LAWTEY, Fla. – The driver of an 18-wheeler that struck a stopped Bradford County school bus on U.S. 301 in September 2014 was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years in prison.
Shannon Ford, 37, pleaded no contest to four counts of reckless driving with serious bodily injury, but at his sentencing hearing he blamed Mo's Trucking, which owned the truck, for the crash, saying the company did not properly maintain the truck.
The judge sentenced Ford to five years on each count, which will be served consecutively. He was given credit for 500 days served.
Troopers said Ford was driving a log-hauling big rig about 2:45 p.m. Sept. 29, 2014, when it struck a school bus that was slowing to drop off students at a stop on 301 at NW 183rd Street, just south of Lawtey. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the bus had its flashing yellow lights and stop arm extended when it was struck from behind.
An FHP trooper testified Wednesday that eight of the truck's 10 brakes were defective, making it dangerous to be on the road.
The school bus was carrying 15 students from Starke Elementary School at the time. Seven of the 15 students, along with the bus driver, 37-year-old Jennifer Lynn Swanson, of Starke, were injured and taken to various hospitals. Authorities said the most serious injury among the children was a leg injury.
Swanson and the parents of some of the injured children gave emotional testimony Wednesday about the violent collision and the toll it has taken on the children and their futures.
One boy, Jackson, suffered an open skull fracture. He wanted to play football and join the Marine Corps, but he won’t be able to do either, his mother said. Swanson described how she wrapped a T-shirt around his head to contain the bleeding.
Jackson's mom couldn’t hold back tears Wednesday as she watched surveillance video from the bus being played in court that showed her son's crushed body, lying motionless on the seat.
“We almost lost our children that day. It wasn’t just a bus accident,” she said.
The disturbing video was almost too much for Terrence Jamerson to take.
Jamerson, another truck driver, was the first on the scene that day. He admitted he punched Ford when Ford got out of his truck and said he didn’t do anything wrong.
“It just took so much out of me, seeing it outside, but seeing the video inside the bus, those kids got hurled around,” Jamerson said. “That just brought me to tears.”
Swanson said the images of her students being violently tossed around the back of the bus are burned into her memory.
“The emotional aspect of this wreck has almost been unbearable at times. I’m forever traumatized by the screams and the sights that I’ve seen that day,” Swanson said Wednesday in court. “I will forever be damaged, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel whole again.”
Swanson rushed to aid her students in the back of the bus, including Jackson and another student, Jessica.
“I watched the color leave Jessica’s face, and she’s telling me to tell her momma that she loves her,” Swanson said. “Every time I close my eyes at night, I hear those screams and see those scared little faces.”
The parents of a girl whose leg was crushed testified that she wanted to be a cheerleader at the University of Florida, but that’s not possible now. The girl showed the judge her scars.
Ford’s mother also testified, pleading with the families to forgive her son.
“We ask you all please to forgive him, because he did not get up and decide he was going to hit a school bus," she said.
Ford (pictured from a June 2014 arrest), and his passenger, his 34-year-old wife, Sherry Ford, were both seriously injured in the crash and taken to UF Health Shands in Gainesville.
IMAGES: Bradford County school bus crash
The FHP and Bradford County deputies said Sherry Ford was naked at the time of the crash. According to Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith, she was given a towel by troopers to cover up when she exited the cab in front of the children.
Sherry Ford testified Wednesday that she had taken off her clothes because it was hot inside the truck cab, and the impact of the crash tore her underwear off.
She also begged for leniency and broke down crying when the sentence was announced.
“Shannon has said so many times that he wished he was killed that day, so the kids could have no injuries,” Sherry Ford said. “He wanted his own life taken.”
Florida Division of Motor Vehicles records show Shannon Ford's license was suspended in 2011 when his insurance was canceled, then suspended again in 2013 for failure to pay a fine.
Ford has had five driving violations since 2007 -- two for driving with a suspended license, two for speeding and one for operating a motor vehicle in unsafe condition -- and one tag violation.
Ford also has numerous arrests in Putnam County, including grand theft, domestic battery, burglary, theft, trespassing and, most recently, for shoplifting.