Riding with danger: Taxicab drivers talk about being victims of robberies, shootings

On a late September night, a taxicab idled at a stop sign under a darkened overpass of Interstate 185 when a pedestrian approached the driver and asked him to estimate the fare to the Wilson Apartments. This prospective passenger, however, had no intention of hitching a ride across Columbus.

Before the cabbie could respond, another man lurking behind a concrete pillar produced a pistol, leaned through the passenger window and pressed it against the driver's head. "Go to your pocket," the armed robber demanded, according to a police report. "Give it up."

The men made off with some $50 and took off running east on Cusseta Road, while the startled driver flagged down a police officer. While the robbery was not atypical, it came just six days after the killing of Byron Brown, a Yellow Cab driver who was shot in the head and allegedly robbed by his final passenger during an early morning fare.

Less than a week before that shooting, a pregnant cab driver in Columbus was robbed of $60 after a passenger asked her to make change.

"It's a pretty tricky job," said Kawaski Rutledge, the 25-year-old victim of the robbery under the overpass. "You got so many people getting in your damn cab every day, and you never know what's on somebody's mind."

Brown's death sent tremors through the tight-knit taxi cab community, discouraging some drivers from working late hours and prompting at least one cab company to install safety partitions to shield drivers from backseat assailants. Brown, 58, became at least the third local cab driver since 2006 to be murdered on the job, a span of slayings that highlights the risks of a deadly profession.

"It makes me feel like I'm not sure what's going to happen next," said Jessica Craddick, 22, who said she drives for City Cab because she hasn't been able to find a better job. "I'm not sure who I'm going to get in my cab or what they might want from this ride. They might want to rob me, or even worse, because I'm a female."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reported that taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers, a rate Labor Secretary Hilda Solis recently referred to as a "chilling statistic." Cab drivers are particularly vulnerable, authorities say, because they frequent high-crime areas, work late hours, carry cash and often find themselves in isolation.

"They're easy targets, they really are," Phenix City police Chief Ray Smith said. "Opportunity is probably 90 percent of the crime decision."

Several taxi drivers -- even some who have been driving for years and have never been attacked -- said in interviews that they recognize the perils of their job. Some said they enjoy the work because they take home cash every day, and because of the regular interaction with new faces and personalities.

"It's a fun job because you get to meet different people," said Johnny Turner, 63, a former City Cab driver who in January 2010 survived being shot twice in the head by a passenger. "But cab driving is a dangerous profession. It's very high risk."

Slain cabbies

Cab driver killings aren't unique to Columbus, but the area has seen its share of victims. "In most cases, the motive is robbery," said Columbus police Lt. Lynn Joiner, who has investigated murders of two cab drivers in recent years. "They just get a ride and they've got no intention of paying."

Police believe robbery was behind the September killing of Brown, which happened as he sat in his cab at the intersection of Shelby Street and Munson Drive. Sandy Mitchell has acknowledged riding with Brown the morning of his death, but he denied killing him and has pleaded not guilty to murder and armed robbery charges.

Detectives recall a harrowing taxi driver killing that happened in September 2008, when Vincent Flores was stabbed in the neck and forced into his own trunk. Flores had picked up an Illinois couple and driven them to the Columbus Airport, but they were unable to pay the fare and attacked him.

The couple, Fred Bickler and Carrie Lemke, drove around until the cab ran out of gas near Fort Benning. Investigators determined Flores likely was still alive when the cab was set ablaze and left to burn on Meloy Drive. The body wasn't discovered until the cab was towed back to A-Cab Company in Phenix City -- when the company's president opened the trunk.

Bickler and Lemke pleaded guilty to murder and manslaughter, respectively, and are serving state prison sentences.

Three men kidnapped, robbed and then fatally shot Jack Horne, a veteran cab driver known as "Papa Bear," on Fort Benning in August 2006. After picking up a soldier, Horne was met by two other men -- including a driver for another cab company -- and was forced at gunpoint into his backseat.

The soldier, Samuel Perry, pleaded guilty to murder at court-martial and was sentenced to 60 years in prison, while Travis J. Livingston of Columbus admitted to robbery and got 15 years. Mastermichael Ramsey, a former soldier, was found guilty of murder and given a life sentence, though he maintained his innocence in recent court filings.

Yellow Cab driver Randy Earl Miller was robbed and fatally shot in Columbus in March 1997. Jamie T. Sanders, who shot Miller in his left temple as he sat in his cab near the Wilson Apartments and stole his jewelry and wallet, is serving a life sentence. And in February 1988, Walter C. Hoyle Jr. had been driving a cab for only two months when he lost his life over $35. Fort Benning soldier Donald R. Green confessed to stabbing Hoyle and was convicted of murder and armed robbery. Court records show he was paroled in July of this year.

The 1976 murder of cab driver Bramlett Taylor Culpepper, meanwhile, remains unsolved in Phenix City. Culpepper, a 52-year-old Yellow Cab driver who'd been robbed five times in his career, was fatally shot by a 16-gauge shotgun and found in a wooded area near South Girard School, his empty wallet lying nearby.

