Being a cabbie is one of the most dangerous
jobs in America. The families of
two slain Dallas-area drivers
say it doesn't have to be."
By Rose Farley
Arlington taxi driver Eric Owusu always said he felt safe driving his cab, provided he steered clear of Dallas and Fort Worth, two cities the London-raised cabbie deemed hazardous. Unfortunately, he could do little to save himself when danger found him on a suburban street on St. Patrick's Day 1996.
Around noon that Sunday, Owusu pulled into an Arlington 7-Eleven to pick up a fare. Waiting for him were George Tucker, John Stocks, Bonifacio "Brooklyn" Gomez, and Donney Jones. Earlier that day, the four men had driven to south Arlington and scouted a remote stretch of George Finger Road that they thought would be an ideal spot for a robbery. The way Tucker tells it, the idea was to get fast cash from an easy target -- a cabdriver.
"It seemed to me that John had already had the plan to rob a cabdriver," Tucker later confessed, "and this ride down to the deserted part of town was just to find a place to do it."
At the 7-Eleven, Tucker piled into the back of the cab, directly behind Owusu, followed by Stocks. Gomez rode in the front seat. Jones waited inside a red Hyundai parked nearby, ready to follow the cab and pick up the crew after the robbery.
When they finally turned onto George Finger, the red Hyundai behind, Stocks handed Tucker a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol, and Tucker slipped the gun under his leg, out of sight. Luckily for Owusu, a pair of bicyclists appeared, prompting an order to keep driving. Owusu turned onto Silo Road, but his luck was gone.
"We wind up getting onto another street. Stocks...tells me to hurry up, that I was bullshitting," Tucker wrote in his confession. "I pulled out the gun and told the driver to give me his money. John pulled out a second gun and held it in my direction. I thought that he was telling me that if I did not shoot the driver, that he was going to shoot me."
Tucker pulled the trigger and sent a bullet crashing through the back of Owusu's skull, where it tore through his brain and severed an optic nerve before coming to rest behind his right eye.
By the time the first police officer arrived, the four men were gone, the taxi was nose-down in a ditch, and Owusu, soaked in blood, was clinging to life behind the steering wheel. Owusu held on just long enough to be loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a nearby hospital.
Shortly after midnight, Dora Jean Johnson, who was three months pregnant with Owusu's child, awoke inside her apartment to discover that her fiancé had not returned home from work. Instinct told her to turn on the television and watch a rerun of the day's news. The lead story was about an Arlington cabdriver who had been shot. The newscast didn't mention the driver's name, but it included footage of a taxicab jutting out of a ditch. Its identification number -- Owusu's number -- was clearly visible. The ghastly image told Johnson everything she needed to know.
"I never would have thought nothing like that would have happened to him," Johnson says. "I guess the good guys always get done like that."
On March 17, 1996, Eric Owusu became at least the 13th cabdriver to be murdered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since 1990. Since then, three more cabdrivers have been killed. The last was Valentine Nwabiani, who died in July outside Baylor Medical Center in East Dallas after someone slashed his throat.
Now, the families of Owusu and Nwabiani are suing cab company owner Floyd Richards and the various businesses he controls. They contend Richards knew the murders were likely to happen but failed to take appropriate steps -- namely equipping his cabs with bullet-resistant shields -- to prevent them. The families want Richards to pay, in part, for the drivers' funerals and the costs of raising the children they left behind. But they are also hoping to convince Richards and ultimately the entire taxi industry to adopt safety standards to reduce robbery-related homicides, which make driving a taxi one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.
The separate lawsuits, filed in Tarrant and Dallas counties, are a unique attempt to hold a cab company liable for the safety of its drivers -- something cab companies have successfully resisted in the past by arguing that cabdrivers, who typically lease cars from the companies, are independent contractors rather than employees. As such, they are not guaranteed protection under federal labor laws that regulate workplace safety in other industries.
Even the drivers themselves have been reluctant to adopt bullet-resistant shields. Although the shields have been around for decades, many drivers are not convinced that they are effective. Instead, they view them as a nuisance that diminishes communication with customers, resulting in fewer tips. Drivers who are willing to put up with the shields often won't because they, not the companies that own the cabs, are expected to buy them.
