Credit: File photo

A former Montgomery County Public Schools bus driver charged in 2018 with sexually assaulting four students on his bus route on Thursday pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness. He will have a criminal responsibility trial in March.

Etienne Kabongo, 64, was charged in August 2018 with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl on July 31, in an incident caught on the bus’s surveillance camera. He was later charged with assaulting three other students, some of whom have special needs, also on the bus.

During Thursday’s hearing, Kabongo’s attorney, Jim Shalleck, told Montgomery County Circuit Judge David Lease that a doctor determined his client to be not criminally responsible due to mental illness. Kabongo pleaded guilty to two counts each of second-degree rape and sexual abuse of a minor as part of his plea.

Lease scheduled a trial for March 17 to determine whether Kabongo is criminally responsible. If he is found criminally responsible, he could face a sentence of as much as 40 years in prison, Shalleck said in an interview after the hearing. If Kabongo is found not criminally responsible, he would have further proceedings to determine if he should be committed to a mental institution.

Shalleck has explored the option of entering a not criminally responsible plea for his client since last year, when Shalleck requested a state psychiatric evaluation in January 2019. That evaluation determined that Kabongo was competent to stand trial, prompting Shalleck to seek an outside evaluation for his client.

After Shalleck failed to find a doctor, Judge Robert Greenberg ruled in July that Kabongo was fit to stand trial. But the judge said at the time Shalleck could still submit an outside evaluation for future consideration.


Shalleck said on Thursday that the most recent evaluation that shows Kabongo is suffering from mental illness is due to be submitted the court by Feb. 1. The trial, he said, will weigh the state’s evaluation from last year against the outside evaluation.

“In effect, this next proceeding is like a battle of the experts,” he said.

Shalleck said he and his client must still decide whether they want to have a jury decide the case in March. That will be determined, he said, at a Feb. 27 status hearing.


Dan Schere can be reached at