Thursday, August 11, 2016

Uber Driver at Center of St. Louis Rape Investigation Speaks

Posted By on Thu, Aug 11, 2016 at 11:32 AM

click to enlarge A ride that began at the Wheelhouse downtown has an Uber driver now speaking out. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • A ride that began at the Wheelhouse downtown has an Uber driver now speaking out.

In September 2015, Uber raised its middle finger to the Metropolitan Taxi Commission and launched its UberX service in St. Louis, defying regulators. Nearly a year later, with court challenges mounting, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about an Uber driver who allegedly witnessed a rape in his backseat has given the company's enemies a fresh source of ammunition. 

The story, by the P-D's Joe Holleman, has been seized on by critics of the ride-sharing company. It suggested that an Uber driver had witnessed a young woman being assaulted in the back of his car — and that the company had then failed to cooperate quickly with a police investigation.

But the driver at the center of the case is now speaking out — and his story is remarkably different than the one reported in the Post-Dispatch. Not only does his account make clear that a sexual assault almost certainly did not happen in his vehicle, but it also suggests that the driver went out of his way to protect the young woman from a predatory male passenger.



And while anyone could tell a self-serving story after the fact, an important detail gives the driver serious credibility: He told the story of what happened that night in great detail in a private forum weeks before it was ever made public by the Post-Dispatch.

The driver would not let us identify him other than the initial "T." But he shared details with us that make it clear he is, in fact, the driver in question, and gave us access to the private Facebook forum where he first told his story in striking detail. 

He made it clear that he would not describe his subsequent conversations with the police or do anything to interfere with their investigation. But he wanted to get his story out because he was alarmed by how he'd been painted in the Post-Dispatch.

The P-D story "had so much implied statements that the rape happened and the driver (me) was not paying attention to it," T writes in a Facebook message to RFT. "I made the mistake of reading the comments. People were pointing fingers at the driver. I had to go into hiding."

In the first Post-Dispatch story about the incident, published August 5, Holleman reported a 24-year-old woman's account of how she was raped in the backseat of an Uber vehicle after a night of drinking in downtown St. Louis. Two men riding with her had sexually assaulted her in the backseat, the woman said, in full view of the driver. 

The P-D's report zeroed-in on the metro police's inability to locate the Uber driver, even though more than four weeks had passed since the incident. Reading between the lines in the story, the police didn't seem all that intent on making the case a priority — but when it came to locating the Uber driver, a police detective attributed the delay to “technical obstacles” on Uber's end.

“The driver seems to be a big piece of the puzzle and it seems to be taking a long time” to find him, the woman was quoted saying.

The woman's mother, who was also quoted in the P-D story, drove the point home. 

“Clearly, the best witness is the driver,” the mother said. “And the crime scene is his car. How does it take that long to get that basic piece of information?”

But far from being a witness to the crime, the driver's contemporaneous report suggests he may have actually prevented one.

After making contact with RFT, T allowed us to gain access to a private Facebook group of Uber drivers. He directed us to a 1,200-word Facebook post time-stamped July 3 — the day of the alleged rape.

In it, T described being "pinged" on the Uber app by a male customer at 3 a.m., just around closing time at the downtown club Wheelhouse. (T gave us permission to quote from his Facebook posts.) 
The male passenger is with a very intoxicated female. The female passenger sits in the seat behind me while the male passenger sits in the front passenger seat. A little unusual for drunk couples. I've seen it before, but it still stands out. When we start the ride, the male passenger directs me to Dorsett and 270. Tells me to just head that direction without an address. I comply and get on 40Hwy.
Right off the bat, T's sober recollection of the ride appears to conflict with what the woman told the P-D. There was only one man in the car, maintains T, not two. 

T's post continues (emphasis ours):  
The conversation the male passenger with me was general small chat, but the conversation the male passenger had with the female passenger was suspicious. He was uptalking himself, saying how he saved her from the guys harassing her outside the bar, and complimenting how cute and sexy she looks. *But when he asked her what is her name*, that's when red flags came out.
T began to fear the man was going to take advantage of the young woman. As the driver's mental alerts blared, the male passenger asked him to take the next exit and find a hotel. 
This is when I'm not feeling comfortable at all. He was being a total ass because he didn't want to get a hotel in Central West End and wanted to find a cheap hotel. I'm almost sure what's going on now. The female passenger is highly intoxicated and can't make her own judgments. She's just falling for his compliments and uptalking. She mentioned a few times lightly she didn't know where she was at and she's feeling unsafe.
T exited the highway and arrived at a Red Roof Inn on Hampton Avenue. But he felt duty-bound to stop the young woman from leaving with the man.
He's telling he's going to take care of her and make sure she's "safe" and fed tonight. She says no but in a very submissive way because she was so drunk. He gets out of his side and walks around to the other side of my vehicle. While he's doing that, I tell her DO NOT GET OUT OF MY CAR! Thankfully she didn't as I was ready to dart off if he reached for her arm. 
Although frustrated, the male passenger re-entered T's vehicle and provided another address. T dropped off the male passenger near Page Avenue and Interstate 270. 

