A 26-year-old Miami woman was out enjoying the long Labor Day weekend last year in Wynwood when her evening took a nightmarish turn. She'd had too much to drink when she and a friend stepped outside El Patio. When 51-year-old Uber driver Fredrick Gaston offered her a ride, she was doubled over and vomiting. The woman and her friend accepted the offer from Gaston, who works for a company that bills itself as a "safe ride home" when you've had too much to drink. But this time, she did not make it home unscathed.
Court records from both a criminal case against Gaston and a lawsuit against him and Uber paint a horrifying picture of a predator with a history of violence who slipped through the cracks. His case is sure to add more scrutiny to Uber's practice of lobbying lawmakers to allow the rideshare company to handle its own background checks and evade fingerprint checks entirely. In the past four years, 103 Uber drivers across the nation have been accused of sexually assaulting their passengers, a recent CNN investigation found.
In this case, police say Gaston appeared to prey on drunk women in Wynwood. He even bragged to cops about getting "a lot of pussy" and said sex with passengers was one of "the perks of being an Uber driver."
"Uber markets itself as a safe ride home," says Judd Rosen, the victim's attorney. But by lobbying to keep background checks out of the hands of the government, Uber is "putting chum in the water for sexual predators," he says.
An Uber spokesperson defended the company's background check policy and said Uber has built a new emergency button for 911 assistance into its app. "What’s been reported is deplorable and something no one should ever go through," the spokesperson said, adding that Gaston's access to the app had been removed.
Patrick Delong, an attorney representing Gaston in his civil case, did not respond to requests for comment, though in court filings he has denied his client gave the woman and her friend a ride home and that he penetrated her.
In May 2017, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill allowing Uber and Lyft to conduct their own background checks through a third party — a move that Uber has successfully lobbied for in 31 states. Critics of the bill pointed out that Uber's background checks are less rigorous than those required for taxi drivers in many states. Uber uses a third-party startup called Checkr to run its checks and doesn't uniformly conduct in-person interviews with drivers. The company also skips fingerprinting, which taxi and limousine drivers are generally subject to (though not in Miami) and can turn up a more thorough criminal history than Checkr's search through court records, sex offender registries, and driving histories. An Uber spokesperson said they have recently updated their policy to rerun criminal and motor vehicle checks every year.
Critics say those policies have allowed drivers with serious red flags to drive vulnerable, sometimes-intoxicated passengers. One prime example is Talal Chammout, who was allowed to drive without a background check in 2015, CNN found. Within three months, he followed a passenger into her home and sexually assaulted her. Now he's serving a 25-year sentence. But a simple Google search would have shown Chammout had previously been convicted of assault and was also accused of using a crowbar to attack his wife.
It's not clear whether a stronger background check could have red-flagged Gaston. But court records show a restraining order was filed against him in 1996 in Miami for repeat violence against a woman. The order was dismissed 11 days after the woman filed the petition, though the record is redacted and does not show the reason for the dismissal.
The woman assaulted after her Wynwood night out, whom New Times is not naming because she is the victim of sexual violence, encountered Gaston September 4, 2017. When police later interviewed him, he admitted she was clearly intoxicated — the woman's friend had to help her stand up and held her hand to steady her while Gaston maneuvered her into the front seat of his 2010 red Chrysler Town & Country. He later told detectives he was worried about her vomiting in the back seat, where the windows did not roll down all the way.
Gaston dropped off the woman's friend in Brickell first. The woman, meanwhile, threw up inside and outside of his minivan several times and faded in and out of consciousness on the ride from Miami to her home farther north.
When he finally had the extremely drunk woman alone, Gaston stuck his fingers into her vagina while driving. Then, police say, he stopped the car, got on top of her, and raped her. The woman would later tell detectives she was too terrified and intoxicated to stop him. She feared he had a gun and would harm her if she resisted.
After he finished, the woman called a friend and remained on the line until Gaston finally took her home. As the woman walked toward her apartment, she saw a neighbor entering the building. She said she had just been raped and asked him to call the police. When North Miami Police Officer Anthony Murphy responded, he found the woman "sitting on the stairs crying hysterically, asking for help. She just kept repeating, 'I've been raped' over and over," Murphy later said in a deposition.
"She was in distress. She was crying. She was breathing heavily. She couldn't catch her breath," Murphy described to public defender Brian McCormack. A short time later, Murphy took the woman to a Miami Police station because the alleged assault happened within the city limit.
The case was assigned to Special Victims Det. Michelle Farinas, who met with the woman that same morning to take a statement. Because the woman was so intoxicated, her recollections were spotty — but as with many victims of sexual assault, the rape itself was unforgettable.
