HOPKINTON — Spent from a long day competing at a Cape Cod cross-country meet, some students on the Hopkinton High School team dozed or listened to music on the return trip, noticing nothing amiss. Others considered the bus ride “unusually jerky” — speeding up, slowing down, hitting the rumble strip — and began to worry when the driver took the wrong exit, made a sudden U-turn, or straddled the highway lanes, they told police.
“Upon boarding the bus, I thought I smelled alcohol but wasn’t certain,” one student added, in a written statement. “At one point it almost seemed like he lost complete control of the bus and was going to fly right off the road,” another wrote.
After driver Robert E. Murphy allegedly ran red lights and could not explain why he exited for the wrong highway, an alarmed coach quietly called police Saturday night. Murphy failed field sobriety tests, refused a breathalyzer, and was arrested on charges of endangering children while operating under the influence, negligent operating, and operating under the influence/third offense.
On Monday, a Framingham District Court judge ordered Murphy, a 59-year-old father of three from Ashland, held without bail until a hearing Tuesday afternoon to determine whether he is a public danger.
Because Murphy’s previous offenses occurred in the 1980s — predating the 2006 tightening of state laws for commercial drivers and school bus drivers — he was properly licensed, according to the state.
Commercial drivers who operate under the influence — or who refuse an alcohol test, as Murphy did — now lose that license for one year after a first offense and for life after a second offense. Murphy has now lost his commercial license for life, said Registry of Motor Vehicles spokesman Michael Verseckes.
School Superintendent Cathy MacLeod on Monday announced that Hopkinton would immediately impose a zero-tolerance policy, stricter than the state’s. That means the town will not accept drivers who have any offenses, no matter how long ago they occurred, she said.
“Moving forward, it’s not going to be good enough in Hopkinton for drivers to have any kind of record,” MacLeod said at a news conference, alongside police officials. “Parents are very upset; we’re all upset. It’s very scary for everybody in the School Department, certainly for the students.”
MacLeod said an initial review showed that the town’s 25 other school bus drivers — contractors from Michael J. Connolly & Sons — have clean records. A woman who answered the phone at the bus company declined to comment.
Murphy initially obtained his commercial license in 1990 and held it continuously since March 1, 2006, according to the registry. He first obtained his annual school bus certificate that same year from the Department of Public Utilities, which requires drivers to hold a commercial license, pass criminal records and sex offender registry checks, and complete classroom and on-the-road training as well as a road test.
MacLeod said Murphy had been driving for Hopkinton schools since 2006.
Murphy appeared in court Monday morning, joined by a younger man who seemed to be his son. Murphy did not speak while lawyer Dan Campion entered a not guilty plea.
Seeking to hold Murphy until trial, Middlesex Assistant District Attorney Nate Burris read some of the statements from students and coaches on the bus and from a driver trailing the bus. He also noted Murphy’s alleged confession.
“You got me,” Murphy told the officer who administered the field tests, that officer wrote. At the station, Murphy allegedly told the officer who booked him, “This could be a good thing. I really think I need this. If one of my kids ever did this, I would kill them.”
Campion said he would “object strenuously” to holding Murphy and asked Judge David W. Cunis to ignore what he called “the circus” surrounding the facts.
“Obviously it’s a headline-making thing, a school bus, alcohol, but that’s no reason to hold him without bail,” he said, suggesting alternatives to incarceration before trial. “He’s 59 years old and has not had any trouble for 25 years.”
He said Murphy disputed the police reports and has some “significant physical problems” that could aid his case, but he did not specify.
Police found no evidence of alcohol or empty bottles on the bus, and Hopkinton Police Chief Edward Lee said they are trying to determine when and where Murphy may have consumed alcohol during the five-hour meet.