By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
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."