David Middleton did almost everything one could ask of a bus driver.
He showed up bright and early Wednesday at the NJ Transit depot in Orange, drove away in a 45-seat bus, picking up passengers, collecting their fares and letting them off during his 110-mile excursion.
Problem: Middleton, 35, of Egg Harbor City is no bus driver. Police say he’s a thief who stole the bus and, once discovered, led police on a 3-1/2-mile chase, at speeds up to 60 mph, before surrendering.
He’s being held on $25,000 bail, charged with possession of stolen property, eluding police and other offenses.
“He was driving the bus good. He might have a future in it,” said Lt. Robert Jones, a Hammonton policeman who pursued him.
He got into the Orange yard at 5 a.m., unnoticed by inspectors, started up a bus’ keyless, button ignition and drove away, heading south, toward home, on the Garden State Parkway, said NJ Transit spokesman Steven Coleman.
He picked up two unknowing passengers and “had a real strategic knowledge of bus operations and NJ Transit operations and our fare collection system,” Coleman said.
A mechanic called police when he saw the urban transit-style bus on the parkway, instead of the “cruiser” coach that would ordinarily be used on a longer route, Coleman said.
Middleton almost stopped to pick up another passenger while being chased by police, Jones said. He slowed to 35 mph when the would-be rider waved, then resumed speed.
Why did he take the bus in the first place? “He said he needed a ride. No lie,” said Jones.
The $250,000 bus was not damaged.