At first, the woman believed she had been raped by a police officer because she thought the car her friend had helped her into was a police cruiser. But one small clue suggested otherwise: a photo the woman had taken of the inside of the vehicle and the lower half of the driver. The vehicle's interior wasn't a cruiser, and the driver was wearing old sneakers and sweatpants with a distinctive green stripe.
Farinas tracked down the woman's friend, who cleared up her confusion: The woman had, at first, gotten into a police cruiser parked outside the club and laid down in the back seat. An officer asked her friend to get the woman home, which is when they ran into Gaston, who offered them a ride. "Your friend's pretty messed up," the friend recalled Gaston saying.
Farinas then headed to El Patio to review the club's surveillance footage. In the video, a minivan pulls up and a black male gets out. "You can tell he's waiting around there," Farinas said in her deposition.
The footage wasn't clear enough to see the driver's face, so Farinas reviewed footage from other locations the van had visited to get a description of the vehicle and a sketch of the man, which was based on the friend's description of the driver. Farinas also started surveillance around El Patio at night to see if the driver returned.
It didn't take long for Gaston to show up again. On October 23, 2017, Farinas said, she saw a minivan fitting the description driving slowly past El Patio. "The driver kept driving back and forth" outside the bars in the area, the detective said. A couple of hours later, a taxi driver approached Farinas and asked her to break up a fight between two women outside Panther Coffee.
"We run over there and we see two females being split up by Fredrick Gaston. At that point, I don't know Fredrick Gaston [having not yet had a chance to run his plate], but while I'm approaching, I see the van right in front." She thanked him for breaking up the fight and asked if he could supply his information so she could list him as a witness on the police report, but Gaston declined.
That's when Farinas saw his sweatpants: the ones with the distinctive green stripe. Behind him, the windows of the vehicle were rolled down, and Farinas could see the air fresheners placed in exactly the same spot they had been in the photo taken by the victim.
"He was there for a little while. He was asking the girls if they needed an Uber ride," Farinas said. "I pulled the girls aside and I told them to go find their own ride home."
When Farinas got off patrol that night, she ran Gaston's plate, got a picture of him, and set up a photo lineup for the friend to look at — but he wasn't able to make an ID, so no arrest was made.
Farinas decided to distribute posters to officers on patrol in Wynwood during Art Basel. It was a last-ditch attempt to get Gaston to willingly come forward — not as a suspect, but as a witness.
December 9, Farinas got a phone call from another cop who had spotted Gaston in Wynwood. She met up with Gaston and was able to persuade him to go to the station to answer a few questions. She took him into a room with an audio and video recording, where he waived his Miranda rights.
Farinas showed Gaston a photo of the victim. He said that he remembered her and that he was working for Uber that night when he spotted the woman and her friend on the sidewalk.
"He stated several times that she was really bad, she was really messed up, she was throwing up. He even believed she was possibly drugged. He said that she was, you know, completely out of it," Farinas said in her deposition. "He said that in the ride she was just throwing up a lot outside and inside of the car. A couple of times she was passed out with her eyes closed."
Gaston told Farinas he dropped the friend off first and then dropped the woman off at her apartment and hadn't seen her since that night. That's when Farinas told Gaston that the victim said he'd raped her. According to Farinas, Gaston responded, "We had sex, and it was good sex." According to Farinas: "He said that those are the perks of being an Uber driver. You get a lot of pussy."
"He said that she was the one who was initiating it with him. He said that she was aware of what she was doing. So first he stated that she was extremely intoxicated. Now she's completely aware," Farinas said. Gaston eventually admitted to using his fingers and penis to penetrate the woman.
When the interview was over, Farinas arrested Gaston. He's been in jail ever since, charged with sexual battery on a physically incapacitated victim, a felony.
On June 26, the woman sued Uber and Gaston in Miami-Dade court over the assault. She claims Uber was negligent in its hiring of Gaston due to the lax security screenings that critics have pointed to in other Uber sexual assault cases. The lawsuit notes that Uber's application process is entirely online and that its background checks "run drivers' social security numbers through databases similar to those held by private credit agencies, which only go back for a period of seven years and do not capture all arrests."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"This is just a question of dollars and cents," Rosen says. "It costs more to do the background checks thoroughly."
Gaston's criminal case is set to head to trial October 29. There's no date yet for hearings in the civil suit.
Nationally, there has been some pushback against Uber's insistence on using a third party to conduct its own background checks. New York passed a law requiring fingerprint checks for Uber drivers. Massachusetts, meanwhile, has instituted a system allowing rideshare companies to handle their own background checks while the state runs another check — a method that resulted in 20,000 of the 170,000 applications that had been approved by rideshare companies later being rejected by the state, CNN found.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that taxi and limo drivers are not subject to fingerprint checks in Miami, and that Uber itself does not conduct background checks but uses a third party.