Top executives with Prince William County’s bus service said they were blindsided when a driver deviated from her route and led police on a lengthy highway chase this summer.
But employees with both the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission and a contractor working for the bus service, First Transit, said they repeatedly tried to sound the alarm about that driver in the weeks leading to the incident, only to be ignored.
In all, six current and former staffers with PRTC and First Transit told InsideNoVa that they raised concerns about 24-year-old Mellat Zerihun Kassa’s fitness for the job long before she absconded with an Omniride commuter bus Aug. 22. She drove the empty bus from Washington about 80 miles northeast to the Tydings Memorial Bridge near the Delaware state line, where Maryland State Police arrested her. Kassa subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of petit larceny in connection with the incident.
These employees said the incident was far from some sort of unpredictable action by a rogue driver, but emblematic of a culture of sloppiness among PRTC and First Transit management.
PRTC Executive Director Robert Schneider is proposing a substantial restructuring plan for the system, and the employees said they felt compelled to step forward with these concerns before the plan can take effect, because they fear it would only further weaken oversight of the system.
Some requested anonymity to discuss the issue, over fears of retaliation; others were willing to go on the record to make it clear just how strongly they feel about the issues plaguing the bus service.
“Everybody knew something was going on with [Kassa] and nobody would take action,” said Ken Jones, PRTC’s manager of dispatch and a 13-year veteran of the bus service. “She could’ve hurt the general public if there were passengers on the bus...That could’ve been just a total disaster.”
Schneider, who took over leadership of PRTC last spring, says much of the story relayed by the employees benefits greatly from “hindsight,” and that no one at PRTC or First Transit had any indication that something was amiss with Kassa. Kassa didn’t respond to messages or calls seeking comment.
Schneider also suspects that trepidation about the proposed reorganization, which would involve eliminating several jobs at PRTC and moving those functions to First Transit, has caused rumors about the incident to swirl, leading to the spread of misinformation.
“I understand that fear and that concern exists,” Schneider said. “I would certainly hope that employees would not take something so egregious as false information or misinformation and do that to their peers because of fear.”
Schneider said he is “unequivocal” that no warning about Kassa’s job performance reached his desk before the Aug. 22 incident. But employees at PRTC and First Transit said they did all they could to notify their managers about Kassa’s behavior, documenting a variety of issues in an internal PRTC database.
The current and former employees said Kassa began acting erratically a few weeks before the August incident, probably starting sometime in June. She frequently complained to workers in the dispatch office, which manages the flow of buses each day, about mechanical problems with her vehicle when none existed.
Jones remembers one incident June 19, when Kassa pulled her bus over on westbound Interstate 66 in Arlington County. She called the Virginia State Police, not her supervisors at PRTC, to complain that her brakes weren’t working. A state police spokeswoman confirmed this account. Jones said state police notified PRTC about the incident, and the bus service sent assistance, but nothing was wrong with her bus.
Jones said he was so disturbed by this pattern of behavior that he brought it to the attention of his supervisor, Doris Lookabill, PRTC’s director of program administration.
“I said, ‘There’s something going on with this operator,’” Jones said. “I think we need to do something about it. I don’t think it’s safe for her to drive.”
Lookabill deferred questions to a PRTC spokeswoman. Communications specialist Tracy Dean wrote in an email that PRTC managers have “no authority” to manage drivers such as Kassa, because they are First Transit employees. Dean noted that PRTC has the right to remove any driver it chooses from service, but she did not address whether Lookabill knew about Jones’ concerns about Kassa.
In all, PRTC employees recorded 15 instances of Kassa’s buses having mechanical problems or other “service interruptions” in an internal database from June 7 to Aug. 16, according to records obtained by InsideNoVa through a Freedom of Information Act request. That was on top of 22 incidents related to her buses or driving that were recorded from the start of her employment with First Transit in April 2016 through June 2017.
Schneider said those results were not out of the ordinary. His subsequent investigation showed that other drivers had similarly lengthy histories of these kinds of problems — another PRTC document released through a records request shows that three drivers had the same number of entries in the database as Kassa, and 21 drivers had more. Schneider says the system employs 185 drivers in total.
Donald Hamilton, who worked as a PRTC dispatcher for seven years until resigning a few weeks ago, stressed that so many entries in the database over such a short period of time should have raised alarms. He said he also brought the issue to Lookabill sometime in August.
“We were trying to get them to do something about it,” Hamilton said.
