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Fear on the Road Running scared: Overlea Cab. Co. struggles to overcome shock from slaying of two of its drivers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Liz Rossi is troubled and it shows. So is everybody else at the Overlea Cab. Co. garage out in the commercial sprawl of Pulaski Highway, about a mile or so beyond the city line. "They're all scared," she says. "Especially at night."

Ms. Rossi, the dispatcher, abides in a turbulence of cigarette smoke. She is diminished by the darkness of the tiny room where she works, and bleached in the glare of the single light deployed to fend it off. She is there 12 hours a day.

Voices crackle from the receiver at her side. They have an artificial quality, but they are human voices nonetheless. They are the voices of the cabbies out on the streets, her co-workers, searching out fares, doing their work, tolerating the fear.

Ms. Rossi, 36, directs them here and there. Her voice sounds over-used, sad and heavy. Her eyes, lighting a moon-colored face, tell you she does not sleep well.

"I was the dispatcher when Lorusso took his last call," she says, looking up, squinting through the smoke. "It's not a good feeling."

She is speaking of David M. Lorusso, a 44-year-old cabbie killed three weeks ago. He was found at 2 a.m. with a bullet through his brain in the 5500 block of Bowleys Lane. His cab, out of control, struck a parked car. He was the second Overlea driver killed in less than a year. David W. Tidwell was also shot in the head during a robbery in West Baltimore last March. He was 47.

"When Dave was shot, Anthony [Miller] was the dispatcher," Ms. Rossi says. "He blamed himself. I didn't understand. Now I understand."

She is burdened by remorse over Lorusso's death; she cannot rid herself of it. "I know it's not my fault, but I feel guilty, like I'm responsible for those out there," she says. "I've known Dave eight years. He was a good cab driver. He was a friend."

Her mind and heart are at war, and she is the astonished spectator at these hostilities. She keeps remembering that night: the barking speaker, the shrill bursts of human outrage, the phones ringing; she is there alone, teetering on the edge of hysteria, but hanging on.

"I had a driver screaming," she says. "He was shouting, 'There's blood all over the cab!' I got a woman screaming at me on the

phone asking who's going to pay to fix her car." The car Lorusso's cab collided with.

An expression of disgust flashes across her face. Imagine!

"It's I can't explain it. It's a strange feeling." A fascination. "I

couldn't stay away from the car when they brought it in here."

Right away, Harry Miller, Overlea's owner, had Lorusso's car junked.

"It was a mess," he says.

Dave Tidwell and Dave Lorusso constitute the totality of Overlea Cab's fatalities in the 50 years of the company's existence. Eleven months separate their deaths, but within the context of half a century, it seems like one upon another. Bang. Bang.

For a few, people both in and out of the trade, driving a taxi has a romantic, even picturesque, dimension. Two books have been published about hacking in Baltimore: "Taxi Heaven," a novel written by Pat O'Mara in the '30s, and Thaddeus Logan's more documentary, nonfiction book, "Hey, Cabbie," put out in 1983.

To many immigrants, driving a cab becomes their passage into American society. Africans, Iranians, Indians, Koreans, Russians have all come in their turn to drive cabs in Baltimore and other American cities. But the romance is mostly a thing of the past. Now life on the streets is dangerous and sometimes deadly.

Overlea, with about 20 cab drivers, has seen its staff reduced through violence by 10 percent. In the military, that is the numerical expression of utter disaster. More taxi drivers are slain on the job than any other occupation, according to census statistics.

Gas station attendants, sales clerks and police officers follow.

"I don't have a real lot of trouble here," says Harry Miller, who bought Overlea six years ago. "This is a small company. Everybody is familiar with each other. This has had a bad effect. I've had four drivers quit. Two [of the four] came back."

He shakes his head. His face hints at a confusion of feeling: disgust, helplessness, resignation, maybe the beginnings of despair. It all just confirms what everybody here already knows: There are too many predators on the loose.

About 15 miles to the north, at Edgewood Taxi, things are even worse. Edgewood was established about a year ago by Steve and Betsy Hall. They've already endured one armed robbery, and on Dec. 15 they lost one of their six drivers when 26-year-old Christopher Allen Leavitt was shot through the head in West Baltimore. He had picked up his fare at a convenience store in Edgewood.

"It's discouraging," says a morose Betsy Hall, "but this is a hard business." And it's getting harder.

129 armed robberies

Last year, 129 cab drivers were robbed in Baltimore by people wielding guns, knives, clubs or other deadly weapons, an increase of 17 percent over 1994.

To cut down on the robberies, shootings and murders, all the city cab companies urged the Public Service Commission to make bulletproof shields mandatory. In response, the commission has ordered that every cab operating in the city have a shield between the driver and passenger compartment by May 1 this year or the owner will face a $500 fine.

No one knows how many of last year's taxi robberies in the city involved county cabs. But Baltimore police Lt. Larry Leeson, head of the robbery unit, believes the number is growing.

