Party buses promise a good time, but some can be dangerous — even deadly

If you’ve spent any time enjoying Kansas City’s nightlife, you’ve probably seen them: the colorful, customized buses carrying revelers to restaurants, bars and sporting events.

A popular choice for bachelor and bachelorette parties, weddings, birthdays and other celebrations, party buses let riders enjoy a good time without the risks of drinking and driving.

But more than half — and perhaps as many as two-thirds — of the party bus companies operating in this area defy state and federal regulations designed to protect riders and the public, The Star found in a months-long investigation.

For unsuspecting customers, the consequences can be dangerous — even deadly.

In fatal incidents from California to Kansas to New Jersey, investigators have discovered poorly maintained vehicles, unqualified drivers and other problems with companies or buses involved.

Locally, shady companies lure customers with low-cost fares made possible because they cut corners in maintenance, insurance and driver qualifications.

“People choose price over safety every day,” said Shannon McComas, who replaced his Johnson County Limo fleet of converted school buses with a luxury limousine bus targeting higher-end clientele to avoid competing with illegal companies.

Just last month, Jimmy Larsen, a 27-year-old University of Missouri graduate, stumbled and fell to his death out the door of a party bus on an Illinois highway. The driver lacked the license required to haul passengers, and federal authorities are examining the vehicle to see why the door opened.

“If one more person says to me this was a freak accident, I’m going to really scream,” said Jimmy’s mother, Kimberly Larsen, a Chicago-area resident. “This was not a freak accident. This is happening all over. Your case in Kansas City, our case here, the California case, Canada, there’s been so many.”

In Kansas City, Kan., a new mother celebrating a friend’s upcoming wedding tumbled to her death from a party bus headed to Westport on Interstate 35 four years ago. An investigation revealed that the Midnight Express bus was unauthorized, uninspected and under-insured when 26-year-old Jamie Frecks died.

To document the extent of the problem, Star reporters researched regulations, interviewed experts and drove hundreds of miles over 10 weekends monitoring the local party bus scene. Every night, they witnessed problematic buses operating among the legal ones.

Some ran with bald tires, inoperative tail lights or riders leaning precariously from windows. Some crossed state lines without the insurance coverage that federal regulators require to protect passengers and the public if something goes wrong. Some lacked the Department of Transportation numbers that registered buses display. And some transported partiers even though the company had lost its credentials to operate — or never had them in the first place.

“It’s gotten to the point it’s almost sad and scary, the fact that there’s so many illegally operating companies around,” said Sean Walden, the longtime owner of KC Night Train in Northmoor. “It’s your friends and families in these vehicles.”

Enforcement falls to state and federal inspectors already stretched thin monitoring millions of commercial trucks, charter buses and school buses on the nation’s roads. The inspectors seldom work late hours on weekends, when party buses most often operate. And when they spot a loaded bus, they pull it over only if they notice something that poses imminent danger. Otherwise, regulations prohibit them from stranding partygoers.

They acknowledge they need more help. Kansas, for example, has only a handful of inspectors qualified to handle passenger carriers.

“I think, ultimately, it boils down to more manpower,” said Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Nick Wright, a transportation enforcement specialist who says higher visibility of inspection teams would help pressure problem companies into compliance — or out of business.

In the meantime, consumers smitten by their low rates keep hiring them.

Partying without permission

Knight Rider. Buzz Bus. Monster Bus. The Beast.

From Royals games to Lawrence, KC Party Ride blankets the area with its two-tone buses, the top halves black, the bottom halves blue, orange, green or yellow.

“We strive to be the best party bus Kansas City has to offer,” says the company’s website.

Problem is, the company hauled passengers for more than a year after the federal Department of Transportation yanked its permission to operate in June 2016.

Owner Andrew Winfrey even kept buses running after telling federal authorities early last month that he’d shuttered his Lee’s Summit business. By saying he had shut down, he avoided a federal review that could have led to $25,000 or more in fines for operating illegally, The Star learned.

