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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.
Hynes also remembers trying to contact the cosigner of an apartment lease in the driver's name through a beeper number he had acquired. After about a year, the beeper worked. In December 1998, the cosigner gave Hynes a number for the widow, who lived in Yonkers. Two weeks before the deadline, she filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Board. "The T&LC and the NYPD could have had this woman's address for me in 10 minutes but did nothing," Hynes charges.
The case fueled Hynes's resolve. He kept learning about families who had applied for benefits both with the workers' compensation and crime victims agencies, but heard nothing for years. "Others were skeptical about this stranger calling them up, making vague promises of big bucks," he reflects. "Agencies like Victims Services get millions to do this work." The more Hynes looked, the more annoyed he became. "I have found cases of drivers who have left behind as many as 18 children," he says. "About one in 10 widows had never heard of crime victims' compensation. Countless other widows still do not know about the benefits."
During Hynes's crusade, he delved deeper into the politics he says also have bogged down the compensation process. He began to target Taxi and Limousine Commission chair Diane McGrath-McKechnie, who headed the the Crime Victims Compensation Board for seven years and wrote some of its guidlines. Says Hynes: "All that experience and the T&LC has neverin McGrath-McKechnie's four years at the helmbeen able to hand a crime victims compensation application to a taxi widow."
On January 12 of this year, Jose Torres became the first driver to die at the hands of the gypsy cabjackers. It did not escape Hynes's notice that neither Mayor Rudy Giuliani nor McGrath-McKechnie had ever attended the funeral of a slain livery cab driver or even called upon the family of the deceased to express their condolences. "Yet when Pamela Turk, a white tourist from Boca Raton, Florida, was grazed by a random bullet in midtown in 1998, Giuliani almost beat the ambulance to the hospital with offers of whatever she needed, including putting her up at a better hotel than the St. Moritz, where she had been staying," Hynes points out. No one from the mayor's office, he remembers, showed up at a January 19 T&LC hearing to denounce the Torres killing.
"The T&LC chair did not deny having never written a word in her monthly column about dead drivers," Hynes snaps. "She did, however, write many words bidding a 'fond farewell' to the last Checker cab in August 1999."
Hynes's mission at the T&LC hearing was to expose the suffering of the taxi widows. "It appeared to be a routine meeting," recalls Hynes, in a scathing review of the proceedings. "The T&LC and other city agency staff seemed to outnumber the public, and there was the usual hefty police presence. The chair congratulated the rest of her fellow commission members for showing up during a minor snowfall. A driver received a certificate, as did the T&LC staff who had prepared for Y2K. McGrath-McKechnie came down from her podium to greet and congratulate her staff and hand them their awards; she stayed in her seat while a driver got his reward for returning a priceless violin to its owner. Then another driver had his license revoked, and it was speaker time."
During the open-mike session, Hynes asked if anyone had heard about Jose Torres, whom he identified only by his last name. "I did not wish to mention his full name and appear to be using his death for political gain, particularly if someone was present to speak for him." But McGrath-McKechnie and other commissioners misunderstood, announcing that a T&LC commissioner named Torres was present. "I'm talking about Mr. Torres the driver," Hynes declared.
No response. Then Hynes talked about the murder of Jose Torres and how no one seemed to be advising the families of slain drivers about crime victims' and workers' compensation, Social Security, and other benefits. Hynes says McGrath-McKechnie told him that an aide would speak to him about his concerns after the hearing. Hynes waited. "He said he would return momentarily, but half an hour later I could wait no longer," Hynes claims. McGrath-McKechnie, he remembers, closed the meeting by ripping into the editors of Taxi Talk, a magazine put out by drivers.
"She was embarrassed that Taxi Talk had a photo of a scantily clad 'Ms. Taxi Talk' in each issue and that it referred to women as 'babes.' She urged advertisers to think twice before buying space in Taxi Talk. I wanted to tell her that I understood her concerns, but that she should also admit that the T&LC dumps on drivers until they die, and then they forget that they ever existed."
(Asked about Hynes's allegations, David Hind, a spokesman for the T&LC, said he would work on getting a reaction, but did not call back.)
The inquisitive Hynes continues to jump on anything suspicious about compensation agencies' attitudes toward taxi widows. Two months ago, he called Victims Services to complain about a link on its Web site that led to a now defunct T&LC-administered driver-bereavement fund. A T&LC official allegedly had told Hynes the fund never doled out more than $200 in claims. The link, Hynes notes, did not mention more well-endowed programs run by workers' compensation and the Crime Victims Board.
Hynes also works on behalf of the widows of slain yellow-medallion cab drivers. In October 1998, he contacted Ju Chan, the disabled widow of Juwei Chang, 65, who was shot to death during a robbery in midtown Manhattan four years ago. Although Chan found out about the key benefits agencies and now receives about $700 monthly in workers' compensation and Social Security benefits, she could be cut off from the latter when her son, who is 16, reaches the age of 19.
Laments Desai of the Taxi Workers Alliance: "They don't respect the drivers when they are alive, and they show no respect or compassion for their survivors."
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas