Metro

Driver in Billerica auction crash had suspended license

This still image from video provided by NBC Boston shows wreckage after a vehicle suddenly accelerated at an auto auction and struck several people before it crashed through a wall of the building, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in Billerica, Mass. (NBC Boston via AP)
NBC Boston via the Associated Press
This still image from video provided by NBC Boston shows wreckage after the Billerica crash.

The driver who struck and killed three people at a Billerica auto auction Wednesday had a suspended license, the Lynnway Auto Auction said Friday, a revelation that angered witnesses to the horrific crash.

“We were unaware of the change in status of the driver’s license until the police told us after the accident,” Jim Lamb, the company’s president, said in a statement. “When we hired him in 2010, he had a valid Massachusetts driver’s license.”

Representatives for the company said they did not know why the driver’s license had been suspended, and authorities declined to say.

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The development drew attention and concern to the Auto Auction’s system of checking its drivers’ backgrounds — an issue that has arisen at other companies that rely on drivers as part of their business.

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The company said it expected drivers to tell them if they could no longer drive legally in Massachusetts.Police informed the company about the driver’s suspended license, company officials said. Lamb said the company was “surprised and upset” to learn of the development.

“We hold our drivers to a high standard,” he said. “If a driver loses the ability to drive in Massachusetts for any reason, we would expect them to inform us and we would not allow them to drive on our property unless they hold a valid driver’s license.”

The Middlesex district attorney’s office has not identified the driver, a longtime auction employee in his 70s. During the company’s weekly auction, the Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerated into a crowd of people before crashing into a cinderblock wall.

Officials say the crash, which left nine people injured, appears to have been an accident. The driver, who was not hospitalized after the crash, has not been charged.

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Two people remained in critical condition at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center Friday.

Authorities have provided few details about the crash, and say the investigation will probably take some time.

Anthony Alba, a Saugus car dealer who witnessed the crash, saidhe felt uneasy about the company’s policies after learning about the driver’s suspended license.

“I feel like there should be some level of responsibility for my life. I put my life in their hands,” he said.

The crash has drawn attention to the safety procedures at local auto auctions. In 2015, a Framingham auto auction house had a similar incident, when an older employee suddenly drove into a crowd of people. In that case, eight people were injured, but no one died.

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The Framingham company, Adesa, later installed barriers to help prevent similar crashes in the future. On Thursday, the Lynnway Auto Auction announced it would follow suit by putting up “bollards” between lanes designated for cars and those for customers, and hire more safety workers.

Auto auctions regularly attract hundreds of people who pack into a showroom to view a slow-moving display of cars. Car dealers say the proximity carries some risk, and urge auction companies to take additional safety measures.

Alba and other drivers also point out that the companies often employ elderly individuals as drivers.

“They hire a lot of senior citizens who shouldn’t be behind the wheel,” he said. “You have to be sharp driving inside with those vehicles.”

The three people killed in the crash were identified as Brenda Lopez, 48, of Providence, R.I.; Pantaleon Santos, 49, of Cumberland, R.I.; and Leezandra Aponte, 36, of Lowell.

Aponte appeared to be the only employee who was killed in the crash, according to her brother, Orlando Aponte.

Aponte’s relatives recalled the Puerto Rican native as a woman who held her family in the highest regard.

The mother of three had just taken a job to save up for her daughter’s quinceañera, a 15th birthday party that is a rite of passage for many Latina teenagers, according to her brother. She had raised a son who was entering the military.

“You were beautiful, funny, smart, strong, happy and SO loving,” Kimberly Aponte, her sister-in-law, wrote on Facebook. “You spoiled my kids like they were your own.”

Aponte’s brother has started an online fund-raising campaign for her children. On the site, he wrote that he wanted to make sure her children did not have to worry about money as they mourned their mother.

“Family was her world, and she would do anything for the ones she loved, especially her three children,” he wrote. “She was their sole provider, their backbone, and their best friend. She was everything.”

Aponte was among the many employees hired for the weekly auctions. Some of them put stickers on cars, indicating which ones were sold, or directed the cars through the building. On Thursday, the company said it would take added precautions by adding barriers and hiring more police and fire personnel.

In Rhode Island, several cars were parked outside Santos’ two-story home in Cumberland. A woman who answered the door said the family would have no comment.

Relatives of Lopez also declined comment to the Globe. Her son, Richard Meza-Lopez, told WJAR, an NBC News affiliate in Providence, that the Guatemalan native had lived in Providence for more than 25 years, and raised four children.

Lopez and Santos worked together in the car business, which brought them to the Lynnway Auto Auction on Wednesday, he said to WJAR.

“She always had a positive outlook on things,” he said.

Lopez had been looking forward to seeing her youngest daughter graduate from high school, Richard Meza-Lopez said. He had changed his Facebook profile photo to a black sympathy ribbon in his mother’s honor. On his Instagram page, a tribute read “Brenda Lopez Forever - I love you mom - RIP.”

Felice Freyer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.