"My daddy had always been afraid something like this would happen because cab drivers just don't have any protection from this kind of thing," Larry E. Culpepper, the victim's son, told the Columbus Ledger at the time. Willie Moore of Columbus was charged in the slaying, but prosecutors quickly dismissed the case for lack of evidence.

A brush with death

Turner, the former City Cab driver, still has one of the bullets in his head, a reminder of the attempted robbery that nearly took his life almost three years ago. He had dropped off a regular rider when he was dispatched to a Columbus hotel to pick up a young woman who gave her name as Mary.

Turner said he suspected something amiss early on in the drive to Rose Hill.

"She started asking a lot of questions about, you know, 'Do you ever have change for $100?" Turner recalled in an interview in his Phenix City home. "I told her we never carry that much change."

After reaching their approximate destination, Turner stopped in the middle of the block because the woman couldn't specify a driveway. She called someone to bring her money for the fare. The next thing Turner knew he felt a sharp, unprecedented pain.

"I didn't realize I'd been shot," he said. "It seemed like I was going in circles."

Turner was shot twice in the back of the head, once behind each ear. One .25-caliber bullet exited his face near the edge of his nose, while the other became lodged in his skull. (Doctors later determined it was safer not to try to remove it, he said.)

Turner hollered "911" over his radio and floored the cab from Pierpont Avenue to Hamilton Road, running two red lights to reach nearby Doctors Hospital. "I looked like something out of Jason because I was so saturated with blood," he said, referring to the fictional character from "Friday the 13th."

Turner lost 90 percent of his hearing in one ear, suffered severe nerve damage and nearly lost an eye. He was hospitalized about a month before making an unexpectedly robust recovery, which he attributed to his "stubbornness." Turner said his case remains unresolved, in part because he wasn't able to identify his assailant in a photo lineup.

Safety measures

Some local cab companies have stressed driver safety in the wake of Brown's death. Communication is essential, as is a driver's awareness of surroundings, said Luis Rodriguez, owner of Special Ops Taxi in Columbus.

"Pretty much if it doesn't look safe and doesn't feel safe, nine times out of 10 it's not safe so you keep on driving," Rodriguez said.

Craddick, the 22-year-old cabbie, said she makes sure to talk with her passengers. She's been driving on and off two years and hasn't been the victim of a robbery or assault, she said. "Before they even get in the car I look around," she said. "I scan the area and make sure nothing is going on unusual.”

Former cab driver Willie Earl Means, of Cataula, said he preferred passengers to sit up front with him so he could watch their hands. If they had to sit in the back, he told them not to sit behind him. “You want to be able to see them in your rearview mirror,” he said.

Matthew Probst, owner of Liberty Taxi Service, says his company won’t accept calls from blocked numbers.

“We’ve had some drivers get into some really sticky situations, and almost every time it was from a person who knew this was a pre-mediated type situation,” Probst said. “If something happens it gives us a link, and really it gives the police officers a link to carry on with their investigation.”

Probst decided a few days after Brown’s death to install safety partitions in the cabs he owns, and he offered to cover half the cost for the shields to be installed in cabs owned by his drivers. He said he was surprised by the “mixed reaction” among drivers who own their own cabs.

“Some of them are for it, but most of them are actually concerned it’s going to be impersonal, that they’re going to lose out on tips,” said Probst, who serves as chairman of the local Taxicab Commission.

Rodriguez, however, said he thinks bullet-proof partitions could give drivers a false sense of security. Many robberies involve someone standing on the outside of the cab, he said.

“Now you’ve got my driver locked into a cage that he can’t get out of,” Rodriguez said. “It’s kind of a catch-22.”

Cab drivers may carry a concealed handgun, Probst said, but many don’t because so much of their business comes from Fort Benning, where the weapons aren’t allowed.

City ordinance forbids Columbus cab drivers from wearing “flip-flops or shower shoes,” and requires pants, skirts, dresses and shorts be no shorter than two inches above the knee. But the code doesn’t require cab companies take safety precautions like installing surveillance cameras.

“We can’t force them to do certain things in their vehicle,” said Sgt. Chris Anderson, who also serves on the Taxicab Commission, adding many cab drivers own their vehicles.

Longtime Columbus Councilor Red McDaniel said he can’t recall council ever considering a law involving safety requirements in cabs. That’s not unusual, and most cities have no such ordinances, said Gerry Manley, a taxi safety advocate and consultant in Toronto.

But Manley said he thinks “it’s a very dangerous precedent to let the individual cab driver or owner start getting involved in safety stuff without a mandated bylaw.” He advanced an initiative to install emergency lighting and surveillance cameras in Toronto taxis, a measure he says has significantly curtailed crime against cabbies.

Indeed, a recent study suggests security cameras deter murders of cab drivers at a city level. Preliminary results of the study, conducted by National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health researchers, found cities using security cameras in cabs had a taxi driver homicide rate five-fold less than cities using neither cameras nor partitions.

“Too many jurisdictions around the world view a taxi driver as a basic throw-away commodity and have done little to address their workplace safety,” Manley said. “Cities better start realizing that if they don’t protect their taxi drivers -- and they’re charging them a fee to drive in that city -- they very easily could be found civilly liable.”