Deadly Miami cabs

Two weeks later, Elvidia Villatoro picked up a young black man outside the Jackson Memorial Hospital emergency room. He asked to be taken to NW 18th Avenue and 46th Street. Thinking nothing of the address, Villatoro radioed the intersection to the dispatcher. Moments later, another cabbie responded in Spanish that Villatoro's passenger was the same man who had robbed several other cabbies in previous weeks.

"I was in shock," Villatoro recalls. "I wasn't scared, really, just numb." Unsure if her passenger had understood the conversation, she asked in Spanish if he worked at the hospital.

"No, señora," he answered before pulling a handgun and putting it to the back of her head.

Villatoro swerved to the side of the street and slammed on the brakes.

"Give me the keys!" he shouted. But Villatoro could see in her mirror that two fellow cabs had pulled up to help. As she fumbled with the keys, the man opened the door and ran.

Three other cab drivers were robbed between August 19 and September 25 by what police believe is a pair of accomplices: two Hispanic men. One of the men threatened to kill 62-year-old cabbie Jaime Bryson before stealing $400. Cab driver Henriette St. Juste watched her assailant tear the radio from the dashboard before fleeing with her money. Michel Victor was robbed in Little Havana after picking up a man near a Collins Avenue club on a Friday night.

Following on the heels of the Society Cab shootings, the seven robberies have convinced many Miami cabbies they are being targeted like never before. Yet much of the violence is preventable. Most major cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, require protective partitions in taxicabs. Miami doesn't. In fact, because many cabs are former police cars, cabbies often pay to remove the partitions.

"Customers think they're ugly, so everyone takes them out," cabbie Nasir says. He adds that the county does little to protect cab drivers. Instead, it punishes them for skipping sketchy customers. "We don't know where a job is until we accept it," he adds. "If we don't pick somebody up who looks suspicious, we can get suspended."

The county isn't about to start requiring partitions in taxicabs, says Sonya Perez, a spokeswoman for the county's Consumer Services Department. But it might soon demand new cabs come with video cameras. Last week, Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez introduced just such a measure. "We like the idea of cameras; they'll bring greater safety," Perez says. "But who will pay for them? That's still up in the air."

Meanwhile, fear pervades the Miami cab industry. Kenold François, the unwitting getaway driver, is studying to become a respiratory therapist. But recalling that day, he remembers the bright side. "At least he paid me," he says of the gunman. "Seven dollars."

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