It wasn’t until this month that Winfrey obtained the $5 million insurance policy required by federal rules to resume legal operations, records show.

“We’re working on getting it to be 100 percent legit,” he told The Star just days after reporters confronted him about running buses when he shouldn’t have been.

The Star had called Winfrey’s company — and nearly 40 others — to confirm that they operated party buses, see if they were carrying more passengers than their insurance allowed and determine whether unauthorized companies were crossing state lines. Aware that many companies mislead authorities, and that they endanger the public by doing so, reporters did not initially identify themselves as journalists.

Those calls, and follow-ups during which reporters identified themselves, helped The Star calculate that more than half of party bus companies serving the area are flouting state and federal rules.

The percentage could be higher, according to legitimate company owners who’ve tracked and photographed questionable buses for years. Many come out only at peak times, such as high school prom and homecoming seasons, they said.

“Some of them, they run from the law,” said Jon Bierig, who goes by Wolfman when he drives for Lawrence-based Partybus Solutions. “In other words, where the cops are, they’re not.”

The Star confirmed 43 companies carrying paying passengers on area streets. Of those:

▪ At least nine appear to be operating completely underground. They don’t show up in a federal database or state records.

▪ At least six hide their business from authorities by using online booking agents to solicit customers. Those websites often show generic buses, making it nearly impossible for customers to tell what company they are hiring.

▪ At least 12 unauthorized for interstate travel told reporters they would take passengers from Kansas to Missouri, or the other way around, and as far as Topeka, Lawrence, Atchison, Weston or even St. Louis.

When state and federal authorities discover renegade companies, they encourage them to start obeying the rules rather than be shut down. Inspectors explain key regulations, stress safety and explain the importance of qualified drivers — those trained to spot vehicle maintenance problems before passengers board and drive in a manner that keeps them safe.

“Our ultimate goal would be to get the company legal,” said Mark Biesemeyer, who works in the Missouri Department of Transportation’s motor carrier section.

But lax enforcement allows many illegal companies to remain on the road.

One Independence company has been flouting Missouri regulations for four years.

State officials suspended Party One Way in August 2013 and later revoked its operating permit for not filing proof of insurance. Yet the company has continued to operate a lime-green converted school bus and a smaller party bus — even breaking federal rules at times by crossing 40 miles or more into Kansas, The Star found.

The company still had no authority to operate the day a fight broke out on the bus in April as it sat at a QuikTrip on Truman Road. Shots were fired, wounding two people, one critically.

On June 10, a reporter following the bus near Crown Center noted that a burned-out tail light — first spotted three months earlier — had not been replaced. A glass bottle flew out a window and shattered on the pavement.

Paul Morales, who drives for the company owned by his brother, Daniel Morales, told The Star in early July that Daniel had moved the buses to Florida months ago. Asked why the buses had been seen since then in Kansas City, he changed the time frame and said they’d been gone a few weeks.

But last Saturday night, reporters trailed the company’s smaller bus as it carried passengers through the Power & Light District.

The company’s website says it is “on its way to earning a reputation as the finest party bus service in Kansas City. Our selective clientele expects only the best ... and that is what we deliver.”

Under the radar: Bus 58

One Saturday night in late May, a red-and-white former school bus sat in a Westport grocery store lot, a favorite hangout for drivers waiting on the passengers they’ve unloaded in the popular entertainment district.

No company name or DOT number appeared on the bus, as state and federal rules require of vehicles that carry at least eight paying passengers.

“Do you hire out?” a reporter asked the driver seated in the idling bus, which on its sides carried the words “Kansas City Chiefs” and “58,” the jersey number of Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas.

“All the time,” responded the driver, Bryan Weaver.

He said a Gardner company, Tristen Transportation, operated the bus and that he and nearly all the drivers were current or former law enforcement officers.

