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PSTA bus may have been tampered with

Published Nov. 22, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Every bus that leaves the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters is getting a visual inspection after a driver discovered loose and missing lug nuts last week, raising suspicions that someone had tampered with the wheel.

A Sheriff's Office investigation found no evidence of criminal activity, so it's unclear if the Nov. 13 incident was an act of sabotage or negligence, chief executive officer Brad Miller said. At least two employees, including a maintenance supervisor, have been placed on paid administrative leave while the PSTA investigates.

"We have a series of inspections and one or more should have identified this, whether it was deliberate or negligence," Miller said. "We're looking at everyone on the shift."

Shortly after leaving the depot on Scherer Drive about 7 a.m. on Nov. 13, the driver felt the bus begin to shake violently, according to a Sheriff's Office report. He pulled over and discovered that five lug nuts on the left rear wheel assembly were missing and the remaining five were loose. There were no passengers on the bus and no wheels fell off.

PSTA security superintendent Michael Gloss told a deputy "he would like the incident documented because he believes there are a lot of disgruntled employes who are working at this location."

There are no cameras trained on the fleet maintenance area, but the deputy interviewed a mechanic who worked on the bus that morning. The mechanic said he took the bus out for a test drive after working on the engine and the bus ran fine. He said he went back to tweak the job and did not touch the lug nuts.

The deputy interviewed a fleet maintenance supervisor who was overheard that morning saying the bus would probably break down on the driver. The supervisor said he made the joke because the bus had been parked for a month with engine problems. He said he didn't touch the lug nuts.

Later that day, Miller sent an email to the PSTA board of directors saying there was evidence someone had tampered with the bus and the Sheriff's Office had been given the names of about a dozen current and former PSTA employees.

Without any solid evidence, the Sheriff's Office closed the case.

That day, employees checked the lug nuts on the entire fleet of 200 buses, Miller said. Since then, employees have been checking lug nuts on the entire fleet each night. Supervisors are also stationed at the depot to inspect the wheels on all buses that leave the PSTA yard. That will continue "for the foreseeable future," Miller said.

In August, a driver who pulled over to investigate front end noise discovered that all 10 of the lug nuts on a front wheel assembly were loose. That incident was attributed to mechanic error and prompted Miller to order brightly colored, tear drop-shaped rings installed under the lug nuts to make loose ones easier to spot. Some of the buses, including the one involved in last week's incident, still do not have the rings because they are on back order, Miller said.

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"It's disturbing and I think we need to get some definitive answers," County Commissioner and PSTA board Chairman Ken Welch said about the potential tampering. "It's a troubling question and our staff is working to get to the bottom of it."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.