If anyone in Dallas knows the arguments against lawsuits like these, it's attorney Stephen Goetzmann, who is representing Owusu's and Nwabiani's survivors. In 1996, Goetzmann lost a nearly identical case, the first of its kind in Dallas, which he filed against Yellow Checker Cab Co. in 1994 on behalf of a driver who was wounded by gunfire during a robbery.
The loss hasn't deterred Goetzmann, who has become a crusader for bullet-resistant shields and, more broadly, the theory that cab companies have a legal and moral obligation to take steps to prevent their drivers from getting killed.
"There is an element of punishment in my mind," says Goetzmann, who believes cab company owners know shields are effective but don't believe the lives of their drivers are worth the cost of installing them. (The expense can be high. Bullet-resistant shields cost $200-$900, a heavy burden for companies with large fleets.)
"The cab companies make comments like, 'This happens every year. We can't do anything.' But I think it's greed on the part of the cab companies and the idea that they can use these people," Goetzmann says.
Todd Betanzos, an attorney who will defend Richards, declined to discuss the cases, but the company has in the past argued that drivers are independent contractors and the company is therefore not responsible for their safety.
In a deposition taken in the Owusu case, Richards comes off as a shrewd bean-counter who condoned the practice of redlining parts of southern Dallas and Fort Worth. When it came to his murdered drivers, Richards couldn't remember Owusu's name, though he did recall the damage done to his rented cab.
At the moment, labor laws appear to give Richards a legal advantage, but Goetzmann's argument may be bolstered by new evidence that shields are effective in reducing taxi-driver murders.
In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which enforces federal labor laws, is preparing to release recommendations that encourage cab companies to adopt new safety measures. Although it cannot require the companies to install the safety devices, OSHA may suggest that companies equip cabs with digital cameras as well as shields. The new digital technology already is proving useful in Houston, where earlier this year Coach USA became the first cab company in the country to begin installing the cameras in its cabs.
In doing so, Coach is setting new safety standards that advocates like Goetzmann say all cab companies should be required to equal. If not, they say, it's only a matter of time before another driver winds up dead behind the wheel.
If the families of Owusu and Nwabiani are to get any money out of Richards, they'll have to show that driving a taxi is a dangerous job and that Richards knows it but refuses to take any steps to prevent death and injury. Proving the perils of driving a cab should be easy.
"In looking at taxi drivers, that's a group significantly high at risk for homicides," OSHA's Patricia Biles says. "They are the highest at risk."
Biles is the workplace violence program coordinator at OSHA and is drafting the new "fact sheet" of recommendations targeting the taxi industry. Biles says she felt compelled to take on the project because of the astounding murder rate among drivers.
A 1996 report published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [NIOSH], a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that between 1990 and 1992, 140 taxi drivers or chauffeurs were murdered in the United States. That's a rate of 22.7 murders per 100,000 workers -- more than twice the rate of the second-highest occupation, sheriffs' deputies and bailiffs.
Taxi drivers fared worse than other professions because their job requires them to handle cash while they work alone, often at night and in dangerous neighborhoods.
"For the most part, workplace homicides are not the result of disgruntled workers who take out their frustrations on co-workers or supervisors," the report stated. "[R]ather, they are mostly robbery-related crimes."
The report's authors recommended the use of bullet-resistant shields as well as other safety devices, including locked drop safes and automated teller machines that allow drivers to accept credit- or debit-card payments.
A study examining cabdriver murders in Dallas and Fort Worth has never been conducted, but a collection of autopsy reports that Goetzmann collected for his lawsuits suggests that drivers here don't fare better than their colleagues elsewhere.
Of the 16 cabdrivers murdered since 1990 discovered by Goetzmann in his research, 14 were shot in the head, neck, or chest at close range. Nwabiani had his throat slashed from behind. Another driver, Rita Amaro of Cowboy Cab Co., was stabbed in the head and chest then set on fire after an apparent robbery in August 1997.
There has been no public debate over cabdriver safety in Dallas since Nwabiani's death last July, thanks in part to a recent dip in the overall number of violent crimes, but Goetzmann says that doesn't mean the problem is solved.
"Every year it's going to happen again," Goetzmann says. "This situation has gone on too long, [and] there is this dearth of information that shows something can be done."
In terms of the lawsuits, however, the trickier questions are whether Floyd Richards took steps to protect his drivers and whether he has a legal obligation to do so.
