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For a cabbie, fear is always a passenger

Drivers know they are convenient targets for robbers.

By MELANIE AVE and ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published June 7, 2007


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TAMPA -- Arturo Marmol learned his biggest lesson as a cabdriver two months ago, and he wasn't even behind the wheel.

He parked his cab and walked into a convenience store for a soda, in a neighborhood some of his fellow drivers avoid.

A masked man pulled a gun on the cashier. Marmol ducked behind a display and felt the $400 bulge his pocket, fare from a couple of days' work.

That's when Marmol realized: "I'm a target."

Marmol moved to Tampa from Miami two years ago, thinking he could safely work anywhere in the city.

Now, the 49-year-old sticks to the crowded taxi queue outside the Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa, joining dozens of others who fear venturing outside of the city's tourism and business bubble.

Wednesday, they circulated a Tuesday copy of tbt* with the headline "Taxi Terror."

The story was about John Agan, 43, a Thonotosassa driver who was robbed, beaten and stuffed in his car's trunk. His attackers have not been caught.

Two other high-profile incidents in St. Petersburg underscore the danger that drivers live with every day as they pick up strangers and take them all over Tampa Bay.

Cabdriver Dwayne Eagan, 37, a St. Petersburg married father with cancer, was knifed in the face and neck and robbed Tuesday by two men who now face attempted murder charges.

And on May 27, Kurt Bryant, 35, owner of Bryant Luxury Transportation limousine service in St. Petersburg, was killed as he helped a woman out of the car. An 18-year-old faces a first-degree murder charge.

Cabbies aren't safe

Many cabdrivers can tell stories about being robbed or attacked.

David Beyer remembers the feel of a gun against his head.

"It was metal. It was cold. It was heavy," Beyer recalls of the holdup that occurred less than two months ago when he picked up a man about 4:30 a.m. from a public housing building near Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

"He said, 'Put your hands up!' I put them up."

Beyer, 52, handed over $35 and sped away with the door still open.

It was his first holdup in a 35-year cab career. He didn't even bother to call police because he wanted to keep working.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says taxi drivers are 60 times as likely as other workers to be murdered on the job. They also are among those with the highest rate of assault -- exceeded only by police and security guards.

"It's the second most dangerous job there is," Beyer said.

Some local drivers and cab companies think a greater police presence would cut down on the violence against drivers, while others are pushing governments to require surveillance cameras and safety shields between the drivers and passengers.

Quick cash

Tampa cabdriver Tim Fasano wishes cabs in Hillsborough County were equipped with bulletproof safety barriers, like the ones in New York.

His cabdriver friends up there say it gets in the way of the rapport they can build with their passengers, which could lead to lower tips. Fasano thinks safety would be worth the spare change.

Cabdrivers are often at risk because they work alone, deal in cash and often drive at night in high-crime areas. They are prime targets for drug addicts needing quick cash.

"You've got a lot of people with crack cocaine habits," said Willie Mims, 64, treasurer of the Blue Star Cab Co. in Pinellas County. "They really only need a few dollars. They can get $2 and buy a piece of crack."

Mims said in the last five years, 10 drivers have been robbed.

Instincts kick in

In Tampa, Fasano can recognize the red flags. Last week, he showed up to a call from a well-lit Texaco station on Kennedy Boulevard. A man and a woman asked him to go to a part of West Tampa he calls "a drug hole."

"I refused to take them," Fasano said. "They called me every name in the book. They slammed my door and almost broke the window."

But in his 12 years, he has yet to be robbed. Neither has Mesfin Araya, who has spent 14 years listening to his gut.

Recently, he responded to a call from a South Tampa gas station. The two men looked suspicious, he said. He locked his door.

He asked where they wanted to go. They gave different answers. At that point, his instinct kicked in.

"Your body can tell you," he said. "You can feel it."

For some drivers, the danger factor is too much and they end up quitting.

Agan, the man who was stuffed in his trunk, hasn't driven a cab for a week. He has driven a cab off and on for more than 18 years, and hopes he never has to again.

Since his car was repossessed and his electricity is being paid with borrowed cash, his days of driving a cab may not be over for good.

He finds the ease with which people rob cabdrivers sad.

"It's today society, " Agan said. "They think, 'We don't have to work. We just have to rob a cabdriver.'"

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

Three drivers who recently were attacked
Three incidents in the past month underscore the danger drivers live with every day.

  • Dwayne Eagan, 37, of St. Petersburg, was knifed in the face and neck and robbed Tuesday by two men who now face attempted-murder charges.
  • John Agan, 43, was robbed, beaten and stuffed in his cab's trunk Iast Wednesday in eastern Hillsborough County. His attackers have not been caught.
  • Kurt Bryant, 35, owner of a limousine service in St. Petersburg, was killed on May 27. A man was arrested and faces a first-degree murder charge.

Fund will aid knifed driver
Dozens of people have stepped forward wanting to donate money to St. Petersburg cabdriver Dwayne Eagan, 37, a father of one who has cancer and was knifed and robbed Tuesday. Two suspects were arrested. In response, his company, the Independent Taxi Service, is acting as a collection site for those wanting to contribute money to Eagan and his family. Donations can be dropped off at the company's dispatch office, 4121 Fifth Ave. N in St. Petersburg. Checks and money orders payable to Dwayne Eagan can be mailed to the Dwayne Eagan Fund, 5656 66th Street N, St. Petersburg, FL 33709. For questions, please call (727) 327-3444.

Fast Facts: Safety tips for taxi drivers
Tampa cabdriver Tim Fasano posted these safety tips on his taxi blog, www.timfasano.typepad.com/:

  1. Get a clear and precise destination. Do not put the cab into drive until you know exactly where they are going.
  2. Get a deposit. If you think the ride is shaky ... get money up front. NO DOUGH, NO GO.
  3. Leave your radio on.
  4. NEVER PICK UP FLAGGERS! 93% of all cab robberies are from flaggers.
  5. Let dispatch know where you picked up and where you are going. That alone could scare off a robber.

 

[Last modified June 7, 2007, 00:33:54]


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