Ed Domain Is Still Standing

An Arch Grant brought him to town. A terrible taxi ride almost destroyed him

Ed Domain came to St. Louis after winning an Arch Grant. He left on far less celebratory terms.
Ed Domain came to St. Louis after winning an Arch Grant. He left on far less celebratory terms. PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY

Five years ago, Ed Domain moved to St. Louis with big dreams and good health. When he left a few weeks ago, he was limping and in worse financial shape than when he arrived.

Domain stares into the overstuffed U-Haul in front of his empty Cherokee Street apartment. "My whole life fits in a fifteen-foot truck," he says. "There's probably a message in that."

His 45th birthday was four days ago, and he's starting over. A new city. A new job. Everyone agrees this is best.

He watches as movers finish loading the last of his furniture. They have managed to cram in the high-end rowing machine he hopes will help him rebuild his strength, the bicycle he would like to ride one day and an aluminum-frame walker he keeps just in case.

"I don't want to be negative," he insists, a refrain he has repeated during the past several days every time he finds himself wandering too far into the old battles. He can list dozens of people who helped him in St. Louis — business connections who adopted him as family because they knew he arrived here alone, grown men who dressed up in costumes to cheer him up at the hospital and friends who told him the truth when they worried he was losing himself in the fight. But it is hard to separate these kindnesses completely from what was taken from him during his time in St. Louis. The greatest acts of generosity were only necessary because of appalling injustices. The good was the counterweight to the bad, and the bad drove him for so long.

"The rage was there," Domain says. "It was like this hate furnace."

This move will be good, he says. He is heading west to Denver. He loves the outdoors, and his new apartment will have a view of the mountains. Best of all, he doesn't know the politicians or lobbyists, and they don't know him. Colorado offers an opportunity to begin anew — if only he can make peace with what happened to him here.

"I can either be angry the rest of my life," he says, "or I can move on."

Ed Domain rolled into town in 2012 with the entrepreneurs' equivalent of a golden ticket.

Arch Grants, a new nonprofit designed to lure innovators to the city, chose him for its first round of awards. The honor was not only generous — winners were given $50,000 and promised a suite of support services in exchange for their move to St. Louis — it instantly marked him as someone to watch in the local startup scene.

"Ed was a very engaging, outgoing guy who was passionate about his business," remembers Arch Grants co-founder Jerry Schlichter, a nationally known attorney dubbed "the Lone Ranger of 401(k)s" by the New York Times. "He really wanted to make a difference in so-called flyover country by showing what was going on in tech outside the coasts."

An Army vet who was raised in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago, Domain was big, loud and gregarious. His business was a news media site called Techli, an online publication he created to report on startups in the heartland. He had tried a couple of other ventures before — a pair of social networks geared toward teachers and the military — but Techli was the first to gain much traction. It combined his passions for tech and startup culture with a long-held desire to build and run his own business, a dream he had nurtured ever since he began reading about Silicon Valley stars in Wired magazine as a college student.

By its nature, Techli also gave him a perfect entry into the close-knit community of innovators who had begun filling shared work spaces within repurposed warehouses in the city's central corridor. With a few notable exceptions, the largely young and ambitious entrepreneurs here lived so completely in the shadow cast by the giants of Silicon Valley and, to a lesser extent, innovation hubs on the East Coast, that they barely existed in the minds of the national tech media.

"When an entrepreneur starts a business, whether they admit it or not, one of the things they desperately desire is recognition that their idea is a good one," says Aaron Perlut, a co-founder of marketing firm Elasticity. "That is a basic human instinct."

Domain with Mayor Francis Slay and Aaron Perlut at Startup Voodoo, sort of a South by Southwest for St. Louis. - COURTESY OF STARTUP VOODOO
Domain with Mayor Francis Slay and Aaron Perlut at Startup Voodoo, sort of a South by Southwest for St. Louis.

The struggle to be noticed was not solely a matter of vanity — although there were certainly elements of that. Media coverage was also an opportunity to attract the attention of the venture capitalists whose investments can mean life or death for young companies.

