NEW YORK — NEW YORK — It’s number 38. That’s it. A man doing his job was killed in his cab on a 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 abuser took from him was his life.
And now the only people in New York who remember Mr. Perez are his colleagues at the Dyckman car service in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
They carefully place in a folder Mr. Perez’s faded passport and a photocopy of a photo of his two children who live in his native Dominican Republic. But they realize that in the taxi business life is often as cheap as a 5% 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 bad year is coming to an end for New York taxi drivers. The death toll in 1993 is 42, and that’s not even a record.
But this year could still emerge as the deadliest on record for New York taxi drivers, surpassing 1992 when 45 deaths were recorded.
“It’s bad here,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “Really bad.”
And apparently New York isn’t alone.
Drive a taxi in the United States and you’re in the occupation most at risk for workplace murder, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
According to death certificates compiled in the 1980s, 15.1 out of 100,000 workers in the taxi industry lost their lives. Not even law enforcement has suffered such a staggering homicide rate. Their workplace murder rate was 9.3 per 100,000.
“Taxi drivers work alone. They work at night. They exchange money with the public. They have many risk factors,” said Lynn Jenkins, a statistician at the institute.
Nowhere is the risk perhaps greater than in New York’s outlying neighborhoods.
This isn’t the story of the stereotypical, talkative, smart New York taxi driver who takes tourists for a spin on Fifth Avenue or the Theater District.
Instead, it’s about drivers venturing into parts of the city beyond midtown Manhattan on their own.
In devastated neighborhoods ravaged by violence and drugs, taxi drivers engage in a veritable game of Russian roulette on wheels.
The next passenger could leave a tip or pull out a gun.
Djibril Sonko is number 1, the first taxi driver killed in 1993.
New Year’s Day.
Jeoffrey Ewuzie, a Nigerian immigrant, #18, was killed while holding $58 in his hand.
Altaf Qureshi, No. 32, a Pakistani immigrant, died two days before his body was discovered.
His taxi’s meter was still ticking. Four hundred dollars and it goes on.
“This is an epidemic that needs 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 send in troops. Someone has to know it’s not the season for taxi drivers.”
To understand the carnage in New York’s taxis, one must understand the industry, which, like the city, is both fragmented and gigantic.
There are 11,787 yellow cabs carrying medallions, worth up to $150,000 per car. These are the premium taxis that ferry passengers to airports and buzz the streets of midtown Manhattan like killer bees.
There are still 30,000 licensed cars, the kind tourists rarely see. They are sent to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
And then there are the gypsy taxis – unlicensed, maybe 10,000 or more, often nothing more than a guy getting out of his station wagon and prowling the streets looking for a fare and extra money .
Gypsies are most at risk, suffering 27 of 42 murders, while licensed liveries suffered nine homicides. Yellow cabs, the safest and most lucrative, are responsible for six murders.
The most dangerous borough of all for taxi drivers is the Bronx, site of 17 murders.
“The bad guy can call all the shots,” said Capt. Richard Savage, chief of the New York Police Department’s Taxi Crime Special Unit. “He can call the time, the place and the victim.”
What kind of danger does a New York taxi driver face?
Listen to Francisco Atizol, 52, who was a fact checker and accountant in the Dominican Republic before immigrating to the United States nine years ago. He drives a taxi around the clock for the Dyckman service, earning enough money to send his three children to college in Florida.
In August, he did a routine night run in the South Bronx.
“Beautiful lady,” he said. “She had glasses.” They drove 30 blocks, eventually reaching the woman’s destination at 132nd and Locust Avenue, a desolate stretch of shuttered warehouses and stores.
The woman asked Mr. Atizol to wait with her until her husband arrived. Then she asked him for a cigarette. Mr. Atizol opened the plexiglass partition that separates the driver from the passenger and handed the woman a cigarette.
She was smoking. Then calmly and quietly, she pulled out a kitchen knife from her wallet. And slit Mr. Atizol’s throat.
“I thought she 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 police and her fellow travelers found the woman, who had stolen $40, and Mr. Atizol’s cab, a 1981 Chevrolet Caprice.
“My family is scared for me,” Mr. Atizol said. “But I have to drive. What else can I do? I have to earn money.”
Another driver. Another attempted murder. Meet Camilo Bencosme, 40, a 10-year veteran of New York’s taxi wars. He has a 1983 Oldsmobile Regency Ninety-Eight with 200,000 miles on the clock.
And he too has a scar. On his neck.
Like mother and son
It was past midnight on a shift about two years ago when he picked up a boy and a woman in Central Park West in Manhattan. The boy was 14 years old. The woman was 30. They looked like a mother and her son.
“We pulled up in the middle of the block on 112th Street and 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 to my ear. I wasn’t going to give him the money.”
“I was driving,” he said. “We were fighting. The girl grabbed me by the throat. She wanted to kill me. Then I hit a car. And everyone came out to help me.”
“It was my lucky day,” Mr. Bencosme said.
Two years later, Mr. Bencosme is still afraid of working on the streets. But he has to drive to earn a living and support his family.
“It’s the most dangerous job here in New York,” he said. “There are a lot of crazy people here.”
The city is taking steps to reduce the killings. Undercover members of Captain Savage’s Taxi Crime Unit have been scouring the city since April, targeting an area each month, stopping taxis, seizing guns and providing security.
“We made 783 felony arrests and removed 363 firearms from the streets,” Captain Savage said. “The unit makes a good impression. We haven’t had any homicides among taxi drivers in the compound where we are. But the longer we are away, the less good we can make an impression.”
Most safety experts agree that the most useful safety feature is the protective plexiglass bulkhead that protects the driver from the passengers. Large fleet owners have been using 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 bulkheads are expensive – costing between $300 and $800 – and restrict the movement of drivers.
Next month, the Taxi and Limousine Commission is expected to pass rules to require the owners of nearly all taxis in the city to purchase bulkheads. But the commission can grant an exemption to taxi drivers who own their own vehicle.
“Personally, I am uncomfortable with exemptions,” said commission chairman Fidel Del Valle. “I kinda feel like Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian, helping someone commit suicide. Partitions are like seat belts. You have to use them, boys and girls.”
Mr Atizol, with his hard-won experience, agrees with the commissioner.
His cabin bulkhead remains closed, all day, all night.
“I feel angry,” he said. “You work and you find a crazy person and they put a knife or a gun to your head. That’s not right.”