Woman kidnapped by cabbie says more cabbie backgrounding needed

'I thought after what happened to me things would change,' said the kidnapping victim of a cabbie with a criminal background (KTRK)
April 25, 2014 8:19:45 PM PDT
In the wake of an ABC-13 investigation that found hundreds of ex-cons have received Houston taxicab licenses, there seems to be little government support to tighten the rules to keep out of cabs those with prior convictions for crimes like drunk driving, drug dealing and domestic abuse.

But one person outside government wants the rules changed: Amanda Parks. She was the victim of a Houston cabbie who kidnapped her.

She wants an extensive background check on all cabbies.

"I thought after what happened to me things would change," Parks said. "Don't just let anybody behind the wheel of a cab who's going to be driving people around, who's going to be driving children around."

Her cabbie, Ricardo Steele, despite having a long criminal background for drug crimes and assault, made it through the city's licensing process and was behind the wheel.

Parks was getting a ride home to Kingwood after spending an evening with friends in The Galleria.

But Steele said he was going to take her to a crack house, she recalled.

"When he went a different way, I said something and he said he wasn't taking me home," she said. "He was going to take me somewhere to do drugs, and if I -- if I didn't perform certain favors he said he wasn't going to bring me home. I was scared. I was terrified."

He grabbed her purse and cell phone.

Soon after, she saw her moment for escape.

"When I realized I had a moment and he slowed down enough, I jumped out," she said.

Steele pleaded guilty to kidnapping Parks in 2007.

The city and Yellow Cab did implement some changes after the incident.

The city of Houston now requires a 10-year criminal background examination instead of seven years.

It's unclear if that would have prevented Steele from driving the cab, as he still could have applied and been granted a license under the current system if the review board was satisfied there were mitigating factors in his favor.

Despite the widening of that net, ex-cons routinely get licensed to drive a cab or limousine, ABC-13 reported Thursday.

For example, in just the past six months, 29 people with previous criminal convictions have been given taxi or limo licenses by the city of Houston, which must sign off on those licenses. That comes to a 74 percent approval rate for that six-month period for those with a prior criminal conviction seeking to drive a cab.

The city also keeps this information hidden from the public.

Yellow Cab officials say they go above and beyond when it comes to their cabbies. They do other background checks, such as a three-year dig into applicants' motor vehicle record, as well as making sure applicants are not on the sexual offender registry.

Yellow Cab also says its cabbies go through an orientation and there is a check for major vehicle violations, such as drunk driving, every six months cabbies are on the job.

"We feel proud that in the last seven years we've transported more than 15 million passengers here in Houston, Texas with our companies and there hasn't been one crime against any passenger that one of our drivers has committed," Yellow Cab president Roman Martinez said. "I'm really proud of that."

Beyond relying on the city's system, Yellow Cab, though, can provide no evidence that it separately checks for convictions such as theft, domestic abuse, drug dealing or weapons charges.

And city officials see no need to get tougher on the backgrounding process, including Tina Paez, director of the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

"You don't have people running around kidnapping people in Houston," Paez said. "You don't have drivers killing people in Houston. There's just not that much mayhem happening among taxi drivers, so the facts bear out that the system probably works. "

When reminded of the outcome of the Parks case, she said she was misinformed by staff about the facts and had spoken incorrectly when she said "we had one person who claimed was an abduction and it turned out not to be."

The debate may continue, though.

"The criminal justice system is designed, as imperfect as it is, that if a person has done the crime and done the time, we hold them to a standard that they have somehow paid a debt to society; they must be given an opportunity to re-enter that society," City Councilman Mike Laster said. "As part of re-entering into that society, they have to be able to have a job. Now which job is acceptable in that may become a debate."

Parks said she hopes the debate continues.

She's not against those with criminal records, she said. She just believes those who have paid their debt to society should be able to get a job ?- just not in a role where they are interacting so closely with the public, such as a taxicab driver.

"Everyone has to have a job, but not dealing with people the way they do everyday," she said. "That's not a job for them."

She also says that just because there have been no other kidnappings or crimes against passengers recently, that is no guarantee it won't happen tomorrow.

"I don't believe I'll ever step into a cab again," she said.

Producer: Trent Seibert

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