In the quest to be seen, Domain quickly emerged as an ally. He profiled both established and up-and-coming stars of the St. Louis scene with genuine enthusiasm for their ideas. And unlike the city's print and television journalists, they recognized Domain as one of their own. He had an office alongside other startups in the old T-REX business incubator downtown, and he kept the same crazy hours, popping in during the middle of the night to work when he couldn't sleep.

"The joke is that you can work any fifteen hours of the day," he says.

His excitement expanded beyond even the website. He and Perlut made plans to launch an innovation-focused event called Startup Voodoo, modeled after Austin's South by Southwest. He had even begun recording a talk show "The Domain Tech Report." In the pilot, he danced onto the set alongside a beautiful, dark-haired woman — a friend who'd agreed to play along — spun her theatrically and leaned in for a stage kiss before settling down to begin an interview with LockerDome CEO and co-founder Gabe Lozano.

"When you talk to that guy, you get excited," Lozano, who now counts Domain as a friend, tells the Riverfront Times. "It's hard not to get excited."

Less than a year after arriving, Domain had become a man to know in St. Louis' entrepreneurial world, showing up at conferences and mixers all over town. He was headed to a Cinco de Mayo party hosted by GlobalHack executive director Matt Menietti on May 4, 2013, when he called Harris Cab for a ride.

The blue minivan arrived shortly after, and Domain climbed inside with two friends visiting from out of town, texting Menietti from the road.

"We're in the cab," Domain wrote. "Be there in a few minutes."

The collision of a full-sized van slamming headlong into the flank of the taxicab must have made a terrible sound, but Domain doesn't remember it.

In the last seconds of his life as a healthy man, he recalls the cab driver looking up from his phone as they cruised right through a red light. The man spoke a single word: "Oh."

Domain followed the driver's eyes to his right just as the van hit. The sensation was more of a feeling than a sound, like a shock. An explosion of glass, metal and plastic sprayed across the intersection of Russell Boulevard and Gravois Avenue. Domain and his friends must have been flung from their seats, but any glimpse of how that happened is lost to time. One moment they were riding toward a party, and the next they were in a heap, bleeding and confused. His friend Danyelle Michelini was crumpled on her knees. Domain landed on her back. His left foot was wrenched behind him and caught under one of the seats.

"I said, 'I think my leg is broken,'" he recalls. "That was my hip shattering."

Michelini's ribs snapped and punctured her lung. Domain, who was seated next to the sliding door, took a direct hit. His pelvis was nearly destroyed and his left hip so thoroughly mangled that his femur had broken loose at the top end and was floating around in his thigh. Doctors would later chronicle serious injuries to his left knee, neck, chest, back and head. His nose was broken. His right shoulder was torn to pieces, and the brachial artery in his right arm was severed, bloating his arm with blood and injuring it so terribly surgeons would later consider amputation.

The third friend suffered only minor injuries, but Domain and Michelini were loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the hospital. He remembers asking the EMTs to check on Michelini only to hear her call out from his side, "I'm here. I'm fine."

It's hard for him to sort out everything that happened that day. His mind was fogging over in the shock and trauma, but he clearly remembers an EMT asking if there was a pastor or someone they should call.

"That really got through all the fuzz in my thinking," Domain says today.

"Am I going to die?" he asked.

"Not if we can help it," the EMT replied.

"Good," he told them, "because I don't plan on dying today."

click to enlarge Domain spent six months in hospitals and a nursing home after a 2013 crash. - COURTESY OF ED DOMAIN
Domain spent six months in hospitals and a nursing home after a 2013 crash.

In his nightmares, Domain used to see that van coming.

The crash was like a bomb dropped into the middle of his life. Between the hospital and a nursing home, he spent six months recovering before he was strong enough to move back into an apartment. The former English major would read a paragraph without understanding its meaning. The dancing talk show host had to learn to use a wheelchair and then a walker.

Still, it is not the crash itself that tortures him now. He can recite his memories of those bloody moments without anguish, and the nightmares are in the past. It is the injustice that lingers.

"I don't think I would have gotten so mad if I had just been treated decently," he says.

