Meter always ticking for lives of N.Y. cab drivers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- He's No. 38. That's all. A man who was doing his job and was killed in his cab on some street corner in the South Bronx on a cold November night.

Whoever shot Sundulfo Perez didn't take the $200 from his wallet or the gold chain from his neck. All the assailant took from him was his life.

And now, the only people in New York who remember Mr. Perez are his fellow workers at the Dyckman car service in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

They gently place in a folder Mr. Perez's faded passport and a photocopy of a picture of his two children who live in his native Dominican Republic. But they realize that in the cab business, life is often as cheap as a 5 percent tip, and names quickly become numbers on a list of the dead.

"I had a dead driver in December, 1988," said Ruth Rodriguez, Mr. Perez's dispatcher. "And a dead driver in 1991. This guy got more publicity than any of my other dead drivers."

Another mean year is coming to a close for the cabbies of New York. The 1993 death toll stands at 42, and that's not even a record.

But this year may still emerge as the deadliest ever for New York's cabbies, surpassing 1992 when 45 fatalities were recorded.

"It's bad up here," Mrs. Rodriguez said. "Real bad."

And apparently, New York is not alone.

Drive a cab in the United States and you are in the occupation most at risk for on-the-job murder, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Based on death certificates compiled in the 1980s, 15.1 workers out of every 100,000 in the taxi industry lost their lives. Not even law enforcement personnel sustained such a staggering homicide rate. Their rate of on-the-job murder was 9.3 per 100,000.

"Cab drivers work alone. They work at night. They exchange money from the public. They fall into quite a few risk factors," said Lynn Jenkins, a statistician at the institute.

Perhaps nowhere is the risk greater than in the outer boroughs of New York.

This is not a tale of the stereotypical, tough-talking, street-smart New York City cab driver who takes tourists for a ride down Fifth Avenue or through the Theater District.

Instead, it's about drivers who venture alone into chunks of the city beyond midtown Manhattan.

In blighted neighborhoods ravaged by violence and drugs, cabbies are engaged in a real-life game of Russian roulette on wheels.

The next passenger could leave a tip -- or pull a gun.

Djibril Sonko is No. 1, the first cabbie killed in 1993.

At 4 a.m.

On New Year's Day.

Jeoffrey Ewuzie, a Nigerian immigrant, No. 18, was killed clutching $58 in his hand.

Altaf Qureshi, No. 32, a Pakistani immigrant, lay dead for two days before his body was discovered.

The meter of his cab was still running. Four hundred dollars and counting.

'An epidemic'

"It's an epidemic that has to be stopped," said Rick Versace, vice president of the Livery Owners Coalition of New York. "If we had 42 police officers murdered, President Clinton would be sending in troops. Someone has to know it's not open season on the cabdriver."

To understand the carnage in New York's cabs you have to understand the industry, which, like the city, is all at once fragmented and gigantic.

There are 11,787 yellow cabs that carry medallions, valued at up to $150,000 a car. These are the high-end cabs that ferry passengers to the airports and buzz the midtown Manhattan streets like killer bees.

There are another 30,000 licensed livery cars, the kind tourists rarely see. They are dispatched to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, ,, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.

And then there are the gypsy cabs -- unlicensed, maybe 10,000 or more, often nothing more than a guy taking out his family car and prowling the streets in search of a fare and extra cash.

The gypsies are most at risk, sustaining 27 of the 42 murders, while licensed liveries have sustained nine homicides. The yellow cabs, the safest and most lucrative, have accounted for six murders.

The most dangerous borough of all for cab drivers is the Bronx, site of 17 murders.

"The bad guy gets to call all the shots," said Capt. Richard Savage, head of the New York Police Department's special taxi crime unit. "He gets to call the time, and the place, and the victim."

What kind of danger does a New York cab driver face?

Listen to Francisco Atizol, 52, who was a newspaper fact-checker and accountant in the Dominican Republic before immigrating to the United States nine years ago. He drives a cab day and night for the Dyckman service, earning enough money to enable his three children to attend college in Florida.

In August, he made a routine night run in the South Bronx.

"Nice lady," he said. "She had glasses." They drove for 30 blocks, finally reaching the woman's destination at 132nd and Locust Avenue, a desolate stretch of warehouses and shuttered shops.

The woman asked Mr. Atizol to wait with her until her husband arrived. Then she asked him for a cigarette. Mr. Atizol opened the Plexiglas partition that separates the driver from the passenger and handed the woman a cigarette.

She smoked. Then calmly and quietly, she pulled a kitchen knife from her pocketbook. And slit Mr. Atizol's throat.

"I thought she had killed me," Mr. Atizol said, pointing to the eight-inch scar on his neck.

But he was lucky. Doctors saved his life with 21 stitches. And the police and his fellow drivers tracked down the woman, who had stolen $40 and Mr. Atizol's cab, a 1981 Chevrolet Caprice.

"My family is afraid for me," Mr. Atizol said. "But I must drive. What else can I do? I have to make money."

Another driver. Another murder attempt. Meet Camilo Bencosme, 40, a 10-year veteran of the New York cab wars. He has a 1983 Oldsmobile Regency Ninety-Eight with 200,000 miles on the odometer.

And he too has a scar. On his neck.

Like mother and son

It was past midnight on a shift some two years ago when he picked up a boy and a woman on Central Park West in Manhattan. The boy was 14. The woman was 30. They looked like mother and son.

"We stopped in the middle of the block on 112th street and the boy, he shot me -- bam -- and said, 'Give me the money,' " Mr. Bencosme said. He handed the boy $20. It wasn't enough.

"The boy wanted my wallet," Mr. Bencosme said. "I had $250. He had a gun right at my ear. I wasn't going to give him the money."

"I was driving," he said. "We were fighting. The girl took my throat. She wanted to kill me. Then, I hit a car. And all the people came out to help me."

"That was my lucky day," Mr. Bencosme said.

Two years later Mr. Bencosme is still scared to work the street. But he must drive to earn a living and support his family.

"This is the most dangerous job here in New York," he said. "There are a lot of crazy people here."

The city is taking steps to cut down on the killings. Undercover members of the taxi crime unit under Captain Savage have roamed the city since April, targeting one area each month, stopping cabs, seizing guns, ensuring safety.

"We've made 783 felony arrests and taken 363 guns off the street," Captain Savage said. "The unit makes an impression. We haven't had a homicide among taxi drivers in the precincts we're in. But the longer we're away, the less of an impression we can make."

Most safety experts agree that the most useful safety device is the protective Plexiglas partition that shields the driver from passengers. The big fleet owners have used them for two decades and report only one homicide in the past 12 years. And that was a driver killed 15 feet from his car.

But the partitions are expensive -- costing anywhere from $300 to #800 -- and restrict the movement of the drivers.

Next month, the Taxi and Limousine Commission is expected to enact rules to force the owners of nearly all the city cabs to purchase partitions. But the commission may provide an exemption for cabbies who own their own vehicles.

"Personally, I'm uncomfortable with exemptions," said commission Chairman Fidel Del Valle. "I kind of feel like Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian, helping someone commit suicide. Partitions are like seat belts. You need to use them, boys and girls."

Mr. Atizol, through hard-earned experience, agrees with the commissioner.

His cab partition stays closed, all day, all night.

"I feel angry," he said. "You're working and you find a crazy person and they put a knife in you or stick a gun to your head. It is not right."

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