Erica Owusu sits smiling on her mother's lap, doing a commendable job of staying inside her velvety black dress and shiny patent-leather shoes on this late-November afternoon. It is on her behalf that Dora Jean Johnson is suing Richards and his companies. In Erica's bright, almond-shaped eyes Johnson is reminded of the man she met and fell in love with in 1995.
Johnson had called a cab to take her to work, and Eric Owusu was dispatched. Owusu, who was born in Ghana but grew up in London, liked Johnson from the beginning. By the time he dropped her off, Johnson says, he was asking her to call him.
Johnson initially ignored him, but Owusu, who moved to the United States in the late 1980s, was persistent. The next day he showed up at Johnson's apartment complex and volunteered to take her to work. Johnson gave in.
"We just kicked it off," says Johnson, 34. "He was so nice to me, and my family just fell in love with him. If I could [only] find me another man like that."
Johnson doesn't claim to be motivated by any great desire to protect other cabdrivers with her lawsuit. Johnson, who earns $9.75 an hour at a factory, wants Richards to pay for Owusu's funeral and some of the costs of raising Erica, who is currently receiving Medicaid and drawing Owusu's Social Security death benefits.
"I can't bring the love back," Johnson says. "It's been rough. We're making it, but I want financial help."
Johnson is aware that Owusu was considered an independent contractor. In fact, that's what he liked about the job: He could set his own hours and do what he liked at work, provided he paid Richards the daily lease fee of $65 and didn't wreck his car.
Typically, Owusu worked six days a week, usually starting out at sunrise and returning home by dusk. He had to make $65 before noon to pay his lease, and everything he made over that he kept. Like most drivers, Owusu didn't have health or life insurance, and the idea of shelling out a minimum of $200 for a bullet-resistant shield was out of the question. Owusu thought he was safe, Johnson says. "He didn't like to take fares in Dallas or Fort Worth, so he pretty much drove in Arlington."
If the case makes it to trial, Richards will almost certainly argue that Owusu was an independent contractor who was aware of the dangers of the job and who could have installed his own shield, as Richards contended during his deposition, which Goetzmann took in August 1998.
"Well, you know, when they lease a car, I don't care what they do with it as long as it's legal...I just want to be paid," Richards said. "I don't tell them what to wear. I don't tell them what time to get up. I don't tell them when to go to bed. The only thing we tell them is if we've got a call, you've got to pick it up per city ordinance. It's [like being] a small businessman."
Goetzmann argues that because the drivers must respond to calls posted by the dispatcher, the company controls the drivers' work environment, making it liable for their safety.
"They can't do things the way they like in the cab absolutely," Goetzmann says. "If they take [dispatched calls] on a regular basis, the companies have control over the drivers."
Houston attorney Tom Dickens, who represents Houston Yellow Cab owner Coach USA, says there is no clear-cut answer to the question of when a taxi driver is an independent contractor. Dickens agrees that the key to the issue is how much control the company has over a driver, but he doesn't believe that using the dispatcher alone is enough to create an employee-employer relationship.
"The vast majority of cabdrivers across the country are independent contractors. They have choices about if they work, when they work, what trips to take if they work, things like that," Dickens says. "All of those things are classic independent-contractor relationships."
In his first case against Richards' company, Goetzmann says, he managed to convince first a judge, then a jury that the company was partly responsible when a robber wounded a driver in the abdomen. In the end, however, the jury decided that driver George Weaver was slightly more negligent because he alone decided to let the robber into the cab.
But driver control isn't the only issue at stake in Goetzmann's cases.
Valentine Nwabiani was already dead when the Dallas police found him drenched in blood behind the wheel of his cab, which had come to a crashing halt outside Baylor hospital in the early hours of July 26.
In the four months since, police have made no arrests and have no suspects. The one thing they do know, thanks to the Dallas County medical examiner, is that Nwabiani died after his killer plunged a knife three and a half inches into the back of his neck, slicing his left carotid artery, thyroid gland, and jugular vein.
The path of the wound, as well as that of another, shallower wound, indicates that whoever killed Nwabiani stabbed him from behind. Nwabiani left behind a daughter by his first marriage who is suing Richards' companies.
"Valentine was an excellent father. I miss him every day," daughter Nina Roberts says.
