul.”

Their daughter, he says, is the reason he keeps going.

“She has truly saved my life and even more than that gave me a reason for living,” he wrote on Emma’s birthday last year. “I couldn’t even imagine one minute of my life without her in it. And I wouldn’t want to.”

Angie Hernandez, 11

Angie Hernandez perched herself atop a seat backrest as the party bus rolled through Portland, Ore., toward a friend’s 15th birthday party on Sept. 29, 2012.

As the bus turned a corner, her body leaned back. An emergency window gave way, sending Angie tumbling onto the street. Other children screamed as the bus’s rear wheels ran over the Milwaukie, Ore., girl.

The driver lacked a commercial license needed for operating the bus. Only two of the bus’s windows worked properly. The emergency latch on Angie’s window was unsecured, “leaving the entire window free to swing on the top hinge,” investigators said.

Authorities fined Five Star Limousine $59,030 for not having a permit, operating a bus with inadequate brakes and other safety violations. They also suspended its operating license. Though a criminal homicide investigation took place, no criminal charges were filed.

The case sparked neighboring Washington, where the company also had been operating, to study party bus dangers and develop state laws to get shady companies legal or put them out of business.

C.J. Saraceno
Christopher “C.J.” Saraceno, who died in 2013, shown in a Facebook post about a scholarship in his name.

Christopher Saraceno, 24

Christopher “C.J.” Saraceno of Los Angeles lost his balance, fell down the inside stairs of a party bus and into the doors, which opened. He died after rolling out the doors onto Highway 101 near Studio City, Calif.

Witnesses said the bus had jerked, causing Saraceno’s fall on Sept. 29, 2013.

Authorities previously had ordered the mechanically unsafe vehicle off the road. Yet its owner kept using it — 51 times after the shut-down order had been issued, investigators learned.

The California Highway Patrol recommended a murder charge against Ayrapet Kasabyan, the owner of Platinum Style Limousine Service. But prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, which are rare in fatal party bus incidents.

Natasha Noland FB
Natasha Noland posted this portrait on Facebook less than two months before she died in a fall from a California party bus.

Natasha Noland, 25

As a party bus carried a load of intoxicated people home from a concert, Natasha Noland of Santa Cruz, Calif., got into a fight with a 20-year-old woman. Both fell out the back door onto a California highway in Los Gatos on July 27, 2012.

Noland died at the scene. The other woman survived a head injury.

Investigators determined that fleet owner Jon Reno St. James knew the door was faulty but had failed to fix the problem. His mechanic had quit five months earlier. Two years earlier, the bus company had been fined for operating without a license, failing to give employees drug tests and other regulation violations.

In 2015, a jury convicted St. James of involuntary manslaughter but cleared him of a vehicular manslaughter charge in Noland’s death.

A judge sentenced him to four years in prison, adjusted that to a year in the county jail, then suspended the sentence. He released St. James with 253 days’ credit for time served awaiting trial, placed him on one year of probation and ordered him to do 250 hours of volunteer work.

Jordin Taylor FB
Jordin Taylor posted this as her Facebook profile picture the summer before a Texas party bus struck and killed her.

Jordin Taylor, 20

A Skyline Party Bus struck and dragged Jordin Taylor, a Texas State University student, about 500 feet during an Oct. 28, 2016, off-campus event arranged by fraternities and sororities. The driver parked the bus on a gravel road after a brake warning light came on and the bus stalled. Mechanics found Jordin Taylor’s body the next day, wedged under an axle.

Her father filed a $10 million lawsuit March 21 against four fraternities that organized the party, the bus company, its driver and others.

Police investigated the scene of an August 2016 fatal wreck involving a party bus and several cars on Interstate 10 near LaPlace, La. CHRIS GRANGER Associated Press file photo

Spencer Chauvin, 36, Jermaine Starr, 21, and Vontarous Kelly, 33

An unlicensed driver speeding as he steered a party bus on Interstate 10 crashed into emergency workers and others dealing with a previous wreck near LaPlace, La., on Aug. 28, 2016. The new crash killed three people, including a fire chief, and injured dozens.

The party bus, which was carrying migrant workers, was not listed as part of the company’s fleet in state records. The driver had been cited three weeks earlier for driving without a license.

Tracy Paniagua (2)
A relative posted this picture of Tracy Paniagua to Facebook five days after the Dorchester, Mass., woman fell out of a party bus to her death in North Attleboro, Mass.

