By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
New Yorkers watch them almost nightly on TV, empathizing with their taut, tear-stained faces. They are taxi widows, down-on-their-luck survivors of mostly black and Latino drivers murdered in an upsurge of robberies targeting the livery cab industry.
As the killings increase, victims' advocates are arguing that the state Crime Victims Compensation Board is required to reimburse the financially hard-hit spouses, children, or stepchildren of drivers; but cumbersome rules and discrimination have made qualifying for benefits a bureaucratic nightmare.
Concern about the familes comes in the wake of a call last week by the New York Taxi Workers Alliancea group which represents nonunionized yellow medallion cabbiesfor a federal investigation into the murders of the livery drivers. "Gypsies [street lingo for livery drivers] are not included in the FBI's investigation of attacks on taxi drivers," says Bhairavi Desai, a spokesperson for the NYTWA. "The FBI should be brought in." The rash of slayings this yearnine to datehas alarmed the more than 41,000 livery drivers as well as police, who have made solving the murders a top priority. Currently, 300 officers are assigned to a task force. Last year, 11 livery cab drivers were killed.
Despite a number of programs that offer assistance, the widows of drivers suffer extreme hardship. A fund provides up to $30,000 to cover medical expenses, lost wages, and other costs. In addition to the $30,000 maximum, survivors can apply for up to $6000 in funeral costs. But hardly anyone has brought this to the attention of the taxi widows.
"Imagine the outcry if the survivors of a police officer killed in the line of duty were found to be living in poverty just a few years after the death of their breadwinner," says John Hynes, a livery industry activist who works with survivors of cabbies seeking compensation and other protections. "There would be no discussion about amending the pension laws to provide for the family. Funds would likely pour in to send the children to college and put the family in the economic dignity they deserve."
It's all about race, Hynes contends, claiming that several years ago when yellow-medallion cab drivers were being mowed down, cops, the media, and crime victims' agencies decried the violence and reached out to victims' families. But in the case of livery cabbies, concerns about their families and potential hardship generally get little or no mention. "These widows are battered women," argues Hynes, a former medallion cabbie himself, who now battles Parkinson's disease. "They are battered economically and emotionally by a system that is well funded."
Hynes mentions the case of Leonidas Perez, whose husband, Jose del Carmen Felix, a driver for the New Brooklyn Car Service, was gunned down on February 6, 1999. Felix, who was buried in his native Dominican Republic, came to the United States 12 years ago and had driven for nine years. He worked six, sometimes seven days a week, starting at 3 a.m. and ending in the late afternoon, to support his wife and eight children, who had stayed behind in the Dominican Republic. Perez moved to New York after the funeral.
"No one told her that the state Crime Victims Compensation Act can reimburse her for her husband's lost wages plus pay for the funeral," says Hynes. Perez had one year to apply for help. Hynes searched for her for months after reading about the shooting, finding her just two weeks before the deadline. He helped Perez fill out an application, which is still wending its way through the Crime Victims Compensation Board.
Hynes began to look into the plight of taxi widows in 1997 after reading about a driver who never made it home from doing the most dangerous job in New York. "I asked myself, 'Where are the families one year, five years down the line?' " he recalls.
He took up the case of a pregnant woman whose husband was gunned down in January 1997. Hynes contacted the NYPD and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, asking how he could contact the widow. He says both agencies refused to cooperate, telling him that if he wanted the information, he would have to file a Freedom of Information Law request. "That would have taken over a month and would not have been answered correctly if they bothered to answer at all," Hynes asserts. He alleges that bureaucrats in the NYPD and the T&LC gave him the runaround, eventually claiming that they did not keep a list of murdered drivers. "It made sense," Hynes remembers, thinking about the agencies' cavalier attitudes. "Why would the T&LC give a shit about dead drivers? They don't pay tickets and fines."
This led Hynes to conclude as far back as 1997 that the NYPD and the T&LC were hiding somethingthat they knew about the failure to notify widows about the earmarked funds.
Frustrated by the process, Hynes searched for two years for information about the widow. "I, with Parkinson's disease, was paying for tolls, phone calls to the Dominican Republic, walking around Washington Heights at night trying to find people. That search was futile." He called the medical examiner's office, which refused to tell him who had claimed the driver's body but gave him the name of a funeral home in Washington Heights. The funeral home gave him the name of an uncle, who did not provide any additional leads.