At the time of Nwabiani's death, it had been three years since Eric Owusu had been murdered on the job. Of the 16 drivers slain in Dallas and Fort Worth since 1990, seven worked for Richards, who with wife Debbie enjoys a taxi monopoly in Fort Worth.
When it comes to calculating liability in the lawsuits, Goetzmann hopes to convince a jury to factor in whether the company took any steps to help the drivers avoid danger. If Richards' deposition is any indication, driver safety wasn't part of the environment at his businesses.
Throughout the 1990s, as the bodies of drivers piled up, Richards took no apparent steps to protect his cabdrivers from attack. Instead, he embraced a hands-off philosophy in which drivers drove at their own risk.
At one point in Richards' deposition, Goetzmann asks him whether he believes driving a cab is dangerous.
"It's an individual basis of the driver," Richards responded. "If you're asking for trouble, then you can find it; if you're not asking for it, it's not dangerous. So if you say overall dangerous, I guess you would say the overall danger is if you didn't know what you were doing."
Richards later admitted that he never offered drivers any training programs in which they could learn how to avoid dangerous situations. Instead, they were taught only that if they were polite and wore nice clothes, they'd get better tips.
That's not to say the company never gave its drivers any pointers about whom to pick up and whom to pass over.
"I believe that we always tell the new drivers -- here again, I'm not positive what they do now -- but we used to tell the new drivers that you...don't need to go over here in the deep south side of Fort Worth or the deep south side of Dallas or deep east," Richards said. "As far as Arlington, you know, I never knew whether there was a bad area in Arlington."
As part of his drive-at-your-own-risk philosophy, Richards further added that the company encouraged drivers not to pick up passengers if they thought they were dangerous or if they were in a bad area.
"The only calls they have to pick up is if they're not scared," Richards said. "I mean...normally if it's a bad area, we just won't dispatch calls to them."
Richards confirms that the company never installed any safety devices in the cabs. He said that he offered shields to drivers who were willing to pay for them, but that none were.
Some drivers might have been persuaded to cough up the $200 to $900 for a shield if they had some information about how they worked, but Richards seldom broached the subject. In fact, Richards could remember only one time when, shortly after a driver was murdered, drivers were encouraged to invest in shields. Even then, the suggestion didn't come from Richards.
"We had posters," he recalled. "There's independent companies that did it. We had a poster stuck up on the windows where they were paid."
One thing the company did that could be construed as a safety measure was to install global positioning system devices that use satellites to instantly track the location of a cab, but Richards admitted that safety was not what motivated the move.
"If you know where your cabs are, you can dispatch them [drivers] quicker to the call," Richards explained. "If a guy gets a call in Arlington and he's in East Dallas...it's going to take him longer than somebody over in Arlington. [I]t speeds up the pickups."
No laws require a cab company owner like Richards to provide driver safety training or install safety devices.
"One of the reasons we took so long to do something for taxi drivers is we were sort of held back by the fact that a lot of drivers are self-employed," says OSHA's Patricia Biles. "We didn't have a consensus here at OSHA that we should do something for taxi drivers, because not many of them come into our jurisdiction."
Because cabdrivers are murdered and assaulted at "alarming" rates, Biles says, the agency's attitude is changing. Although OSHA is not planning on drafting new safety regulations, it is hoping that its recommendations, which it expects to publish soon, will encourage owners to voluntarily implement safety standards.
"We just more or less decided there is something we can do, even if we are not able to go out and do enforcement," Biles says.
Biles declined to discuss what will be included in the fact sheet, but it is likely that the agency will encourage the use of bullet-resistant shields, a safety device that NIOSH recommended in 1996.
Although the NIOSH report only tentatively recommended the use of shields, in part because of uncertainties about their effectiveness, new information illustrates their advantages.
In June, two civil engineers at North Carolina State University published a study of the effectiveness of bullet-resistant shields in Baltimore, where a city ordinance requiring the installation of shields in taxis took effect in 1996. (Baltimore is one of a handful of cities, including Chicago and New York, that require the use of shields.)
The study, the first of its kind in the country, examined taxi-related assaults both before and after the law took effect. In the 12 months after the shields became mandatory, the number of assaults on taxi drivers decreased 56 percent. Although the findings were slightly offset by other factors, including an overall reduction in crime, the authors nonetheless concluded that shields were the "single most important factor" in reducing assaults on cab drivers.
