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On a Sunday evening in early August, Kenold François drove his weathered taxicab past an abandoned housing project and up to the Dolphin Food Market on NW 46th Street in Liberty City. His passenger, a well-built man with a beard and short hair, stared calmly out the window as the car came to a halt. Then he pulled a gun.
Stepping from the cab, the man emptied 13 rounds into the passengers of a Mercedes-Benz parked in front of the dingy grocery. As bullets tore into 20-year-old Keondre Aquamina and 22-year-old Henry Ferguson, François sat frozen with fear. Haitian compas music spilled softly from the radio. Then the gunman jumped back into the taxi.
"Drive!" he shouted. As the cab peeled away, gunshots echoed. When the car screeched past nearby Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, the gunman ordered François to stop. Then he disappeared on foot.
Police were called. Four hours passed. Cab driver Willmer Holmes stopped at a red light about three miles away, at NW Seventh Avenue and 71st Street, and a white car pulled alongside. Suddenly, an assault rifle pointed through an open window. Before Holmes could hit the gas, bullets sliced through the skin of his neck and right knee. He barely survived; his passenger, Kenneth Bethel, bled to death on the cab's black leather seat.
"This was retaliation for the earlier shooting," says Bethel's sister, Kalenthia Nunnally. "It was senseless. He wasn't even who they were trying to kill."
The shootings marked the beginning of a terrifying stretch that has left local cabbies shaken and angry. With unemployment hovering near 13 percent in Miami-Dade County, authorities say taxi drivers have become both a means of transportation for bad guys and targets for criminals looking for quick cash. In the seven weeks following the murder, seven cabbies have been robbed at gunpoint, almost all in the same neighborhood and possibly by the same thieves. Some of the attacks could have been prevented by barriers between the front and back seats, like those required in other big cities. Better safety practices by cabbies and their companies might have stopped the others.
"I've been robbed twice," says cabbie Moeeq Nasir, pointing to a three-inch scar on his neck where an attacker slashed him before making off with his cash and cell phone a few years ago. "If I die, I don't have life insurance. I don't even have health insurance. We need more protection."
There are more than 4,500 taxis in Miami-Dade, many of them clustered around the airport and tourist hot spots. But in Liberty City, where bus service is spotty, they are just as essential. There, all manner of cabs warily patrol the streets. "These days, there are a lot of people out of jobs, with no money, who still need rides," says Benedique Hyppolite, manager of Society Cab, which owns the vehicles involved in both the murder and the retaliation. "That's also the reason why there are more robberies now. People take whatever they can get."
Drivers for all companies say that while business is brisk this year, so is crime. The recent spree began with the Dolphin Market shooting August 8. The next day, Miami-Dade Police charged 28-year-old Tyrance Golfin with two counts of attempted murder. Bethel's killing remains unsolved.
Cabbies caught up in the crime spree have been of all ethnicities and from late-30s to mid-60s in age. Some have spent decades driving their taxis in Miami and have never been targeted, until now.
Shortly before midnight August 19, Michael Honik picked up a dark-skinned Hispanic man at Collins Avenue and Eighth Street in Miami Beach. When the cab reached SW Eighth Avenue and Fourth Street, Honik pulled over. He heard a click and felt the cold metal of a handgun against the back of his head. "Give me your wallet, money from your pockets, cell phone, and car keys," the man said. Then he told Honik to lie down and count to 100. By the time the cabbie looked up, the robber was long gone.
Five days later, it was Miguel Cuellar's turn. He was working around 3 a.m. Tuesday, August 24, when the dispatcher directed him to a gas station at Flagler Street and 27th Avenue. A man resembling Honik's attacker climbed into Cuellar's cab and asked for a ride to NW 23rd Avenue and 11th Street. Cuellar became nervous when the young man slid directly behind the driver's seat; the 30-year veteran had been robbed once before.
After the cab rolled to a stop under the Dolphin Expressway, Cuellar felt a tap behind his right ear. In the rear-view mirror, he saw a small black revolver pressed to his head. The cabbie handed over his keys, $80, and his phone. "He didn't seem like a professional criminal," the 62-year-old Cuban-American recalls. "More like just a drug addict looking for $30, $40, $50 to support his habit."
In the month that followed, the robberies continued, each following a similar pattern. Two even occurred near the same intersection: NW 18th Avenue and 46th Street in Liberty City. There, four days after Cuellar was robbed, Luis Enrique Garcia — the son of Cuellar's boss — was robbed at gunpoint by two men who had flagged down his cab in Little Havana.