Yet it appeared they were breaking multiple passenger carrier rules.

To haul paying customers across a state line, a Kansas company must be registered with its home state, obtain a federal DOT number and follow federal safety, registration and insurance rules. But Tristen forfeited its Kansas corporation registration four years ago, state records show. And the company does not appear in a federal database of authorized passenger carriers or in a Kansas list of registered state carriers.

Tristen, which Weaver founded, brags on Facebook that it employs “honesty, integrity, safety & true commitment to offer the finest service possible.”

Yet Weaver does not have the required commercial driver’s license or the credentials to transport passengers, state records show. In 2015, he was cited for failing to carry liability insurance.

He said he operates Bus 58 with partners, including Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Deputy Chad Gilbert.

A man who answered the company phone in June cited rental costs as $189 an hour with a four-hour minimum. Bus 58 already was booked for all Chiefs games and many Royals games, he said.

“We don’t send anyone to drive who’s a shady character,” he added, after mentioning the drivers’ law enforcement backgrounds.

The Star called back about a week later to ask about the lack of a DOT number, the bus’ license plate registration as a recreational vehicle instead of a commercial one, and the bus’ bald front tire — a critical safety issue and one inspectors say could have catastrophic consequences.

The man who answered identified himself as Bryan. After reporters identified themselves, he aggressively began questioning them. Meanwhile, he ignored their questions about whether the company had a DOT number.

Before reporters could ask about the bald tire, license plate and other issues, he hung up.

Gilbert told The Star that he is the bus’s sole owner and that he never hires it out. He uses it only for family and friends for tailgating and other recreational activities, he said.

Weaver, a longtime friend, has borrowed the bus, Gilbert said. He said he didn’t know Weaver had been charging riders.

“I’m not in control of him,” Gilbert said. “But if this is what’s happening, then obviously, things have got to change.”

Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash said he was aware Gilbert owned the bus.

“Deputies are expected to obey all laws and administrative regulations in an ethical and professional manner,” Ash said in an email to The Star. “Gilbert’s commanders are looking into these allegations, and if they determine that he has violated any policies, we will be dealing with those appropriately.”

Insurance shortcuts

Running a party bus company legally and ethically doesn’t come cheap.

There’s buying and licensing the vehicles, performing regular maintenance, and paying for state registration, random drug and alcohol screening of drivers, annual checks of employees’ driving records, worker’s compensation and other items.

One of the most critical expenses — insurance — is the one that shady companies try hardest to avoid.

Larger above-board companies pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to insure their fleets, often at monthly rates of $600 to $700 per bus. For the smallest companies, the burden can be overwhelming. One owner said it takes two weekends each month of renting his only bus just to cover his overhead.

Federal regulations mandate that most passenger vehicles carrying 16 or more people across state lines have a minimum of $5 million in insurance coverage. Buses with nine to 15 riders need $1.5 million insurance.

Party bus companies reap big savings by operating only in Kansas, which requires a minimum $350,000 in coverage, or only in Missouri, which requires $550,000. Some companies that cross state lines tell officials they operate only in one state to avoid paying for the higher federal insurance.

The Star found that at least 21 companies operating in the area have too little insurance for their passenger capacity or interstate operations.

In addition, some falsify their insurance documents to make it appear they have coverage when they actually don’t, according to legitimate owners. Other companies cheat by insuring a bus as a recreational vehicle and paying maybe a tenth to a quarter of what they should.

“If they’re not doing it correctly, don’t have the license and insurance, I can only imagine how the maintenance is,” said Bryan Holdener, who operates Magic Event Transportation in Lawrence.

The Star called about 20 area companies to see how many would cross state lines even though they lacked proper insurance.

All but one offered to do so.

Repeat offender

In 2009, a Kool Nites party bus driver pulled into the path of a Ford pickup near Oak Grove. The crash sent a Kingsville, Mo., woman to a hospital, where bills quickly escalated into tens of thousands of dollars.

