The driver of the Colusa casino bus that overturned, killing 11 passengers in October, says he wants victims' families to know he's "very, very sorry." Quinton Watts, 53, of Stockton offered those words in a jailhouse interview Saturday, his first public statement since the crash.
Watts is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Colusa Superior Court on 11 counts of felony vehicular manslaughter and two traffic infractions.
Watts was a trainee at the wheel of a bus headed to Colusa Casino Resort on Oct. 5, a Sunday evening, when the bus swerved off a straight, narrow county road near Williams and plowed into a ditch.
Watts was thrown from the bus and injured. His boss and stepfather, bus company owner Daniel Cobb, 68, of Modesto and Sacramento, was killed along with nine other passengers. An 11th passenger died seven months later of complications from crash- related injuries.
The bus carried 41 passengers, many of them elderly Hmong and Mien immigrants on a gambling trip from the Sacramento area.
Colusa County District Attorney John Poyner said he believes Watts was exhausted and fell asleep at the wheel.
"Several survivors saw him nodding off," Poyner said.
No memory of crash
One survivor reported that bus company owner Cobb had tried to grab the wheel as the bus went out of control.
Speaking to The Sacramento Bee at the Colusa County jail Saturday, Watts said an attorney had told him not to discuss details of what happened that evening.
In a recent letter to The Sacramento Bee, Watts wrote, "All I recall about the accident is driving one minute, and the next thing I remember is sitting on the ground on the side (of the road)."
Watts, who was on his first driving assignment for Cobb's Bus Service, a small charter service to casinos, said he wants the victims and their families to know he regrets what happened.
"I'm very, very sorry," he said, shaking his head slowly. "I want to send my deepest sympathies." Watts also said he doesn't believe he should be charged with manslaughter for what he said is an accident.
"I can't help but ask God why is this all happening to me," he said. "I don't feel I deserve this.
"I have three baby girls (ages 7, 5 and 2) who want me home. They don't understand either."
Poyner said he charged Watts with felonies because he believed Watts acted with willful disregard for the safety of others by driving the bus while exhausted.
Poyner said the crash is a case of negligence, "enough for me to take it to a jury."
Watts was on parole for a 2007 conviction in San Joaquin County for possession of a firearm by a felon, state corrections officials said.
His previous record, from 1998, listed possession of marijuana for sale and possession of a destructive device.
Trying to build new life
Watts had a long-standing commercial driver's license with authorization to pilot tankers and trucks that carry hazardous materials.
He previously worked for nine years as a commercial truck driver, he said.
But he did not have state authorization to drive a passenger bus, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Watts said he had made a few "mistakes" in the past but said he was trying to do the right thing this time around by getting a job so he could support his family.
"I'm not out there selling drugs," he said. "I'm trying to do the right things out there."
At least one victim family member last week said he doesn't hold a grudge against Watts.
"I think people should forgive him," Thomas Vang said. "He made a mistake. He did not intentionally kill these passengers. He did not use knives or a gun."
Thomas Vang's father died in the crash and his mother was paralyzed from the neck down. Vang said his mother lived for seven months in bed after the crash with a breathing tube in her neck before her kidneys and heart failed, making her the 11th victim.
His mother did not speak much after the crash because of the tube in her throat, he said. But she told her son the driver was new and drove faster than other drivers. She said she, her husband and other passengers were napping.
"She said they woke up and people were screaming and crying, then everything was quiet," Vang said.
Vang said he accepts whatever punishment the court decides to give Watts.
"The government makes the laws," he said. "Whatever it is, do as the law says, but I have no (desire) to push them to do more."