A former school bus driver accused of leaving a 3-year-old on a locked bus has pleaded guilty to child endangerment.

A former school bus driver accused of leaving a 3-year-old on a locked bus has pleaded guilty to child endangerment.

Thomas Mitchell Soderholm, 53, of Mahtowa, was accused of endangering preschooler Ty Stiffarm on Jan. 14 after the boy was left alone on Soderholm’s locked Head Start bus for three hours with temperatures hovering around zero.

Soderholm made an Alford plea Wednesday in Carlton County Sixth District Court. By admitting guilt under the Alford plea, Soderholm acknowledged there is enough evidence for a jury to possibly find him guilty, but he doesn’t admit to committing the crime. The punishment is the same.

Judge Dale Wolf issued a stay of adjudication for one year, on the condition that Soderholm commit no same or similar crimes, and fined him $200 for court costs. If Soderholm commits no same or similar crimes in the next year, Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler said, the conviction won’t be entered on his permanent record.

Although Soderholm apparently did not leave the boy on the bus intentionally, Pertler said he pressed charges because “when you’re dealing with young children, there is a heightened responsibility to make sure things like that can’t happen.”

According to the criminal complaint, Fond du Lac Reservation law enforcement was informed by the Fond du Lac Transportation Department that the boy had been left on the bus after being picked up for school but not dropped off at the school.

The boy was picked up at his home about 6:55 a.m. that day. At about 11 a.m., a Fond du Lac Transportation employee was walking by the bus and noticed the boy waving and pounding on a window.

The criminal complaint makes it difficult to understand how Soderholm could have missed seeing the boy. The complaint says the boy was seated in the first row behind the driver on the opposite side of the bus, where he should have been seen when the driver got up from his seat and left the bus.

The reservation’s transportation department policy is to have a bus monitor ensure that the bus is empty and no children are left behind. Soderholm told investigators that the bus monitor told him the bus was empty.

The investigation revealed that the bus monitor has some cognitive disabilities that were known to the defendant. The bus monitor admitted to investigators that despite having a policy requiring him to check the bus, he might not have done so on the day the boy was left on the bus.

Soderholm lost his job with the reservation, Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver said after the incident.

Soderholm had no previous criminal record. According to court records, he had a traffic offense for expired registration in 2000. The child endangerment crime is a gross misdemeanor punishable by a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.