Dangers mount for cabdrivers

ST. PETERSBURG — As the robber pointed the gun through the passenger window of his cab last week, driver Bill Kelly made a decision.

He moved as if to turn off the ignition, but punched the accelerator. A bullet entered and exited his right arm, grazed his collarbone and then barreled through his chin before shattering the driver's side window.

Today, less than a week after the Thursday robbery attempt, the 53-year-old Largo man plans to return to work at Independent Cab. And he plans to do so armed with a .357-caliber handgun.

"If this is war-on-cabbie week, we ought to start shooting back," he said.

The dangers of being a local cab driver have gotten markedly more acute in the last three months.

Since early April, two local cabdrivers have been killed on the job, the most recent on Saturday. A half-dozen others, including Kelly, have been the victims of robbery or attempted robbery. None of the crimes has led to arrests.

The cabbies say it's time for better protection.

"We're pretty much at the mercy of the public," said Joe Clark, 61, a former truck driver who now drives for Yellow Cab in St. Petersburg, often 14 hours a day. "There's not much you can do when it's one-on-one."

Within a single hour early Thursday morning, gun-wielding robbers attempted to steal from Kelly and one other cabdriver — though police said they don't know if the two were linked. Then, two days later, the body of cabdriver Linda Faison was found near Azalea Middle School at 7855 22nd Ave. N.

Faison, a 39-year-old driver for Yellow Cab, was picking up a fare in western St. Petersburg about 5 a.m. Her body was discovered about three hours later. Her cab had been abandoned in the South Pasadena area. Police are investigating her death as a robbery and homicide, according to authorities.

"We don't believe this robbery-homicide is related to any other cab robberies," said Bill Proffitt, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Faison's death comes two months after gunshots ended Nigerian-born Blue Star cabbie Cyril Obinka's hopes for prosperity, leaving a wife widowed and his baby daughter fatherless.

To combat the violence, the presidents of local cab companies are meeting with police next week to discuss additional safety measures for drivers and citizens.

"We won't be cops, but we'll be another set of eyes and ears to the community," said Joe Rosa, president of the St. Petersburg-based Independent Taxi, which employees Kelly.

Drivers say there's a litany of options available for deterring crime, such as bulletproof partitions and surveillance cameras. But those cost money and companies may be reluctant to equip their fleets during an economic downturn.

What cabbies can do is keep themselves informed, Rosa said. Independent Taxi drivers, for example, pinpoint areas where they've been attacked and avoid fares there. And they won't pick up customers who won't leave a physical address.

Kelly said the south St. Petersburg address he was responding to was dark when he pulled up Thursday morning. That's not that unusual, he said, because riders often call several cab companies and leave as soon as the first one responds.

But once he stopped, the robber jumped out of nowhere and put a gun through the passenger window, demanding the car. Kelly figured he would take the gamble.

"I thought to myself, if I turn off the car and give him the money, he'll probably shoot me anyway," Kelly said Monday after being released from Bayfront Medical Center.

Bleeding profusely, Kelly drove to a nearby grocery store parking lot where police often idle in their cars. The officers tried to stanch the blood as they called for an ambulance.

"I can't believe I'm able to be here today," Kelly said.

Times staff writer Nicole Hutcheson contributed to this report.

Dangers mount for cabdrivers 07/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 20, 2008 8:20am]

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