"More cases involving Emerald, Overlea, Jimmy's Cab Co. are passing across my desk," he said.

Tidwell, Leavitt and Lorusso died in the city. Robbery was the apparent motive for all three of these murders. Arrests have been made in all.

Lieutenant Leeson suspects suburban drivers don't take the precautions their cityside counterparts do. Many city cabbies avoid carrying large amounts of cash, refuse to respond to calls made from phone booths and prefer to work from cab stands at hotel entrances instead of trolling the streets for fares.

"Experienced drivers recognize that the most dangerous is the street hail," says Daniel Setzer, who owns the Royal Cab Association, the second largest cab company in Baltimore. "Drivers will generally try to size up their passenger as they see them. If they feel uncomfortable about it, they won't pick them up."

This, he acknowledges, violates state Public Service ' Commission rules. "But the reality of the situation is that drivers are going to act to assure their own safety."

To Mr. Setzer, whose company fields about 350 of the 1,151 cabs that ply the streets of Baltimore, the past year has been pretty normal.

"We've had some holdups, but there hasn't been any particular surge our drivers have had to deal with," he says. Mr. Setzer's state of normality includes the shooting of three Royal drivers within the past three months, the most recent on Jan. 30.

Though he is the first to admit that cab driving is dangerous, he is not eager to see that fact advertised, if only because it makes it more difficult to fill the hundred full-time positions Royal has available and can't find anyone to take.

"That's a hundred jobs going wanting," he says, "because people perceive cab driving as a dangerous job."

No one gets rich driving a taxi. Most cabbies earn between $200 and $500 a week.

Still, it's a job some people like to do, despite the risks. People like Irv Schyan, who began driving with Overlea about four years ago. He took the job after his life got hit by an earthquake.

"Within six months my father and my mother died, and then my stepfather," recalls Mr. Schyan. "Me and my wife split up; she got the house and the car. When I left I just left with my clothes and was living out of a room. Then my business [auto parts] burned down. I thought I was in a nightmare, I did."

No peace

Mr. Schyan, 52, did not exactly find peace and serenity as a cab driver. A couple of years ago -- while in the city -- two men got into his cab. One of them pressed an object to the back of his head, and asked, "You know what this is?"

"I sure do," he said. They got away with about $90 of his money but were kind enough to leave him his life.

The week before that, a big drunk beat him up. "I think I got one punch in, then he started banging my head against the asphalt." That's when Mr. Schyan went on day work.

"It's the night work that's so dangerous," he says. "That's when all the weirdos come out. You got your druggies, your alcoholics, your weirdos."

Irv Schyan was so deeply affected by the killing of Dave Lorusso he needed a counselor to help him deal with it. He couldn't bring himself to go to Lorusso's memorial service.

"I drove with him for two years at night," he says. "I was having a big problem coping with his death, and I knew that the service would really upset me."

In the end, he sent a Mass card.

Despite everything, he says, he still enjoys his work. "You meet interesting people. You drive 12 hours. You are always moving."

To some, driving a taxi is not "real" work, rather something to do until a better job comes along. Still others invest their entire lives in it. Harry Miller has two drivers at Overlea whose combined time on the road adds up to nearly 80 years.

Even people long in the trade have mixed opinions about the work and those who do it. Harry Miller, for instance, has not the highest opinion of taxi drivers in general, though he was one himself for decades.

"Most people will drive taxis when they're laid off or need extra money. Some can't get a job no other place; they're not dependable."

are dependable. At least most of them.

Liz Rossi, who drove herself, is defensive about all cab drivers, protective of them as a group.

"A lot of people look down on taxi drivers," she says. "They just think we're a lower class than they are. It's a hard living. You get all kinds of people sitting behind your head. You get businessmen, whores, people from all walks of life. Knock on wood, I worked days and I worked nights, and I never had any trouble."

Considered career change

Lois Fearson can't say the same. She came in at the end of her shift at Overlea a few days after Dave Lorusso's death feeling the way she felt after Dave Tidwell's death: scared, pondering a career change.

The 47-year-old woman has been driving for Overlea for about 2 1/2 years.

"It's scary. We got a lot of people here who are scared when a customer gets in. I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. My nerves couldn't handle night work anymore."

She recalls some of her own experiences:

"I had a nut in my cab once. She flipped out. She went berserk. She began taking her clothes off. Then there was this Jamaican. Told me he was a student at Johns Hopkins. He had me take him to several different places. He had a $17 tab when he grabbed my change out of my hand and ran off. He got $83."

Maybe she'll go back into factory work, she says. But you are left with the impression she's not really committed to the idea.

"I like to drive. I like to be out," she says.

She drives because, like Irv Schyan, she finds the clientele interesting. They talk to her, as people talk to bartenders, confessionally. They tell all.

"Maybe it's easier to talk to the back of somebody's head."

Then she shrugs and goes home. No one doubts she'll be back at 4 the next morning, to start her next shift.

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