Unbeknownst to Domain, the cab that picked him up for the Cinco de Mayo party was uninsured. It seemed almost impossible that Harris Cab was still in business at all.

"It was remarkable that the cab company didn't have insurance," says Schlichter. The Arch Grants co-founder and prominent attorney took on Domain's case. "They made it very clear they had no insurance, and if we sued them, they would go bankrupt." When the lawyer insisted on seeing their financials, he learned that Harris had been slapped with more than twenty civil judgments over the years and was the subject of federal tax liens in excess of $140,000.

Domain was stunned. He wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, which regulates taxi service in the St. Louis region, hoping the MTC would take Harris off the road, step up enforcement and include new protections to keep others from getting hurt. He figured he was the perfect person to push for more accountability, given the personal hell he had suffered and the fact that he had some standing as an Army veteran and Arch Grants recipient.

No one even bothered to respond, although commissioners would later say they weren't given the letter by staff. Harris never faced any discipline from the regulators. (The taxi commission says that's for two reasons: One, they claim they didn't know about the incident until years later. Two, they believe any lapse in coverage was not the fault of the cab company. They blame its broker.)

click to enlarge Domain snapped this picture of one of Harris' blue taxis, blocked up on rocks, as he tried to illuminate the company's practices. - COURTESY OF ED DOMAIN
Domain snapped this picture of one of Harris' blue taxis, blocked up on rocks, as he tried to illuminate the company's practices.

The MTC was created in 2002 to bring order to the unruly world of cars for hire in the city and county, but it has always retained the air of a fox watching the hen house. By law, four of the nine commissioners must come from the industry, ensuring cab company owners maintain a powerful voice in how they are regulated. Unsurprisingly, when the commission did crack down, it focused on the drivers, rather than the companies. A Riverfront Times investigation published last year found the commission fined drivers, whose fees fund the MTC, a total of $21,918 between January 2014 and September 2015. Just one cab company was fined during the same period, despite numerous complaints from consumers about their experiences. Naturally, it was Harris Cab, cited in 2015 for allowing an unlicensed person to drive. The fine? $100.

The only companies the MTC seemed to have any real interest in fighting were the newcomers, app-based services Uber and Lyft, which cab owners saw as potentially lethal competitors to their business model. Led by its chairman, the influential lobbyist and longtime St. Louis political insider Lou Hamilton, the commission argued it was simply looking to keep people safe. It painted the ride-sharing services as lawless renegades in contrast to regulated cab drivers.

Even after cities across the nation let the ride-sharing companies in, St. Louis resisted. The MTC sued Lyft and won an injunction in 2014 to bar the service, and then immediately began citing Lyft drivers who continued to operate.

The MTC similarly battled Uber in court, insisting that its drivers submit to the commission's background checks, including fingerprinting. Uber claimed that the mandate was needlessly burdensome and that its online background checks were just as effective.

The commission's fight against Uber struck Domain as emblematic of the lethargic, influence-driven political system that he believed was choking the city's progress. It just seemed dumb for St. Louis not to welcome a new technology that was already ubiquitous in cities across the country, especially at a time when the city was trying to position itself as a hub for innovation.

And then there was the commission's argument that MTC oversight was the safety net that would protect riders. All Domain had to do was look at his scarred leg or remember he could no longer lift his right arm above his shoulder to see the gaps in that logic. Wasn't this the same MTC that was supposed to ensure that Harris' taxis had insurance before the company sent one of them to pick up Domain and his friends in 2013?

"They're so bad at being bad, they don't even try to hide it," he says.

Uber cars carried million-dollar liability insurance. In contrast, cabs operating in St. Louis were only required to have $200,000 in liability — and Domain was living proof even that was not guaranteed under MTC oversight. He seethed every time he heard Hamilton or a cab company owner cast MTC regulation as the only thing protecting riders.

In July 2015, Domain decided he had had enough. A friend alerted him to a St. Louis Public Radio story on the Uber fight. Domain tuned in just in time to hear a representative from Harris Cab tell the host the ride-sharing services should heed what was "simply an old kindergarten rule: Follow the rules."

