He was so drunk that August night in 2012 that his girlfriend begged him to let her out of the car. Instead, Roberto Ronquillo III drove on until his gray BMW veered up onto the sidewalk of Commonwealth Avenue and smashed into a parked car, a witness told police. Then, he drove off, but police found him a few blocks away, passed out in the driver’s seat with the engine still running.
Within days, Ronquillo went back to work — learning to drive trains for the MBTA commuter rail. The next month, he was certified as a professional train engineer.
Ronquillo, 35, has a long, notably poor driving record — printed out, it exceeds 80 pages — including multiple stops for drunken driving and 10 license suspensions. But that didn’t prevent him from working as a full-time engineer for almost four years on a commuter rail system that carries more than 100,000 people daily. His most serious violations apparently went undetected by rail operators, raising questions about whether the vetting process for engineers is rigorous enough.
Ronquillo finally took a leave of absence in 2016, but only after a tipster e-mailed the company about his driving history. He still works for the commuter rail in customer service.
Officials at Keolis, the company that runs the commuter rail system, say that the company that managed the system until 2014, MBCR, should have caught wind of Ronquillo’s problems when hiring and promoting him. They do not believe the incident raises questions about Keolis’s safety reviews for around 200 other commuter rail engineers and said they would have reviewed Ronquillo’s driving record later in 2016 had he not stepped down voluntarily.
“The employee was hired in 2009 by MBCR as an assistant conductor,” said Keolis spokesman Tory Mazzola in a statement. “He was later promoted by MBCR to engineer and received his federal certification for this role under MBCR.”
A person associated with MBCR acknowledged that MBCR certified in 2012 as well as 2013 that Ronquillo was fit to be an engineer, driving six-car trains full of hundreds of passengers. This person said there’s no evidence MBCR checked Ronquillo’s record before certifying him in 2013.
“It’s unacceptable. It should never have happened,” said this person, who was not allowed to speak publicly for the company. “We should have caught it.”
Ronquillo’s driving record also raises questions about whether he received unusually lenient treatment over the years. In case after case heard in Boston and nearby communities, Ronquillo — whose father is chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court — was handed little or no punishment for allegedly driving under the influence, even as his record grew longer and longer. Though he was stopped for drunken driving four times, he was convicted only once — in California.
Two of the three drunken driving cases in Massachusetts were sealed at the direction of the court, meaning the information would be available only to law enforcement officials, not employers.
If Ronquillo had been found guilty of repeated offenses, it would have been far more difficult to hide his record because he might have been sent to jail. Instead, he has been incarcerated for just one night for all his driving infractions.
Neither Ronquillo nor his father, who live together with other family members in Revere, agreed to be interviewed, but in a statement, the judge denied using his position to help his son.
“I love my son very much. I have always been and will continue to be supportive of him as a father, but I have kept and will keep my support of him as a father separate from my job as a judge,” said Judge Roberto Ronquillo Jr. “I will not comment further at this time out of respect for his privacy.”
Engineers must be certified
Railroad operators must certify their engineers when they are hired and at least every three years under federal law, checking each engineer’s safety conduct, including driving records, as well as testing the engineer’s vision, skills, and hearing.
By the time the younger Ronquillo reached the end of his training to be an engineer in September 2012, he had been stopped by police 15 times, including three times for drunken driving. Just a month before he was awarded his official graduation certificate by MBCR in March 2013, he was arrested in California for drunken driving.
Nonetheless, MBCR certified Ronquillo as an engineer in September 2012, in large measure, MBCR officials say, because federal rules allowed them to look at Ronquillo’s record only for the preceding three years, a period that did not include any drunken driving convictions or license suspensions. A review of Ronquillo’s record from 2009 to 2012 shows five speeding citations and a failure to stop and to wear a safety belt, and the 2012 drunken driving case was not on his driving record yet.
MBCR officials concede there is no indication in company records that they rechecked Ronquillo’s driving history in 2013, before certifying his safety again. However, the company ceased operations after it lost the commuter rail contract, and its records were either turned over to Keolis or are in storage.
One prominent railroad safety expert said he doubts that either MBCR or Keolis ever knew about Ronquillo’s drunken driving charges.
“I don’t think, if the railroad was aware [of his record], he would be operating a train. Certainly not after multiple incidents,” said Lawrence Mann, a lawyer who helped draft the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970. “They might give him a pass on one, but not more than one. You want the safest operators. Period.”
Ronquillo himself was obligated to report to the company any time he was charged with a criminal offense or lost his license. Officials at MBCR and Keolis said he never reported such an incident. Both companies said he never had any other problems at work.
For at least a decade, court records show that the younger Ronquillo has benefited from law enforcement officials who gave him a break — police who didn’t request a breath test, clerks who declined to issue complaints or who charged him more leniently than they could have, and judges who found him not guilty or continued his cases without a finding.
A shared name
There is no indication that he dropped his father’s name to get special treatment, but he probably didn’t have to, at least in the Boston area. He has the same first and last names as his father, who became a Boston Municipal Court judge in 2001. Many clerks and judges — especially in the Boston area — would have made the connection.
The younger Ronquillo appeared seven times in Boston Municipal Court while his father was a judge there — four times for speeding, twice for running a stop sign or red light, and once for drunken driving. The drunken driving case was eventually transferred to Chelsea.
In the Boston cases, he was never found responsible for anything more serious than failing to wear a seat belt or committing a “lane violation.”
None of his cases should have been heard in Boston, experts say, because of the potential for a conflict of interest. The Boston Municipal Court has no explicit rules on the issue, but district courts outside of Boston require that whenever a relative appears in an employee’s court, the case should be immediately transferred to another court.
Outside of Boston, Ronquillo wasn’t as lucky. He was found responsible for speeding in Concord, Avon, Saugus, Braintree, and Brockton.
