DANVERS — A now-fired bus driver admitted yesterday to backhanding a 21-year-old passenger with Down syndrome because he was irritated by the young man’s attempt to start a conversation with him during one trip last year.
John Marrs, 53, of Ober Street, Beverly, was found guilty of a charge of assault and battery on a disabled person, one of three counts he’d originally faced following an investigation by state police last year.
“At some point you have to draw a line in the sand, and striking a disabled (individual) because of being aggravated or irritated is just unacceptable,” said Salem District Court Judge Michael Lauranzano.
Lauranzano imposed a year of probation, with conditions that include anger management classes and no work with disabled children or adults.
Prosecutors had been seeking a suspended jail term and similar conditions for Marrs, who was a driver for Danvers-based LBK Transportation, which provides rides for developmentally and intellectually disabled people.
The Sept. 19, 2012, incident came to the attention of investigators about a month later, through another passenger, whose grandmother took him to be interviewed by state police and the Essex district attorney’s office, according to a police report.
Prosecutor Alex Grimes said the victim, a young Danvers man who works for a recycling facility shredding paper, is friendly and has a mental age of about 5 or 6.
He often tries to get people’s attention and initiate conversation by saying “Hey” over and over, said the prosecutor.
The other passenger told investigators that the young man always sat at the front of the bus, near the driver.
But on that morning — and allegedly at least two others — Marrs reached over and struck the young man in the forehead with the back of his hand.
The young man responded the same way each time, saying “Scary, scary, scary,” and moving away from Marrs, according to the police report by Trooper Steven Buccheri.
Other students on the bus could hear the slap of Marrs’ hand hitting the young man.
Marrs was charged following an investigation. Prosecutors opted to pursue just one of the charges yesterday, the day the case was scheduled to go to trial.
Grimes, the prosecutor, suggested that a guilty finding and a suspended sentence would show the public that such incidents are taken seriously, and provide potential future employers with a way of judging whether Marrs is suitable for employment.
Grimes said the victim’s father, who was present in court, simply wanted Marrs to “acknowledge that what he did was wrong.”
Marrs’ attorney, Heidi Shore, tried to convince the judge to continue the case without a finding and then dismiss the charge, saying Marrs, who had taken the bus-driving job after being laid off as a union heavy equipment operator, wants to return to the union, and a conviction on his record could hinder that.
Shore also suggested that by admitting to what happened Marrs was sparing the disabled witnesses from the stress of testifying in a trial.
Marrs was fired from his job at LBK Transportation, though not because of the assault allegation — he had also made unauthorized stops for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, leaving the disabled young adults alone on the bus, which he’d leave running, and designating one of them to be in charge, according to the police report.
The report also says Marrs made inappropriate, sexually charged comments to passengers and remarked about female body parts.
In 2010, Marrs was arrested and charged with indecent exposure, a charge that was continued without a finding, a disposition that generally involves an admission to sufficient evidence and a period of pretrial probation supervision, and later dismissed.
He also had two disorderly conduct convictions on his record from the 1980s.
Efforts to speak with an owner or manager at LBK Transportation were unsuccessful yesterday.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.