At that point, T wrote, he found himself caring for a still very-drunk female passenger. She had also managed to lose her phone, keys and wallet. 

After sobering up a bit, she gave him an address near Maplewood. The address turned out to be a house belonging to a friend, but she didn't have a key or any way to contact the friend.
I tell her, her friend is probably sound asleep up there. She ask me not to leave her alone. She's in shorts and a t-shirt and it's cold outside. We get into my vehicle. Each stage of her sobering up, she searches my vehicle for her stuff. Its not there. She starts to look into my jacket I have laying in the middle console. I'm fine with it as I have nothing in them. 
As the sun began to rise, T finally lost his patience. "I ask her does she have any other friends or anything," he writes. "I need to go home. We go round and round about this for an hour."

He wrote that the woman snapped at him after he asked her not to throw his jacket as she searched for her misplaced stuff. By then it was 5 a.m., and the sun was rising. He decided she would be OK.
I left her but feeling frustrated I rounded the block, got out of my car, and told [her] if I didn't have a heart, not only would [I] not have been with her for over an hour to make sure she's safe but she could have woken up in a strange motel room right now not knowing what the fuck happened to her body.

She gave me a lighthearted thank you as she is still a little drunk. I went home after that.
According the July 3 Facebook past, T sent an incident report to Uber. "In hindsight, I should have called the police and I will next time," he writes. "But at the moment it is always in my head [to] avoid police involvement in a situation with Uber unless it is absolutely necessary" — since, after all, Uber is operating without the city's permission.

But while the night was frustrating, T's narrative on the private Facebook page makes it clear that he was also frustrated with the ridesharing company's response. In a series of updates, he uploaded screenshots of their boilerplate responses to his "incident report" — which he found lacking.

In a subsequent response, an Uber rep reassured T that "I will be following up with" the male passenger "about this incident and reviewing whether they are someone who will continue to have access to our app."

That message represents the last communication T received from Uber about the incident.

Then came the P-D story published August 5.

T was shocked at the coverage and framing of the story: Not only did the article imply he had allowed a rape to occur in his vehicle, but the story featured Laclede Cab Co. president Adam McNutt remarking that this sort of thing would never happen in a regulated cab. 

“If it was one of our cabs, and the meter was on (during the ride), it would take literally seconds to find out who the driver was,” McNutt was quoted saying.

T's shock turned quickly to anger. McNutt's father, Dave McNutt, owns Laclede and serves as a commissioner on the MTC. In T's view, the P-D's August 5 story served as a public relations gift to the St. Louis taxi establishment. And beyond that, he wasn't just willing to talk to the police — he was eager to help.

After reading the story, T says he immediately called Uber Missouri general manager Sagar Shah, who in turn connected him with St. Louis detectives over the weekend. Although St. Louis police had served Uber with a subpoena on July 12, the fact that T had deviated from his route on July 3 had confused Uber's attempts at finding him. (The ride would have been on the credit card of the seemingly predatory male passenger, who has yet to be identified.)

To the P-D's credit, the August 5 story was significantly updated just hours after publication online. It now reflects some details contained in T's original Facebook post from July 3. But the story retains the quotations from McNutt, and T's description of the incident is buried far below the accounts of the female passenger and her mother. Beyond that, it seems to suggest he only came forward because of the P-D's reporting.

Suffice to say, T is more than a little miffed at Uber. He says the company could have identified him immediately, if only had they gone back and looked at their incident reports for July 3. Those reports would show T's remarkably similar description of a predatory passenger being picked up at Wheelhouse at 3 am. Instead, T's complaint was seemingly lost in the bureaucratic shuffle between various Uber reps in different countries. 

T is also upset with the P-D's coverage. 

Since August 5, the newspaper has run two follow-up stories, one reporting that police had identified the Uber driver and the other, published Wednesday, featuring St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson defending his department's investigation of the incident.  Both articles note: "The identity of the Uber driver may have become more obvious to officials after the Post-Dispatch story was published on stltoday.com on Friday afternoon." 

On some level, the P-D and Holleman are right to boast: Until that August 5 story, T had no idea his July 3 ride-from-hell had transformed into a full-blown rape investigation. It was that realization that motivated T to contact the Uber general manager, leading to a meeting with St. Louis detectives on Saturday.

But that doesn't mean T has forgiven Holleman for that first story. 

"Mr. Hollemon [sic] keeps mentioning the original article sparked the discussion to get myself to raise my hand," T wrote in the private Uber Facebook group on Wednesday. "That's like saying you got my attention by punching me in the face with your sensationalizing piece in the original article that made the public believe Uber drivers, who are normal people, would allow that to happen in their own cars." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com 

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