A King County Metro Transit bus driver was fired for repeatedly punching a passenger who had fallen asleep and spit in the driver’s face after he was awakened and forced off the bus by the driver.
The driver, Dennis Echols, 61, told police he “lost it” after being spat on. The incident was captured on surveillance cameras.
Echols struck passenger Ethan S. McKinney, 23, in the head with a eight-pound rubber wheel block, according to prosecutors. Echols followed McKinney, pushed him against a bench, punched him seven times, threw him to the ground and kicked him in the midsection, according to prosecutors.
Echols and McKinney have been charged with fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor.
Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond said Echols’ actions were inexcusable, and he 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 at transit centers. They are trained to contact supervisors if they encounter problems in such incidents, he said.
Rules for drivers state, “you must never engage in a physical encounter 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 they are spat on.
There was nothing in Echols’ record, Desmond said, “that would suggest he would engage in this kind of behavior.”
He was charged with assault in Seattle Municipal Court in 1987 and paid a fine, court records show. 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. He pleaded guilty in August to escape in the second degree from a detention facility.
Echols became a driver in 2001, he said. Echols has filed a grievance with his union, Desmond said. Paul Bachtel, head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, did not immediately 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 allege 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, told him, “I’m taking a break, get off the bus,” and threatened to strike him with a wedge-shaped block of rubber used as a wheel block.
McKinney responded with profanities, according to prosecutors.
Echols also kicked McKinney’s backpack off the bus and into a puddle outside, according to the charging papers.
The video shows McKinney standing up and spitting in Echols’ face, according to court documents.
“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, the charging documents say, Echols’ “nearly instantaneous reaction” was to raise the rubber wedge over his head and swing toward McKinney’s head, prosecutors said in the charging documents.
Echols called 911 and McKinney was arrested by Renton police, the charging documents say. McKinney allegedly told police he was hung over from the night before and doesn’t remember anything until he was punched.
He claimed that “snapped him out of it,” charging documents say.
Police reviewing the bus surveillance videos, however, noted Echols’ actions as well as McKinney’s 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 researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.