May 11, 2023 By Michael Dorgan
A family-run bus business in Astoria that has been in operation since the 1980s may have to close down after its premises were repeatedly broken into and its vehicles were damaged by youth vandals. A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to try to save the business.
Astoria Express Transit, known for its fleet of yellow school buses, has been repeatedly targeted over the last two months by youths who have caused damage and loss of earnings to the business totaling more than $100,000, according to its owner Gail Gualotuna.
The alleged assailants got into the company’s 26th Avenue yard in broad daylight on April 2 and then started up a bus Gualotuna had just purchased a few weeks earlier. They then “wreaked havoc,” Gualotuna said, driving the bus into several parked buses and other vehicles – smashing windows, doors and mirrors. Some of the carnage was captured on CCTV footage.
The same vandals broke into the location again on April 23, Gualotuna said, although she managed to chase them off the site before they could do any damage. A different group broke into the yard on Sunday, May 7, and threw rocks and stones at a bus smashing a further five windows and a door, Gualotuna said. Police confirmed the three incidents took place.
Covering the cost of repairs to her buses has put the company in the red, Gualotuna said, and she is considering laying off some of her 10-person workforce next month if circumstances don’t improve fast.
Her father, Luis, set up a GoFundMe page this week to try and bring in some much-needed cash to keep the business afloat. The fundraiser has so far generated around $2,000, with a goal of raising $50,000.
Gualotuna said she is upset and worried about the future of the business her parents established in 1986 after immigrating from Ecuador. Gualotuna took the business over when the pandemic hit, she said.
“I’ve worked so hard these past two years after the pandemic to continue this business,” Gualotuna said. “But I don’t I don’t know if I can keep up with it. I don’t know.”
Gualotuna spoke with the Queens/Astoria Post on Tuesday, May 9, after law enforcement and small business owners in Astoria launched a new initiative aimed at deterring suspects from repeatedly targeting local businesses.
The new initiative, called the Astoria Merchants Business Improvement Program, sees police issue suspects with a trespass notice if they return to a premises after previously shoplifting there. The notice can also be issued to individuals who persistently harass or threaten staff and customers at the location, or if they continuously damage the premises.
However, Gualotuna said the program will not deter repeat offenders from harming her business, given the assailants who have been targeting her company are minors who were apprehended and then let out again.
“What can I do?” Gualotuna said. “They get arrested, get let go and come back,” Gualotuna said. “What do I do in that case? I feel like my hands are tied.”
Gualotuna said many youths who commit crimes in the city are not being punished, so they do not fear law enforcement.
“They’re not scared of the police. They’re not scared of being arrested,” Gualotuna said.
CCTV footage from the April 2 incident
She said the attacks on her business are tough to take.
“I’m recovering from the pandemic. I took out loans to be able to keep running like I am now, but it’s becoming impossible to keep up with the loss that I’m constantly having to repair my buses,” Gualotuna said.
She added that the company cannot generate revenue when the buses are out of service and getting repaired. Astoria Express Transit transports students to local schools and also provides services for private trips and camps.
She feels that the city is soft and crime, which is putting businesses and staff at risk.
“They pick and choose what they want to be serious about,” Gualotuna said. “I feel like there’s not too much justice in the system … especially for the small business owners, families that are hard working-class families. [Law enforcement] need to be stronger, reinforce more.”
Additional CCTV footage from the April 2 incident
A video of the damage from the April 2 incident.