PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — John Lebeau’s workday was just like any other until he picked up a passenger on Broad Street who would flip his entire shift upside down.
Lebeau, 16-year bus driver for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), tells 12 News he at first didn’t notice the man who had hopped on his bus wasn’t wearing a mask.
“When he got on the bus, the hood was covering his face so I couldn’t really see his mouth,” Lebeau explained. “When he reached the back of the bus, the hood came up and I could see he did not have a mask on.”
Even though Gov. Dan McKee lifted the statewide mask mandate earlier this year, the federal requirement for public transportation was recently extended through mid-April.
Lebeau said once he noticed the man, later identified by police as 36-year-old Carlos Flores, wasn’t wearing a face mask, he made sure to remind him of that policy.
“I asked the gentleman multiple times to put on a mask and he refused,” he said. “As we started getting closer to Collyer Park, he became more aggressive.”
That’s when Lebeau pulled over and made his way to the back of the bus where Flores was sitting. Lebeau told Flores he either needed to put a mask on or get off the bus. He also warned Flores that if he didn’t comply, he would have no choice but the call the police.
“The man stood up, walked over to me, lifted up his shirt with his hand and showed me a gun,” Lebeau said.
Once that happened, Lebeau said he didn’t want to give Flores a chance to reach for his weapon, so he pinned him against the window and held his hands down.
“At that point, I was in fear for my life,” Lebeau said. “I think I had 10 people on the bus. I didn’t want anything to happen to them as well.”
Police later determined the supposed firearm Flores had in his waistband was actually an unloaded BB gun. But Lebeau and his passengers didn’t know that at the time.
“I don’t know anything about guns. It looked very real to me,” Lebeau said. “He just kept going for the gun, he wouldn’t stop and I kept yelling at him ‘stop going for it!'”
Flores was arrested and charged with assault using a device similar in appearance to a firearm and possession of a prohibited firearm, which are both felonies.
Lebeau said in his time as a bus driver, he’s had his fair share of verbally abusive passengers, especially since the federal mask mandate went into effect.
But what happened with Flores was a first.
“Realistically, [it happens] almost on a daily basis. There’s always somebody,” Lebeau said. “Listen, I get it. We’re all sick of the masks and it’s hard for the passengers to understand … drivers don’t want to wear masks either, but we’ve got to do what we have to do.”
Lebeau doesn’t consider himself a hero, the union that represents the vast majority of RIPTA drivers does.
“John Labeau is a hero who acted bravely under extreme circumstances,” Amalgamated Transit Union spokesperson David Roscow said in a statement. “The situation could have been much worse.”
“I think the heroes are really the cops, and I mean that in the most genuine way because I was thrown into that position,” Lebeau explained. “They knew what was happening and they still came. So to me, those guys are the heroes.”
Lebeau, who tells 12 News he’s set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology and addiction recovery next month, isn’t sure whether he will return to driving after this incident.
But he doesn’t hold a grudge against Flores for what he did.
“We all make mistakes in life, and I really hope for his sake … that he just gets his life back on track,” he said.
Flores was released on bond and ordered to have no contact with Lebeau. He’s due back in court on Friday.
12 News reached out to RIPTA regarding the incident. RIPTA spokesperson Cristy Raposo Perry said in a statement that they’re reviewing the police reports that were filed following the incident.
“The safety and security of both our passengers and employees will always be of the utmost important to RIPTA,” Raposo Perry said.