At the time, Kool Nites lacked insurance coverage, the victim said. It had stopped paying its premiums months earlier. And the driver, who sprinted from the scene, didn’t have the commercial driver’s license required for operating the bus.

In 2011, another company driver let passengers off into Kansas City traffic near 31st and Oak streets. An oncoming vehicle struck one of them, a Chilhowee, Mo., woman, sending her to a hospital intensive care unit with bleeding in her brain.

Again, Kool Nites lacked insurance, according to the victim’s lawyer. At the time, its owner, Gregg Shane, was entangled in bankruptcy proceedings.

“They were not even supposed to be in business,” said James Manning, a Harrisonville attorney who filed suit on behalf of the victim, Tabitha Phegley. “They basically lied about everything, even who the driver was.”

Today, the company’s pattern of putting others at risk while failing to be financially responsible continues.

Now renamed Kool Rides but still operating with buses marked Kool Nites, the company has lacked insurance coverage since Feb. 3, federal records show. U.S. and Missouri regulators have suspended the company’s authority to operate.

Yet its buses still troll area streets, toting passengers. Star reporters have observed the vehicles in recent months near the Country Club Plaza, in Westport, near the Power & Light District and in the parking lot at Royals games.

“How many times does he need to go into default, not even having insurance, before somebody shuts him down?” asked his 2009 accident victim, Ginger McCabe, who now lives in Blue Springs. “Here we are in 2017, and he’s still thumbing his nose at the law.”

Because records are closed, the public can’t learn whether state inspectors have fined the company for operating without insurance or permission. If authorities can prove he falsified or destroyed company documents — something a former employee said Shane did with insurance paperwork — state felony charges could be filed.

Known for building his own buses, Shane claims to be the metro area’s original party bus owner. He still answers the company phone, even though he says his daughter owns things nowadays. Their fleet includes buses designed to look like prison transport vehicles.

Shane’s financial problems, including three bankruptcies, date to the 1980s. Over the decades, the IRS, the state and the county have filed tax liens against him.

In 2011, a federal bankruptcy court ordered much of Shane’s fleet sold at auction to pay creditors, court records show. The buses were to remain parked to protect their resale value. Yet one took passengers to a University of Missouri homecoming game, according to court documents. Another carted riders through the Plaza.

Eventually, the bankruptcy trustee learned that “only a small number of vehicles” had insurance coverage, records show.

When reporters contacted Shane about current and past insurance issues, he said the company always has had proper coverage.

“We didn’t make it 20 years without it,” he said.

Asked about the injuries Phegley suffered after exiting one of his party buses, Shane blamed her for walking into traffic.

Pressed on whether he had insurance at that time, he said, “I honestly don’t remember.”

As to why federal records show he currently lacks insurance, Shane said Kool Rides had purchased a new policy a few weeks ago, “so they may not even have us listed yet.”

Insurance data, which is updated daily on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration site, still showed Kool Rides with no insurance as of Wednesday.

Nearly eight years after her husband’s truck crashed into a Kool Nites party bus, McCabe still remembers seeing the bus cut them off, the driver run away and Shane show up at the scene, which was about a mile from his house.

“He wanted us to get ahold of him before we got ahold of the insurance, which in hindsight is a huge red flag,” she said. But with medical bills mounting, McCabe’s husband decided to call Shane’s insurance company anyway. That’s when they learned his insurance had lapsed two months before the wreck, she said.

Asked about that case, Shane said he didn’t remember McCabe. She said she’ll never forget him.

“High school kids use him for prom,” she said. “It’s scary to think about the number of kids that get in one of his vehicles.”

‘Grew up in the dark’

No one has any idea how many party buses cruise the nation’s streets and highways.

No federal registry exists. Neither Kansas nor Missouri has one, either. Properly registered party buses get lumped among all passenger carriers, including charter bus companies.

