Cabbie's shooting death rattles drivers, north Mpls. residents

  • Article by: MAYA RAO and KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 16, 2012 - 12:49 PM

Taxi driver was found shot in his vehicle Wednesday night in north Minneapolis and died later at a hospital.

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K.G. Wilson of Hope Ministries stood on 23rd Avenue N. in Minneapolis holding a sign while talking to a cabbie who was checking out the scene on Thursday. He was a few paces from where a cabdriver was shot Wednesday night and later died.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Pointing to blood-stained pavement where a cabdriver was shot and killed, the north Minneapolis resident shook her head in dismay at another violent death in the neighborhood.

At taxi stands from the airport to downtown, fear shook cabbies, who spoke of the job's dangers and said they intend to avoid the troubled North Side.

And on a street corner a mile away from the crime scene, the mother of a 3-year-old gunned down in an unrelated case said she felt sick upon hearing about yet another citizen slain by gunfire. "The killing needs to stop," she pleaded.

Their distress followed the death of Yellow Cab driver William R. Harper, who was shot in the back in a stopped taxi near 400 23rd Av. N., part of the Hawthorne neighborhood that is one of the city's worst areas for gunfire. Harper, who lived with his older brother in Roseville, was 56.

"He was a kind person," said his brother, Robert Harper. "It's just really sad. If someone really needed the money, he probably would have given it to them."

Harper spent most of his life driving cabs or, more recently, his Lincoln Town Car limousine, ferrying customers back and forth to the Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake, according to his brother. Last week, William Harper had just started driving a cab in Minneapolis again for the first time in years after another driver talked him into returning.

"He did it for the excitement," said Jim Wawers, Harper's cousin. "He did it for something to do. He didn't need the money." He said his cousin was a lifelong Vikings fan and season-ticket-holder who loved to go fishing and spend time with his pet Cairn terrier, Scamper.

The motive for the attack remains unclear. While witnesses have been detained for questioning, no one has been arrested and a weapon hasn't been found. Authorities did not turn up any evidence after briefly sealing off the area and bringing a police dog to the scene, according to Minneapolis police Sgt. Melissa Chiodo.

Minneapolis police Inspector Mike Martin said officers are increasing patrols in the area because of the shooting and a recent spike in the number of violent crimes.

Wednesday's slaying marks at least the 11th time a cabbie has been killed in a taxi in the Twin Cities since 1990. One was killed while off-duty and sleeping in his cab.

The city of Minneapolis required taxis to be equipped with a digital camera, security shield or GPS after the murders of cabdrivers Ahmed Ahmed and Mohamed Salah six weeks apart in 2003 brought driver safety to the fore.

Harper's vehicle, Yellow Cab No. 150, didn't have a camera, said Yemane Mebrahtu, president of the Taxicab Drivers and Owners Association. He said he and his statewide organization will push for stricter requirements mandating that all taxis have cameras. "It would have been easier for police to identify [the suspect]," he said.

Steve Pint, whose Taxi Services Inc. in New Hope owns Yellow Cab, Airport Taxi and Town Taxi, said he had "limited details at this point" about the shooting.

He added that it was the first shooting involving a Taxi Services driver and "we are all deeply saddened, to say the least."

Dangerous work

While fatal attacks are rare, the approximately 3,000 taxi drivers statewide regularly face assaults, Mebrahtu said.

Cabdriver Mishu Abeje, 37, knows that all too well. When one male passenger last year refused to pay and threatened him with a knife, Abeje let him go without getting the fare.

"I have a family -- what am I going to do?" he said as he waited for passengers outside a Minneapolis hotel Thursday. "This is my life."

A Minneapolis ordinance that requires drivers to pick up any "orderly" person forces cabbies to stop for anyone, said Abeje. Plus, with so many taxi companies competing in the metro area, drivers can't afford to turn down business, he said.

Other drivers said they avoid north Minneapolis, including a 31-year-old man who works for Yellow Cab who declined to be named because he said he didn't want to be reprimanded for talking publicly.

"I think we should never take orders from north Minneapolis -- it should be a no-go zone," said the driver after he dropped off a businessman at the airport. "I don't want to be killed -- I have three kids and a wife."

Now, after Wednesday night's fatality, he said he thinks more drivers will follow suit.

'Killing needs to stop'

A resident of the area where the shooting occurred, Rosie, who declined to give her last name out of fear for her safety, said she stepped outside Wednesday to admire the nighttime sky with her nephew and son on 23rd Avenue N. Shortly after she headed back inside, she received a call from her mother next door telling her to look out to where police officers were trying to revive the wounded cabdriver.

"How fast can crime happen in this neighborhood -- and right at your door?" sked Rosie.

That night, her 7-year-old son slept in her bed, afraid that the shooter would storm into their home. Rosie said she is reconsidering her plans to buy a house in the neighborhood where she now rents, when Council Member Don Samuels "reminded me somebody has to stand strong here."

But when she saw the bloodstain on her street Thursday, she covered her face and sighed.

In the afternoon, activist K.G. Wilson stood at that very spot, waving a sign calling for an end to the killings.

City Council President Barbara Johnson said residents are worried about becoming innocent victims. "There are too many people driving around and shooting each other, and it's frustrating and it's frightening," she said.

Authorities already had planned a brief North Side news conference for 10 a.m. Thursday to discuss the installation of five billboards in Minneapolis to help find the killer of Terrell Mayes, the 3-year-old fatally shot in his North Side home the day after Christmas. Police moved up the time by 15 minutes to talk about the cabbie's killing.

Terrell's mother, Marsha Mayes, stepped up to the microphone before the officials, family members and neighborhood residents gathered in the shadow of a billboard bearing her smiling son's face.

"The killing needs to stop," she said. "The killing has not stopped just with Terrell. There are friends out here killing friends. There was a cabdriver who was shot last night."

Afterward, Mayes recalled her reaction when police called her Wednesday night to tell her about the cabbie's murder. She said: "You tear up on the inside, like, 'How can you all still be doing this?'"

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141 maya.rao@startribune.com 612-673-4210

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