A current supervisor, who asked for anonymity, said Kassa was pulled out of the rotation of available drivers a few days before the Aug. 22 incident, in a bid to offer her additional training or further evaluate her performance.
But this employee said First Transit managers insisted that Kassa return to work a few days later. First Transit General Manager Todd Johnson would only confirm via email that Kassa no longer works for the company, and he did not answer detailed questions about these issues.
Schneider said he has been unable to find any record of Kassa being removed from service at any point, although several employees (including Jones) confirmed this account of events.
Calls for help?
Employees said their concern about Kassa heightened on Aug. 17, when she posted a 6-minute video on her Facebook page, where it remains visible.
“My own soul cries out for help, cries out for mercy,” Kassa says into the camera, set to a dramatic orchestral soundtrack. “Something in me wants to fight, fight it all back. Maybe if I could just break some rules, you know, break some regulations… Violence is never the answer, never the answer. For a servant of the Lord, I should follow these rules, follow these regulations. But my soul constantly struggles with my spirit. My soul is screaming. It’s in pain.”
One employee thought it sounded as though Kassa was “calling out for help.” Erick Owusu, a route supervisor at First Transit, was similarly disturbed, and he remembers telling his managers about the incident at the time.
Schneider said he didn’t hear anything about the video in advance either, nor did he have indication that Kassa was having any mental health problems before the Aug. 22 incident.
Yet court records show that Prince William County authorities were concerned about Kassa’s well-being at the time.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Prince William County General District Court, county police arrested Kassa on June 5 after she drove onto the scene of an accident in Woodbridge. Kassa “attempted to ask questions” about the crash, “stating she was a reporter, despite showing no credentials,” the complaint reads.
The officers on the scene told her to leave a dozen times, and Kassa ultimately complied. But she returned to the area twice, blocking traffic each time, and police arrested her and charged her with misdemeanor obstruction of justice. She subsequently pleaded guilty and paid a small fine.
Then, on June 22, county police arrested her again, after Kassa made a series of calls to 911 to report things that weren’t happening, according to another complaint.
This time, a county magistrate recommended that she receive mental health treatment after Kassa “contradicted herself several times during her hearing,” according to a note in Kassa’s case file. Redactions in her records make it unclear whether she actually received treatment — a lawyer representing Kassa during the proceedings did not return a request for comment.
Kassa eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of trespassing in connection with that incident and paid another fine.
Schneider said he had “no prior knowledge of any legal issues with Ms. Kassa,” adding that “if we had any reason to be concerned with [her] fitness for duty, we would have exercised our contractual right to have her removed from service.”
Jones, PRTC’s dispatch manager, said even he was unaware of these incidents, but one former employee suggested that Kassa had spoken freely about her arrests in the days preceding the Aug. 22 incident.
Regardless of whether news of these charges made it to upper-level managers, several current and former employees said they believe their warnings should have sufficed to get Kassa off the road. Many of these employees also worry that First Transit’s constant shortage of drivers pushed managers to ignore concerns about Kassa, a charge Schneider vigorously denies.
Yet the staffers also fear that Schneider’s restructuring plan will only give First Transit more authority over its drivers and remove the PRTC workers who threw up these red flags about Kassa.
Right now, PRTC and First Transit each employ dispatchers to oversee the drivers — Schneider’s plan would shift all the dispatchers to First Transit, eliminating seven jobs at PRTC.
“He’s trying to basically not have any oversight over the contractor,” Jones said. “All the staff that normally overlook them, those are the ones he’s proposing to lay off.”
Schneider said he believes there would still be plenty of people who can oversee the work of First Transit under his plan. Even then, that restructuring is on hold, for now. After PRTC dispatchers wrote a letter to the commission’s governing board alleging racial discrimination is motivating the decision, the board voted to commission an independent investigation of the issue, expected to wrap up in February.
Schneider also called for an investigation of the Kassa issue on Jan. 4 by a former First Transit manager to verify that PRTC and the contractor managed the issue properly.
In a separate incident in December, another PRTC driver diverged from his route and made it to Southhampton County in southeastern Virginia before local authorities found him. Schneider wants that incident included in the independent investigation.
But the employees remain skeptical that those probes will produce any lasting change.
Jones is in line to receive a new supervisory position under the restructuring plan, and he is aware that offer might not stand now that he has spoken out about the issue. His main hope is that increased attention will force Schneider to reconsider his plans or at least give commuters a better idea of what is happening behind the scenes at PRTC.
“There’s a bigger purpose and issue here,” Jones said.