“This industry grew up in the dark,” said Walden of KC Night Train. “There wasn’t anybody watching because they didn’t know it existed.”

Indeed, many party bus companies have never gone through a federal review, even though guidelines recommend one at least every three years, The Star found.

Sometimes, however, federal officials have no enforcement role.

When a bus operates only within one state, or intrastate, that duty falls on state or local law enforcement and a state agency, such as the Missouri Department of Transportation or the Kansas Corporation Commission.

But sometimes, even state authorities are kept in the dark.

HC’s Transportation, which operates two buses called Luxor, claims to be intrastate, based in Missouri. Yet in five years of operation, owner David Hill never has applied for permission to operate in the Show-Me state, said a transportation official.

The Star talked to customers and found other evidence Hill also has been running in Kansas without seeking authority there — and without asking the feds for permission to carry customers across state lines. On Wednesday, he told The Star he was “legal” but wouldn’t answer other questions.

Hill’s case shows that it can take more than just a federal crackdown to solve the illegal party bus problem.

State legislatures need to pay attention too, experts say.

Lawmakers in Topeka and Jefferson City had an incentive to draft tougher legislation after Frecks tumbled from the Midnight Express party bus on I-35 in 2013.

But they remained silent on the dangers her death exposed.

Just seven months earlier, an 11-year-old girl fell to her death from an unlicensed party bus operated by an unqualified driver in Portland, Ore. Officials in neighboring Washington immediately grew so concerned they launched a study that spurred tougher state laws.

“We decided, before we have a problem here in Washington, let’s get a handle on this,” said Dave Pratt, the state’s assistant director for transportation safety.

Lawmakers required special permits for groups wanting to consume alcohol on the buses. They mandated a chaperone for those groups. They adopted the federal insurance requirements. They outlawed double-decker buses because of the dangers of riders’ heads hitting overpasses, which has happened repeatedly across the country, including in 2006 aboard a Kansas State University fan bus in Lawrence.

And they approved a way to shut down companies refusing to get legal.

Previously, to fine such a company, state regulators had to find customers willing to testify they had paid for services. Under the state’s new law, regulators only must prove the company advertised its services.

State workers routinely search Craigslist and other websites for such companies. Penalties range from $10,000 to $25,000, “depending on the egregiousness of it (and) the attitude of the carrier,” Pratt said.

After the state uncovered 20 illegal companies, 16 got legal. Four remained defiant.

“One carrier said, ‘You can penalize me all you want, I am not registering,’ ” Pratt said.

So the state slapped the company with a $25,000 fine.

‘Some of the worst’

Hundreds of University of Kansas fraternity and sorority members milled about on a Thursday night in February as they waited for eight party buses to take them from Lawrence to Independence for an ice hockey game — the only remaining border war contest against Mizzou.

Only half the buses showed, all late. Students crammed aboard. One overloaded bus, called Pumper 69, lumbered up a 14th Street hill before conking out, its radiator spewing antifreeze down the street as steam hissed from under the hood. A second bus soon broke down alongside.

The two others reached the Independence arena — and almost immediately got shut down by police appalled at their decrepit conditions.

The students learned what many others already knew: Avoid hiring or buying services from companies run by Nikolas Saylor, 25, or his brother, Austen Saylor, 24.

Creditors, former customers and competitors have accused them of a range of misdeeds, from repeatedly overcharging people to operating unsafe vehicles, sometimes with unqualified drivers and inadequate or no insurance.

After the Saylors failed to properly insure their limousines and shuttles earlier this year, Kansas City International Airport officials revoked their permit to do business there until the Saylors fixed the problem.

The local Better Business Bureau office has received 25 complaints in the last year against companies run by the Saylors, said Aaron Reese, a BBB spokesman.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere,” said Reese, adding that he managed to contact the brothers twice about the complaints. “They did not cooperate with us at all.”

