Prosecutors were taking a closer look yesterday at possible criminal charges against the operator of the light rail train that crashed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in February, saying they were not aware until last Friday that the man had tested positive for cocaine after the crash.
Anne Arundel Deputy State's Attorney William Roessler initially thought it would be tough to make a case stick against Sam Epps, the 53-year-old train operator, and he shared that opinion with Mass Transit Administration police during a phone conference last week.
"They asked 'What about the cocaine?'" Roessler recalled. "I said, 'What cocaine?' The only reports that I had indicated that prescription pills had been taken."
The positive test for cocaine was widely reported in the media after the accident four months ago, but Roessler said it was not part of the investigative file supplied by MTA. Prosecutors failed to subpoena the record, as required for drug test results under federal law, and MTA police never mentioned it during their discussions, he said.
"It was a miscommunication," said Frank Fulton, of the MTA. "We thought they were aware of it."
Said Roessler: "Someone in the office may have heard about it, but we tend to rely on police reports and tend to discount news reports," he said, adding that he had the information in hand two hours after learning about it.
"I'm now reevaluating based on what's in the report," he said.
Epps tested positive for cocaine during a 1994 random drug check. He completed an employee rehabilitation program before returning to his job.
After the BWI crash Feb. 13, he acknowledged taking oxycodone, a strong painkiller, and MTA officials fired him for not informing them about it. A day later, they learned that he had tested positive for cocaine.
Meanwhile, preliminary reports released by the National Transportation Safety Board are bolstering the theory that human error rather than mechanical problems caused the crash.
Epps, a 25-year transit veteran, was at the controls about 2:30 p.m. when the train failed to make its stop near the international wing of the airport. It broke through a barrier and slammed into a large yellow bumper. Epps and 22 passengers were injured, most suffering minor injuries, including fractures and cuts.
In a March 14 interview with federal investigators, Epps acknowledged using cocaine the day before the accident to relieve pain from oral surgery.
He said that late that Friday evening or very early Saturday morning he rolled two wet cotton balls in cocaine powder and placed one in each corner of his mouth. He said he knew the cocaine would numb his gums. He said he could not remember how much he had used, and denied smoking the drug, injecting it, or ingesting it through his nose.
He told investigators that his doctor had warned him that the prescription painkiller he was taking at the time would cause drowsiness, according to the reports.
After the crash, passengers on the train reported that he appeared to have been dozing off.