Tracy Paniagua, 26

Tracy Paniagua of Dorchester, Mass., and a second passenger fell out of a party bus emergency exit window onto McClellan Highway in North Attleboro, Mass., on Aug. 21, 2016. The other person survived.

Witnesses said the window gave way as the women leaned against it. The party bus company had been operating with a “conditional” safety rating because of multiple problems and had been fined nearly $35,000 in 2014 for violations.

Maury Lorence (2)
Maury Lorence posted this to Facebook 10 months before his death.

Maury Lorence, 22

After visiting bars, partiers took a break at a truck stop near Lincoln, Neb., on Oct. 11, 2014. Maury Lorence, who lived in Doniphan, Neb., walked away before the rest of the group returned to the party bus. At least three vehicles hit him on Interstate 80. An autopsy showed that the Nebraska Wesleyan student had a .245 blood alcohol content, three times the legal limit for driving.

His death spurred Nebraska lawmakers to consider, but not adopt, a bill to require party buses and limousines to have liquor licenses before letting passengers drink.

Mason Zisette
Mason Zisette (left) in a Facebook post.

Mason Zisette, 16

The soon-to-be high school junior and varsity tennis player was dancing on the top level of a double-decker bus, facing the rear, during a rolling birthday party on the 405 Freeway when his head hit an overpass on July 10, 2014, near Inglewood, Calif. Friends lined up to say good-bye to the Manhattan Beach teen before he was taken off life support two days later.

Jurors found the bus company and the birthday girl’s parents primarily responsible and awarded $26 million to Mason Zisette’s family.

Adam ‘Maximo’ Blomquist, 38

Adam Blomquist, a San Francisco resident, was the lone passenger in an off-duty party bus that drove off Interstate 280, slid down an embankment and crashed into a tree on Aug. 11, 2013, near Portola Valley, Calif.

Authorities charged the driver with manslaughter, hit-and-run and DUI. The bus was in the process of being registered.

Joel Velure
Joel Velure (left) in a Facebook post.

Joel K. Velure, 23

Joel Velure opened a rear emergency exit during transit and fell out as the bus entered Ellsworth, Wis., on May 18, 2013. The River Falls, Wis., resident hit his head on the pavement and died at the scene. Though the bus had passed an earlier inspection, and its door ajar buzzer worked, state police cited the company for not having insurance. Wisconsin requires a $1 million policy.

Daniel Fernandez TWITTER
Daniel Fernandez used this photo for his Twitter account. He died in 2012 after sticking his head through the top hatch of a party bus, and his head hit a bridge.

Daniel Fernandez, 16

Daniel Fernandez, of Queens, N.Y., died after he stuck his head through a second-floor escape hatch as the bus carrying more than 60 passengers for a Sweet 16 party went under a bridge on the Garfield, N.J., side of the George Washington Bridge on Aug. 31, 2012. His head hit the bridge. He had a blood alcohol level of .209.

The driver had an outstanding warrant and a history of moving violations and suspensions. The bus lacked an oversized vehicle permit for New Jersey.

Raul Patino, 23

Raul Patino, who lived in Pelican Rapids, Minn., fell out the back door of a converted school bus on Oct. 30, 2011, in Erhard, Minn. He died from traumatic brain injury. Authorities believed alcohol to be a factor.

Owners of the bus said it was a private vehicle, not for paying customers, so state transportation officials did not investigate whether its use violated state or federal transportation regulations.

Sean Chapin, 26

Sean Chapin, of Davison, Mich., and a friend tumbled out of a party bus onto Interstate 75 when the emergency exit door opened as Chapin leaned on it Jan. 9, 2011, in Flint, Mich. The friend survived. The group of 23 had been celebrating a birthday.

An attorney for the families contended that the door had a flawed design, and it never should have opened that easily.

Sanuwell Landrum
Sanuwell Landrum in a relative’s Facebook post.

Kyle Davis, 27, and Sanuwell Landrum, 26

Kyle Davis fell out of the bus and into Interstate 75 traffic on Sept. 11, 2010, in Hazel Park, Mich. Sanuwell Landrum jumped off to help and was hit by a vehicle that fled from the scene. Both lived in West Bloomfield, Mich.

Brett Studebaker, 19

After drinking on a party bus, Brett Studebaker got into a vehicle to drive home on Feb. 6, 2010. The Burlingame, Calif., resident had a .26 blood alcohol level when he crashed into a sound wall on Highway 101 near San Mateo.

His death spurred a new California law that required chaperones on buses carrying underage riders.

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas

Donna McGuire: 816-234-4393, @dmcguirekcstar