One consumer reported being charged at least a dozen times, Reese said. Another customer, Jordan Pruitt, was stranded with 40 friends when one of the Saylors’ buses didn’t show for his December birthday event. He got charged anyway and had to fight for weeks for a full refund.

The Saylors’ businesses have included KC Party Buses, Kansas City Transportation Services Inc., Superior Transportation, Corporate Coach, Quicksilver Shuttle and Cartier Coach. Two others, AHB Holdings and Superior Shuttle, are run by their mother, Dina Saylor. Some of the company names are similar to those of reputable companies.

The Johnson County district attorney’s office opened an investigation in December into some of the Saylors’ businesses. The Kansas attorney general’s office also is investigating.

The Saylors’ rickety and under-insured party buses didn’t belong on the road the night KU students hired them for the hockey game, police said.

When Pumper 69 broke down in Lawrence, a defective parking brake forced the driver to keep her foot on the brake pedal to prevent the bus from rolling down the hill. Lawrence police deemed it too unsafe to drive, still plagued by safety problems federal inspectors had ordered the company to fix eight days earlier. And the driver lacked the proper license to be hauling passengers.

Sixty miles to the east, a Kansas City police inspection team had just finished inspecting and giving passing marks to two other buses outside the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence when the officers spied the Saylors’ two buses — The Spotted Dog and The Lucky Shoe — in the lot’s far corner.

As officers approached, Lucky Shoe driver Dina Saylor hit the gas, police said. Police triggered their lights and pulled her over. Officers had to chock the wheels to keep the bus from rolling. Its parking brake didn’t work, and Saylor couldn’t shift the bus into park.

Police wrote up nearly 30 violations. Among them: faulty exhaust systems, multiple oil leaks, inoperable lights, and lack of company name and DOT number on the vehicles.

Neither driver had a valid license for that type of vehicle or for hauling passengers.

Kansas City Police Sgt. Kevin Murray called the buses “some of the worst vehicles we’ve seen.”

Police told the drivers that neither bus could go back on the road until the violations were corrected. The drivers called Uber and took off, Murray said.

That left nearly 100 KU students stranded in the arena. Police summoned KC Night Train’s Walden for help. He and another driver took the students home at no cost.

A week later, Kansas Highway Patrol troopers and federal motor carrier officials descended on the Saylors’ headquarters in Kansas City, Kan. They seized five vehicles and company documents as part of a joint state and federal investigation.

Nik Saylor later denied the buses were unsafe or that customers had been overcharged. He told The Star he’d gotten out of the party bus business in late February, only six months after buying KC Party Buses.

“We received fines for our mistakes, and we have paid those fines with the federal Department of Transportation,” he said, putting the total at more than $23,000. He said he was unaware of a $1,000 fine levied in May by Kansas transportation officials but promised to pay it once notified.

Why had his mother driven KU students without a proper license?

“I don’t have a great answer for you,” he said.

Asked about the KU case, Dina Saylor declined comment. She said the buses had been sold. “Talk to the owner,” she said.

Actually, the buses had been repossessed, The Star determined.

Customers hiring on the cheap, which the students did, face the highest risk of getting a shady company, police say.

“They have no clue,” Murray said, “about the danger they are in.”

Donna McGuire: 816-234-4393, @dmcguirekcstar

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

Checking out party buses

Educating the public may be the best way to put disreputable party bus companies out of business, authorities say.

Potential customers should look up safety and insurance records in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database, a free online source. The FMCSA also offers a free Safer Bus app that includes some of the same information.

In Kansas, check the Kansas Corporation Commission website to see if the company has been fined for violating regulations. In Missouri, those records are closed.

Be wary of websites run by brokers. These sites require renters to provide their name, email, phone number and event date before revealing rates or other booking information. The sites often contain generic party bus photos, not ones from actual companies, making it difficult to know the company being booked.

Renters also should ask companies for insurance information and driver credentials. They can ask to tour a bus before booking. And they can check online reviews.