But his most serious offenses involved drunken driving. At least twice when he was stopped, in 2003 and 2008, he admitted to police he was drunk, but was ultimately found not guilty or had the case continued without a finding, which eventually allows the charge to be dropped if the defendant shows good behavior.
A history of arrests
Ronquillo’s first operating under the influence arrest, in May 31, 2003, has been sealed, but some details can be gleaned from Registry of Motor Vehicle and police records. Out driving with friends, Ronquillo was stopped by police after he got into two accidents on Revere Beach Parkway. He failed field sobriety tests and registered 0.23 on the breathalyzer, almost three times the current limit.
When the state trooper asked why he was driving, he answered, according to the report: “I will be honest with you. I’m the drunkest out of all of us.”
But when the case got to Chelsea District Court, little happened. He was found responsible for a lane violation. The operating under the influence charge was continued without a finding, and he was ordered to attend an alcohol education program.
In June 2008, he was arrested for drunken driving again, this time in Medford. This case also is sealed but the State Police report, obtained under a public records request, shows that Ronquillo was driving the wrong way in Wellington Circle in Medford when he was stopped.
“Sorry I know,” he told trooper Michael Kerrigan, according to Kerrigan’s report. “Ronquillo’s speech was very slurred and there was a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath,” the report said. He failed field sobriety tests and refused a breathalyzer.
He was charged with operating under the influence, second offense, which carries a mandatory jail sentence if convicted. The outcome of his first arrest, which was continued without a finding, is considered a first offense under state OUI law.
However, when the case got to court, a jury found him not guilty of drunken driving, according to trial court officials, and, again, he was found responsible only for a lane violation — a civil infraction. His license was suspended.
The next year, in 2009, Ronquillo started working at MBCR as an assistant conductor. Two years later, he applied to become an engineer, a job with more responsibility, transporting an average of 250 people per trip at typical speeds of 60 miles per hour. But it also offers roughly twice the pay — at least $90,000 a year.
He began training to become an engineer in 2011 and was on his way to becoming fully certified for the job in September 2012 when he got stopped for drunken driving his third time.
That happened on Aug. 8, 2012, and the way the case was handled by police and court officials suggests special, or at least unusual treatment, several lawyers said.
Ronquillo and his girlfriend were returning from a concert where they had been drinking heavily, according to a Boston police report. She became so concerned with Ronquillo’s condition that she asked him to let her out of the car. Instead, he jumped the sidewalk and struck a parked car and a bicycle. His girlfriend got out of the car. When police, called to the scene by a bystander, finally caught up to Ronquillo at Charlesgate West, he was out cold behind the wheel of his BMW, his foot on the brake but the engine still running, according to the police report.
Instead of asking him to take field sobriety tests and a breathalyzer, the police called for an ambulance. Because he was sent to the hospital and not arrested, he didn’t lose his license immediately. The case then languished in Boston Municipal Court, where his father worked, until the chief justice of the trial courts, Robert Mulligan, sent the case to neighboring Chelsea nearly four months later.
As a result of the delays in resolving the case, the incident would not have shown up on Ronquillo’s driving record in 2012 when MBCR reviewed it and certified that he was safe to be an engineer. His license was finally revoked 17 months later in 2014, according to Registry of Motor Vehicle records. But neither MBCR nor Keolis, which took over the commuter rail that year, learned of the suspension — and the rest of his driving history — until almost two years later when the tipster contacted Keolis.
Eventually, Ronquillo admitted sufficient facts in the 2012 incident and was placed on probation and told to pay $600 in fees. Ronquillo got another break: He was charged with drunken driving first offense rather than as a repeat offender, which could have resulted in jail time or mandatory inpatient alcohol treatment.
“He wasn’t punished like the ordinary person charged with second offense OUI would have been punished, and it permitted him to continue to offend,” said a former prosecutor and defense lawyer who appears frequently in district court.
All the while, Ronquillo continued to drive commuter rail trains. He also continued to get into trouble on the road. In February 2013, while he was awaiting trial on the Chelsea case, he was arrested for drunken driving again — this time in California. He eventually pleaded no contest, which is considered a conviction.
In January 2014, because of the California conviction, the Registry of Motor Vehicles revoked Ronquillo’s license to drive, which put him in the unusual position of being licensed to drive a commuter rail train, but not an automobile.
There is no requirement that a train engineer be licensed to drive a car, but Ronquillo was required to report the license suspension, something he did not do, according to MBCR and Keolis.
Nor did Ronquillo inform his employer when, in April 2015, Medford police pulled him over in his Cadillac for driving after his license was suspended for drunken driving. This time, he was found in violation of probation and sent to jail overnight — the one and only time he has been locked up.
His father was so angry that his son was in jail that he called the Chelsea clerk, according to someone with direct knowledge.
In the end, Ronquillo pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, operating after suspension. His only punishment was a $500 fine.
Finally, someone contacted Keolis in the summer of 2016 to inform officials about Ronquillo’s alarming driving record. Before the rail line could take action, Ronquillo took an unpaid leave of absence that lasted nearly a year. When he returned to the commuter rail, he took a position in customer service.
Last May, Ronquillo convinced a state board to restore his license, claiming he was no longer drinking and wanted his license so he could be available when his girlfriend gave birth to their first child in August.
But the board required that any car he drove be outfitted with an ignition interlock device, which measures blood alcohol every time the car is started. Within weeks after he got the license, in August, he failed the test. Between August and December, he failed the breath test or missed required tests six times. The Registry of Motor Vehicles held a hearing in December but decided the violations were not serious enough for him to lose his license again.
Clarification: A previous version of this story misstated the first name of Roberto Ronquillo. The Globe regrets the error.