The new information, however, probably won't make the shields any more attractive to many drivers who, as Richards contends, have complained for years that they stifle air flow, restrict leg room, and cut off communication with passengers.
Jeff Finkel, the president of Choice and Terminal cab companies in Dallas, says his company began installing shields in the early 1990s after two of his drivers were killed, but the drivers complained so much that the company removed them.
The debate over whether shields are worth the trouble won't be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, digital technology may soon pave the way for new standards in the taxi industry.
Although convenience stores and banks have used cameras as a crime deterrent for years, it has only been within the last two years that the technology has been perfected for taxis. The cameras, which are small enough to be placed on the windshield and can withstand Texas summer heat, use infrared technology that allows them to take pictures day or night. The cameras, which typically cost about $600 apiece, can store more than 100 images before they are recorded over. If there is a problem with a passenger, the images can be instantly uploaded to a remote location.
Earlier this year, Houston-based Coach USA, which owns 4,000 cabs in 15 cities, became the first U.S. cab company to announce that it will install digital cameras in all of its cabs. The company made the decision after it tested the cameras in 20 Yellow cabs in Houston last year and won rave reviews from passengers and drivers, says Rudy Bruhns, the company's executive vice president for administration.
As part of the trial program, the company gave Houston police a computer that can be used to download a picture of an assailant seconds after a driver sends out a distress call. Using the company's global position system, police are then able to reach a cab within minutes -- vastly improving their chances of making an arrest.
So far, Bruhns says, the cameras have helped police make speedy arrests in five cases where drivers were robbed or assaulted. While the cameras can't stop a bullet, Bruhns says he's hoping their effectiveness as a deterrent will make robbers think twice.
"With the camera, number one, it takes the criminal off the street," says Bruhns. "It is not offensive to the passenger, and the drivers like them."
Although Coach's drivers are considered independent contractors, Bruhns says the company is paying for the cameras being installed in the cabs it leases to drivers. For those drivers who own their own cars, the company will work out a financing plan to make the investment more affordable.
Richards is apparently the first cab company owner in the Dallas area to install cameras in some of his cabs. In April 1998, he agreed to test the cameras by installing them in two of his Dallas cabs, says Steven Holmes, the president of VerifEye, a Toronto-based company that makes the cameras. Although the cameras were well received, Richards has made no public decision to install them.
During the tryout, Holmes says, Richards was "absolutely" interested in the safety advantages the cameras offer. Evidently, however, cost became an issue. "The reason not to go ahead with it had nothing to do with safety or the quality of the cameras," Holmes says. "It became an issue of ultimately someone is going to have to pay for it."
The cameras present the same financial dilemma as shields: Who should pay for them, the drivers or the cab companies? Choice's Finkel says that since neither side wants to bear the full costs, the ideal solution may be a compromise.
"There's just so much that can be squeezed out of a dollar," Finkel says. "We'd love to provide them health insurance, paid vacations, and everything else, but the cost is prohibitive. The drivers have a responsibility here, as well as the company."
Coincidentally, it was a camera that led to the arrest and conviction of the four men who hijacked and murdered Eric Owusu.
While they waited for Owusu to show up at the Arlington 7-Eleven, the men pretended to shop for merchandise in view of the store's security camera. The footage was later broadcast on the local news, prompting the men to turn themselves in.
In 1997, a Tarrant County jury deliberated for 30 minutes before it found George Tucker guilty of capital murder, a conviction that earned him an automatic life sentence. Six months later, Donney Jones, John Stocks, and Bonifacio Gomez each were sentenced to 10 years in prison after they pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery.
Since the day Owusu was killed, Dora Jean Johnson says, she hasn't heard a peep out of Floyd Richards, who is awaiting trial on federal charges that he bribed Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb to get favorable treatment from the city on behalf of his companies. There were no offers to help her with the burial, no flowers sent, no sympathy cards, and no words of condolence.
"A tragedy like this," she says, "it seems they could send something to the family."
When questioned about the case during his deposition, Richards could remember nothing about Owusu, not even his name. At the time, the driver was the last thing on his mind.
"There was some damage done to my vehicle," Richards remembered. "The wrecker yanked it out of the ditch and pulled it up."
As it turns out, the car's transmission was shot.
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