Man accused of stealing school bus, ramming police cars ordered to stand trial

A 19-year-old man accused of stealing a wheelchair-accessible school bus and smashing into two police cars during a chase through west Saint John in February will stand trial, even though a psychiatric assessment deemed him not criminally responsible at the time of the alleged offences.

Matthew Duke appeared in Saint John provincial court on Thursday, following a 60-day psychiatric assessment.

The assessment found him fit to stand trial but not criminally responsible, the court heard. But because Duke did not admit to committing the crimes, Judge Andrew Palmer ordered him to stand trial.

Duke is facing seven charges, including theft of the special needs bus, worth more than $5,000, two counts of assaulting a police officer with a weapon (the 2007 Freightliner school bus), dangerous driving, failing to remain at the scene of an accident, mischief and resisting arrest.

Palmer asked Duke if he wanted to be tried by judge and jury, or judge alone, but Duke said he didn't understand the process.

Duty counsel Jeremy Erickson told the court he hasn't been able to have any meaningful conversation with Duke. Palmer elected judge and jury for him, as Duke's mother sobbed from the front row of the courtroom.

Normally, if a person declared not criminally responsible but fit for trial admits to the alleged offence, the case is referred to the Review Board for disposition. The board has several options, including ordering the accused person to be kept in a psychiatric institution or granting that person a conditional or absolute discharge.

After his court appearance Thursday, Duke remains remanded to Restigouche Hospital Centre in Campbellton pending a preliminary inquiry on April 25 at 1:30 p.m.

His mother and other family members declined to comment as they left the courtroom.

Duke was initially sent for a 30-day psychiatric assessment on Feb. 10 at the request of the Crown, based on some comments he had reportedly made to police after his arrest.

The psychiatrist requested more time to complete the assessment and the judge granted an additional 30 days.

Duke did not feel he needed any sort of assessment, his duty counsel had said.

An empty school bus was stolen from the Lorneville yard of the Anglophone South School District driver, who went home around 10:45 a.m. to pick up something before her next bus run.

The driver turned the bus off but left the keys inside and the bus was stolen.

Saint John police pursued the vehicle along Highway 1 onto Highway 7. 

During the chase, the bus rammed a parked police car, while the officer was outside, laying down a spike belt. The officer narrowly escaped being hit and the new car, worth an estimated $30,000, was demolished.

Another police vehicle was rammed from behind, causing an estimated $20,000 damage and sending that officer to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

The bus operator pulled over near the Grand Bay-Westfield exit and was arrested following a brief foot chase, police have said.