Domain could not believe it. He called the station in hopes of getting on air to confront the rep, but the program was just about over. So then he turned to Twitter. During the next five hours, he tweeted 48 times. Forty-five of them were directed at Hamilton.

"Does the MTC only preach safety when they don't have to answer to their own MASSIVE failings?" he wrote in one.

He included pictures of himself lying in his hospital bed after the crash and highlighted bits of the vehicle-for-hire code that prohibit driving a cab without insurance.

"So either Harris lied to the MTC or the MTC is run by incompetent, protectionist tyrants," he added.

Domain now says that it was a conscious decision to go after Hamilton and the MTC on a public forum. They had ignored him for two years, and here was an opening to make them finally feel the pressure. But while the theatrics of an hours-long Twitter shaming may have been calculated, the anger was real.

"Silence won't work for you @Hamiltonstl," Domain wrote in a sign-off message, "if [you] think twitter was something today, wait till you see the crowd I can bring to you in person."

click to enlarge Attorney and taxicab lobbyist Jane Dueker and Domain battled repeatedly online in recent years. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Attorney and taxicab lobbyist Jane Dueker and Domain battled repeatedly online in recent years.

Once he had publicly declared war, Domain settled in for a long fight.

He posted an open letter on Techli to then-Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger that laid out the strengths and possibilities of entrepreneurs at work in St. Louis, describing the extreme kindness with which they had treated him since his crash, and then contrasted that with the "cancer" of the MTC.

He also gave interviews to reporters and vigorously debated MTC lawyer Neil Bruntrager during a KTEC show hosted by Casey Nolen. He continued to fire away on Twitter, where he soon began to spar with attorney Jane Dueker, who is the registered lobbyist for a cab company and is often seen as an ally of Hamilton. He targeted MTC commissioners Tom Reeves, who would go on to succeed Hamilton, Pasta House owner Kim Tucci and Laclede Cab owner Dave McNutt as part of the problem.

The battle hit a crescendo in late July. Domain had rallied dozens of people from the entrepreneurial community and beyond to fill the MTC meeting in support of UberX. The meeting had been moved to St. Louis Community College at Forest Park to accommodate a large crowd, which arrived expecting a vote that could open the door for the service.

But there would be no vote. Hamilton announced that Slay and Stenger, who share appointing power for the nine-member commission, had asked members to wait until they could consider a potential agreement with Uber.

Domain, dressed in a dark sports coat and blue tie, was among the dozens who planned to speak during the public comment session, but Hamilton cut off the comments five to ten minutes early, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Domain stormed the microphone and shouted "Coward! Coward!" Hamilton had him escorted from the room.

Outside in the hall, Domain came face to face with McNutt, the owner of Laclede Cab and a commissioner.

Domain says McNutt chest bumped him and tried to goad him into a fight, telling him, "What are you going to do? You going to hit me, big man?"

The encounter resulted in a furious Domain shouting in McNutt's face as a crowd began to notice. He figures that was the cab owner's goal, to egg him on and make him look like a lunatic. He says he later spotted McNutt walking toward the parking lot, chuckling. (McNutt didn't respond to a request for comment.)

"He got me," Domain says. "Totally made me look like an idiot."

Domain knew he had become too easy to bait.

"I can be very loud; I can be very persuasive," he says. "But when I'm being loud and negative, it doesn't help anybody."

It was a difficult balance. He had committed to persistence, to showing St. Louis' old guard that they could not just ignore him and expect him to go away. He had also become a spokesman for those who sought to shake up the city's insular power elite. Some people supported him in private, even as they feared the political and financial retribution if they confronted the wrong people.

"He didn't care about the political stuff of St. Louis," says Maxine Clark, philanthropist and founder of Build-A-Bear. "He wasn't born here. He took a lot of the heat for people who had to play the softer ball."

At the same time, friends could see that years of fighting were taking a toll. Always a happy networker, the emcee for countless conferences and events, he had grown so angry he began to turn down social engagements. He was in nearly constant physical pain. Domain has lost track of how many surgeries he's had since the crash, estimating the number is now in double figures.

