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After 2 Tampa Bay delivery attacks, gig workers worry about dangers

A kidnapping and a killing of local Uber, DoorDash drivers in same week show risks these contractors face.
 
Luis Cosme, a Lakeland resident who works in Tampa, helps direct a caravan rally of about 200 vehicles outside Tampa International Airport on Friday to launch a Florida guild of Uber and Lyft drivers. One of the things they're advocating for is better protections for drivers.
Luis Cosme, a Lakeland resident who works in Tampa, helps direct a caravan rally of about 200 vehicles outside Tampa International Airport on Friday to launch a Florida guild of Uber and Lyft drivers. One of the things they're advocating for is better protections for drivers. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 1, 2023|Updated May 1, 2023

Uber driver Christopher Costello said he once feared for his life while working in Pinellas County when a rider tried to grab him from his seat and threatened to beat him up for canceling a ride.

Costello, 41, pulled his gun to get the angry rider in his car to back off.

After the incident two years ago, Costello was deactivated from the app. He broke an Uber rule: Drivers and riders can’t have firearms on them.

The Weeki Wachee man later sued the ride-sharing company for kicking him off Uber for defending himself, but he dropped the case earlier this year, county court records show. He’s back on Uber and now drives for Lyft, as well, but Costello said he worries that he can’t protect himself on the extra job he has to take to support his two children.

“I’m always gonna be at a disadvantage,” Costello said. “I can’t constantly be looking over my shoulder at the passenger and making sure that they’re not trying to assault me.”

Driving is one of America’s most dangerous jobs — from deliverers to salespeople to truck drivers — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent study in 2021. Most drivers who die on the job are victims of vehicle crashes. But delivery drivers have a higher risk of homicide than other types of drivers.

In the U.S., 72 delivery drivers died in 2021 because of violence, the study found.

Just last month, an Uber driver was killed in Pasco County. According to an arrest affidavit, Randall Cooke, 59, was slain and dismembered while making a delivery on April 19. Authorities said the man accused of killing him is affiliated with the gang MS-13.

The day before, Tampa police said a DoorDash driver was kidnapped and raped.

Neither driver knew the person accused of attacking them, authorities said. Each was randomly chosen.

A line of about 200 vehicles waits to exit I-275 South in downtown St. Petersburg during a protest caravan Friday. Among the Uber and Lyft drivers' priorities: better protections for themselves.
A line of about 200 vehicles waits to exit I-275 South in downtown St. Petersburg during a protest caravan Friday. Among the Uber and Lyft drivers' priorities: better protections for themselves. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

With two violent incidents in the Tampa Bay area in the same week, some drivers said there should be better protections. Luis Cosme, a Lakeland resident who works in Tampa, joined a statewide rally outside Tampa International Airport on Friday to launch a Florida guild of Uber and Lyft drivers and advocate for better pay, driver safety and safeguards against “unfair” deactivations.

Worried about his security during his two years working for Uber, 51-year-old Cosme said he only accepts airport rides to neighborhoods he’s familiar with. He also stopped doing Uber Eats deliveries to avoid robberies and carjackings.

“What are we going to see — another death? Another killing?” Cosme said. “We don’t want that no more.”

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Last delivery gone wrong

Cooke was making his final delivery of the night on April 19 when he texted his wife, Kathy, and said he’d be home soon, according to an arrest affidavit.

He never made it back.

His wife reported him missing. Pasco deputies obtained surveillance footage from 39-year-old Oscar Solis’ Holiday house that showed Cooke walking to the door and being pulled inside, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said.

Randall Cooke kisses his wife, Kathy. Randall Cooke was killed while making an Uber Eats delivery to a home in Holiday on April 19, according to his stepdaughter, Brittany Dzoba.
Randall Cooke kisses his wife, Kathy. Randall Cooke was killed while making an Uber Eats delivery to a home in Holiday on April 19, according to his stepdaughter, Brittany Dzoba. [ Brittany Dzoba ]

Days after Cooke went missing, deputies found human remains in trash bags next to the house, which court documents say were identified as Cooke’s.

“All it appears is that there was a gentleman who was working, was doing his last delivery of the night,” said Nocco. “And this person killed him for no reason.”

Solis is charged with murder while engaged in robbery, according to court records.

“We are heartbroken by the news of this horrific crime. There is no reason why Mr. Cooke shouldn’t be home with his family today, and we are keeping his loved ones in our thoughts,” said Uber spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas.

Even before Uber and DoorDash, attacks were a problem

The taxicab industry has long struggled with violence against drivers.

A 1998 federal report found taxi drivers were 10 times more susceptible to being killed than the average worker because they often worked late nights, handled money and were alone. Since apps such as Uber disrupted the taxicab industry, drivers no longer have to manage the financial transactions that had escalated their risk of attacks.

But technological advances that come with apps like Uber and DoorDash bring their own risks, said Miami-based personal injury lawyer Aaron Davis.

At a news conference April 25, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco announces more details about the killing and dismemberment of an Uber Eats driver in Holiday.
At a news conference April 25, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco announces more details about the killing and dismemberment of an Uber Eats driver in Holiday. [ Pasco County Sheriff's Office ]

Delivery apps have gotten easier to use and show lots of information, such as a person’s name, photo and location, which can make it simpler for an assailant — rider or driver — to target someone through the app.

While there’s a strong focus on rider safety, some feel ride-sharing and delivery services don’t have as much motive to protect drivers.

“There’s really no incentive for the company that they (drivers) work for to provide them with warning about the dangers that they may be facing when they go out,” Davis said.

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Uber said it has safety measures, including an emergency button for users to call 911, GPS tracking, the ability to share the progress of their ride with family or friends and the ability to request live help from a safety agent.

Luis Cosme works the phone to coordinate the protest caravan while driving through downtown St. Petersburg on Friday.
Luis Cosme works the phone to coordinate the protest caravan while driving through downtown St. Petersburg on Friday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Wanting more safety measures

On April 18, as a DoorDash driver in Tampa approached the Residence Inn near Tampa International Airport, police said 38-year-old Joseph Killins pointed a gun at her and forced her back into her car. Killins directed the woman to drive to an apartment 6 miles away, where police say he raped her.

According to police reports, family members tracked her cellphone to the apartment and tried to rescue her. Killins fired his gun multiple times at them, police said.

“No one should ever have to endure something as horrific as this and we’re here to support the Dasher in any way we can,” DoorDash spokesperson Julian Crowley said in an emailed statement. “We’ve reached out to the Tampa Police Department to assist their investigation and we hope the perpetrator is brought to justice.”

Local drivers who spoke with the Times said they feel as if companies don’t vet customers with the same diligence as they do drivers. All that’s needed to create an Uber account is an email address and phone number.

Costello said he doesn’t even know how to defend himself without risking being deactivated again if he’s being attacked on the job because of Uber and Lyft’s no-contact policy, which prohibits riders and drivers from touching without consent.

“I am incapable of defending myself,” Costello said.

If the worst-case scenario happens, he said the companies’ support line wouldn’t be able to get help fast enough. His “cheapest form of insurance,” he said, is a dash camera to keep people from acting up when they see it is recording.

“I don’t really have the ability to get another job,” Costello said. “But if I could get another, I’ll give this up in a New York minute.”