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Cab drivers are more fearful after three driver murders

United Cab driver Charlie Springer says he uses his gut feeling to help him decide who to pick up.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

United Cab driver Charlie Springer says he uses his gut feeling to help him decide who to pick up.

Taxi driver slayings in '08

There have been three murders of taxi drivers in Pinellas County this year. All remain unsolved. Anyone with information about them can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-8477. Callers can remain anonymous and can be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.

May 2

Blue Star cab driver Cyril Obinka, 43, was found shot to death in his cab in the 5400 block of 26th Street S.

July 12

Yellow Cab driver Linda Faison, 39, was found dead near Azalea Middle School, 7800 22nd Ave. N. Police later found her taxi abandoned in South Pasadena.

Sept. 17

Yellow Cab driver Jack LaGrand, 50, was found shot to death in his cab in the 25700 block of U.S. 19.

ST. PETERSBURG

The unsolved murders of three taxi drivers in Pinellas County this year won't stop Charlie Springer from driving.

"I'm not going to let the robbers stop me from making money," Springer said this week as he waited for a fare outside the Pinellas County Jail. "I don't go by fear."

But some do.

The president of one St. Petersburg cab company says 25 percent of his drivers have quit and that others are too scared to pick up riders.

"It's actually become quite a bit of a problem," said Joe Rosa, president of Independent Taxi Service. "A lot of drivers have left. We're short staffed."

Rosa said his company has gotten complaints from customers that drivers won't pick them up. Rosa issued a memo to his drivers last month telling them they have to be more responsive. If drivers don't respond to calls, they can be written up or lose their place in line for the next call, the memo states.

Rosa acknowledges he took some heat from some drivers when he issued the memo. But he said cab drivers have to respond to calls — even in bad neighborhoods or at night — or his business will fail.

"We still have to service our public. Above all, business is business," Rosa said. "And if you can't make a profit … you can't stay in business long."

Not all cab companies are having Rosa's problems.

United Cab in Clearwater hasn't lost drivers and isn't having a problem with cabbies being too scared to pick up fares, said general manager Allen Weatherilt.

But Weatherilt, who has worked in the cab business since 1958 when he started washing cars and answering phones at his father's taxi company, said he's never seen so many cabbie murders in a single year.

St. Petersburg police also report 16 robberies of cab drivers this year, including one in which an Independent cab driver was shot, but survived. Rosa said that cabbie, Bill Kelly, returned to work, but was so nervous about giving rides that he left the company.

Weatherilt said drivers are talking about the murders and that his company has taken steps to raise safety awareness among drivers.

Officials with local cab companies also held a meeting with St. Petersburg police in July to discuss cabbie safety.

Cabs in some other cities have adopted safety measures, such as glass partitions, video cameras and emergency lights. But some question their effectiveness. They also cost a lot to install.

"There isn't enough business here to do that," said Springer.

Many cab companies discourage or forbid drivers to carry guns, though Rosa admits he can't stop them if they want to.

Even with weapons or safety measures like partitions, cabbies still would be in danger. They head into high-crime neighborhoods to pick up people they've never met who might do them harm. That's why driving a cab has been one of the nation's most dangerous jobs.

"We can't really force them to go into a neighborhood they don't want to go in," Rosa said. "We're in a Catch-22. We have to beg."

That leaves cab drivers to rely on their wits to avoid becoming crime victims.

"It's like a police officer has a seventh or eighth sense of the people he's dealing with, whether they are a problem or not. Cab drivers have that, too," said Weatherilt.

Still, Rosa said cab drivers can't reject riders just because they are in neighborhoods that are poor or predominately minority.

"We can't profile," Rosa said.

While Hillsborough has an ordinance prohibiting drivers from deserting riders without good reason, Pinellas does not. Rosa said it's not good business to leave people hanging unless it's obvious they are going to be a problem.

Springer encountered such a passenger one night recently.

After a woman called asking for a cab, Springer arrived at a home and saw a "thug-looking kid" emerge from behind the house. He sat directly behind Springer, which made him difficult to see in the rearview mirror.

Springer, a polite 29-year-old from Clearwater, asked the young man to move to the other side of the backseat. The man refused, got angry and got out of the cab.

Springer, who hasn't been robbed in seven years driving a taxi, said those kinds of instincts are important to drivers.

"You just never know who you're going to pick up," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Cab drivers are more fearful after three driver murders 10/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 5:02pm]
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