Techli had also suffered. Domain lost a crucial investor during a stretch of repeated hospitalizations. He had dreamed of turning the site into a major news platform with video and thought-provoking stories in the model of Vice, but every time he got going again he was interrupted by another surgery.

And, really, he was out of money. In 2015, after two years of fighting, Schlichter was able to negotiate a settlement of $200,000. Domain says he was left with about $90,000 after medical bills and fees. The money kept him afloat for about eighteen months, and then it was gone, too.

click to enlarge Harris Cab operated for years from its Washington Avenue headquarters, despite numerous civil judgments and federal liens against the business. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
Harris Cab operated for years from its Washington Avenue headquarters, despite numerous civil judgments and federal liens against the business.

He took a friend's advice last year and began to see a counselor, working through crash-related PTSD. He says he learned that in the five stages of grief, most get stuck in the second stage — anger.

Slowly, he began to shift his focus away from the politics and a system that still burns in his mind if he lets it. He eats better and has started hiking again, heading off to Castlewood State Park during his last weeks in Missouri.

Maybe the most surprising thing, he says, is to find people still want to work with him when he was certain his very public, very loud crusade had made him toxic.

"I thought I was done, but then people started calling and saying, 'Hey, would you be interested in this?'" he says. "The second I started letting it go and being positive, everything started happening."

To this day, he has deep allies in St. Louis, who describe him as a genuine and kind man who refused to bow to city politics.

"Ed did it his way, and I really admire how he didn't give up," says Ginger Imster, who was the executive director of Arch Grants before joining the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, "I might not do it the same way, but I appreciate the tenacity with which he approached the situation."

Says Clark, "People thought they could bury him. They couldn't, but they thought they could."

Liz Lohman, the founder of Cubicle.com, and her entrepreneur husband, Dan, basically adopted Domain as part of their family after he was injured. It was heartbreaking to see him struggling to keep the dream of his company alive while also fighting so hard for what she and others in the startup community generally saw as a righteous cause.

"When he stood up and pointed at the taxicab commission — that was him trying to make things better," she says. "He was wronged, almost killed, and he was just trying to make things better."

Friends sometimes questioned his tactics, but they point out he was ultimately effective. Uber and Lyft now operate in the city and county. Two years after Domain first went public with his war on the MTC, the services have even gained access to St. Louis Lambert International Airport, one of the last strongholds of the cab industry.

He has also outlasted several of his enemies. Harris Cab has quietly gone out of business, and construction crews at its former Washington Boulevard headquarters last week were busy renovating the space for something new.

Hamilton, who famously had Domain tossed from the July 2015 commission meeting, resigned from the MTC five months later. He says it had nothing to do with Domain: "I just have no opinion of the guy, because I don't know him." But he admits he is "happy as a clam" that he's no longer fighting the battles on the commission.

"I wish him well," he says. "He's not had anything good to say about me."

The MTC did increase liability insurance for cabs to $400,000 from the $200,000 minimum at the time of Domain's crash. But that turned out to be a little too progressive. In May, after complaints from the cab companies, the commission lowered it to $125,000.

click to enlarge Domain left his Cherokee Street apartment at the end of August and set out for a new start in Denver. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
Domain left his Cherokee Street apartment at the end of August and set out for a new start in Denver.

Domain sold Techli in July. It was difficult, but he is happy to see it live on, even if it is without him. He says the sale gave him enough money to live off for about six months, which is a good feeling after grappling with medical debts that ultimately forced him to file for bankruptcy.

Newly unburdened, he visited Denver recently and liked what he saw. There are cranes everywhere, and entrepreneurs are pushing some exciting ideas.

He is not allowed to say much about his new job until his employer is ready to announce its new project, but he says he got it through a St. Louis connection.

"I'm going to keep rooting for the good parts" of St. Louis, he says, adding that maybe he'll be back one day. "It's definitely bittersweet. I had big plans for St. Louis, but c'est la vie. I guess I'll have big plans for Denver.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly how much money Domain received in the sale of Techli. It was enough to sustain him for about six months, not a few years. We also erred in describing the TV station that aired Domain's debate with Neil Bruntrager. It was KETC. We regret the error.

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