Bus driver pleads guiltyA former school bus driver pleaded guilty to child endangerment under the terms of an Alford Plea. If he commits no same or similar crimes in the next year, the conviction will not be entered on his permanent record.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
A former school bus driver pleaded guilty to child endangerment under the terms of an Alford Plea in Carlton County Sixth District Court Wednesday morning.
Thomas Mitchell Soderholm, 53, of Mahtowa was accused of endangering preschooler Ty Stiffarm on Jan. 14 after the 3-year-old was left alone on Soderholm’s locked Head Start bus for three hours with temperatures hovering around zero. Although the oversight was apparently not intentional, Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler said he pressed charges because “when you’re dealing with young children, there is a heightened responsibility to make sure things like that can’t happen.”
According to uslegal.com, “an Alford plea allows a defendant to plead guilty even while unable or unwilling to admit guilt.”
Pertler explained it this way.
"An Alford Plea allows a defendant to enter a plea of guilty without providing the factual foundation for the plea. Instead, the defendant allows the court to rely upon the police records and discovery to allow the court to determine that a jury or fact finder could find the defendant guilty of the alleged offense," Pertler said, explaining after the hearing.
Judge Dale Wolf issued a stay of adjudication for one year (on the condition that Soderholm commit no same or similar crimes) and fined him $200 for court costs. If Soderholm commits no same or similar crimes, after a period of one year, the conviction won't be entered on his permanent record.
According to the criminal complaint:
Fond du Lac Reservation law enforcement was informed by the Fond du Lac Transportation Department that the boy had been left on Head Start bus No. 31 after being picked up for school on Jan. 14, but not dropped off at the school. The boy was picked up at his home at about 6:55 a.m. that day. At about 11 a.m., a Fond du Lac Transportation employee was walking by the Head Start bus and noticed the boy waving and pounding on a bus window.
The criminal complaint makes it difficult to understand how Soderholm could have missed seeing the boy. The complaint states that the boy was seated in the first row behind the driver on the opposite side of the bus, where he should have been seen when the driver got up from his seat and exited the bus.
The reservation’s transportation department policy is to have a bus monitor ensure that the bus is empty and no children are left behind. Soderholm told investigators that the bus monitor told him the bus was empty.
The investigation revealed that the bus monitor has some cognitive disabilities that were known to the defendant. The bus monitor admitted to investigators that despite having a policy requiring him to check the bus he might not have done so on the date the boy was left on the bus.
Soderholm lost his job with the reservation, Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver told the Duluth News Tribune after the incident.
Soderholm had no previous criminal record. According to court records, he had a traffic offense for expired registration in 2000. The child endangerment crime is a gross misdemeanor punishable by a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.
Forum News Service reporter Mark Stodghill contributed to this story.
This is a corrected version of the story that appeared in the Duluth News Tribune July 11.