Ohio ‘bus bandit’ pleads guilty to stealing coaches for tour biz

An Ohio man dubbed the ‘bus bandit” has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, theft and motorcoach fraud.

Derrick L. Jones pleaded guilty on Jan. 11 in the U.S. District Court in Northern District of Ohio to multiple charges of conspiracy, interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle, wire fraud and other violations related to commercial motor vehicle safety regulations, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General. 

The case against Jones is based on a federal and multi-state investigation by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Ohio State Highway Patrol, Michigan State Police, and local departments in Toledo, Ohio; Goodlettsville, Tennessee; Indianapolis; and the Michigan communities of Pontiac, Taylor and Erie Township.

Accusations span 16 years

In 2020, a federal grand jury returned an 11-count indictment charging Jones, then 56, and Kelly Marie Thomas, 50, both of Toledo, with conspiracy to transport stolen vehicles, possession of stolen vehicles, operating a chop shop, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They were accused of using stolen buses and fake tour companies to scam customers for 16 years, between 2003 and 2019, according to U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman.

The indictment alleged Jones stole buses from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois on numerous occasions between 2003 and 2019, then transported them to chop shops in Ohio and Michigan. Thomas and Jones would then paint them, swap license plates and strip VIN numbers. Many of the stolen or relabeled buses were found in the northwest Ohio or southeast Michigan area.

Bus & Motorcoach News has written about the arrests of the serial bus thief for more than two decades. He has been questioned, arrested, charged and convicted multiple times in connection with stolen buses. 

  • In 2008, Jones was convicted of taking a coach from American Heritage Trails in Fort Wayne, Indiana, He was given jail time and ordered to pay restitution to the company. He paid only part before filing for bankruptcy after American Heritage sued him, and he was released from the obligation.
  • In 2009, Jones was suspected of stealing a Miller Trailways (now Miller Transportation) coach from the MCI Service Center in Des Plaines, Illinois. GPS records showed the bus was dropped off at the MCI repair center at 10 p.m., and by 10:30 it was back on the road after being taken. The bus later was discovered and recovered, using its onboard GPS, at a truck stop near Toledo. Witnesses linked Jones to the theft. 
  • In 2010, Jones was arrested for stealing a 2001 MCI J4500 motorcoach from the same Illinois MCI Service Center. Because the circumstances were similar to Jones’ alleged past thefts, police in Toledo focused their investigation on him. A GPS tracking device was attached to his car and eventually, it led police to the stolen bus.
  • In 2015, Jones was pulled over for speeding in Michigan while driving a bus that had been stolen the previous May from Bestway Charter Transportation in Rosemont, Illinois. Jones reportedly had been using the stolen Van Hool T2145 to run an unregistered, unlicensed and uninsured charter service out of Toledo, and was stopped by police while driving passengers to a Michigan casino. Rehabbing the coach after it was recovered – with an additional 35,000 miles – cost Bestway $20,000 in a new paint job and repairs.

Jones was connected with the thefts of buses from Lakefront Lines in Ohio and Ground Transportation Specialists in Michigan. Stealing the bus in one state and operating it in another means law enforcement agencies and prosecutors never seem to connect the dots.

Previously admitted taking bus

In a 2012 phone interview with Bus & Motorcoach News, Jones denied stealing coaches from Lakefront Lines, American Heritage Trails, and Miller Trailways. However, he admitted to taking a coach from Ground Transportation in Taylor, Michigan, after the company paid him three times with checks that bounced. He added that when finally received his money, he told the company where to find the coach. 

In the same interview, he said he started Destiny Tours in 2012 “to see if I can make a living” operating a bus company. FMCSA ordered the Toledo business to cease operations after discovering Jones failed to complete the USDOT registration process and go through the normal new-entrant vetting procedures. The federal agency found that on at least five occasions between May 2012 and February 2013, Jones operated as a for-hire carrier in interstate commerce without the authority to do so.

“This is what he does. He sort of rolls the dice and operates without insurance or the proper registration and plates,” Toledo Police Det. Tim Kaminski told Bus & Motorcoach News at the time. “It really shortchanges the people who are trying to do things right.”

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