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Cutting in Line

Natural enemies mix it up in a clash at O'Hare between a cabdriver and a city inspector.



Nearly seven months have passed since Mel Stewart, a cabdriver, encountered a knife-wielding city inspector at O'Hare, but he won't give up the case. "I've got to stay on this, even if the city won't," he says. "We can't tolerate behavior like this from a city employee, not if we plan to live in a civilized society."

On Monday, July 16, at about six in the evening, Stewart was waiting in a line of cabs at O'Hare to pick up passengers. As he tells the story, he was peacefully reading a book when he heard someone call his cab medallion number. "I looked up to see it's a city inspector," he says. "I later found out his name is Felipe Garcia. I knew he was an inspector 'cause he had his Department of Consumer Services identification badge around his neck." Such inspectors are sent to O'Hare, Midway, and other places where cabs congregate to check whether cabs are up to code and whether they're legally on the street.

"It's a serious thing, him calling out my number," says Stewart, "because he can put me out of business. All those inspectors carry hammers and chisels--they can just pop your medallion off right there and then, and I won't be able to drive my cab and make a living."

So Stewart put down his book. "I said, 'Excuse me, sir, what's the problem?' He said, 'I'll get back to you later.' I said, 'What's the problem?' He said, 'I'll get back to you later.' And then he said, 'And I don't mind killing scum either.' I said, 'What gives you the right to call me scum?' He comes up to my cab and pulls out a knife. It had a blade about four and three-quarters inches. It wasn't a switchblade, but it was a thumb-activated, combat-type of knife. He had the blade flicked open. He was adjacent to my cab, about a foot away. He was holding the knife and talking over it, like he was using the knife to emphasize his statement. He said, 'Like I said, I don't mind killing scum either.' I said, 'What is your problem?' He didn't say anything. We looked at each other for a long moment, and then he just turned and walked away."

Stewart says it wasn't the first time he'd been in a touchy situation. After all, he grew up in a rough south-side neighborhood, spent several years in the army, and has been driving a cab since 1973. But it was the first time he'd ever been confronted by a city inspector wielding a knife. "Usually I try to avoid confrontation," he says. "I learn to look at people and tell them, 'God loves you,' and then get on with my life. But come on, this is different. There's a larger issue here. This man is a city official, and he can't come on to cabdrivers with that sort of swaggering, 'I'm gonna tear you a new asshole' attitude. I sat there in my cab for a minute or so, wondering what should I do. I finally decided to go and talk to him again."

Stewart got out of his cab. "He was over at another cab, popping off the medallion with his hammer and chisel," he says. "I walked over and stopped about 10 to 15 feet away, so he wouldn't feel I was threatening him. I said, 'What's your problem?' He said, 'If you keep bothering me, I'll write you up for being rude and discourteous.' I said, 'Look, my man, if you're going to write it up, I'll dial it up.' And I called the police on my cell phone."

Two police officers responded. By then a dozen or so other cabbies who were also waiting in line had got out of their cabs to watch. One of them was Minas "Nino" Dankha. "I saw the whole thing," says Dankha. "I heard Garcia say, 'I don't mind killing scum.' I saw him holding a knife. I thought, this has got to be a joke, right? But it wasn't. I saw Stewart get out of his cab. Garcia was really being belligerent. Then the police showed up, and I saw Garcia hand the knife to this kid he had tagging along with him."

A kid?

"Yeah, it was a kid, maybe 13 or 14--I don't know how old. I think I heard Garcia say it was his nephew. I don't know why the kid was with him--you'd figure a city inspector would have enough to do without bringing some kid along with him. Anyway, the cops couldn't find the knife on Garcia. So I actually said something. I said, 'The kid's got the knife.' One of the cops goes to the kid and asks for the knife, and the kid gives the cop the knife. I saw it all."

Dankha also says he told the police everything he saw. "I gave them the information. I gave them my name and number. There were other cabbies ready to talk and be witnesses, but the police said they only needed one witness."

Now the police had to decide whether to arrest Garcia. On the one hand, it would be a pain in the neck to haul someone in and write up a report and have to show up in court for an incident in which no one had been hurt. On the other hand, Stewart clearly wasn't going to drop the matter.

"Eventually there were four cops on the scene, including a sergeant," says Stewart. "One of them said, 'Are you going to let it go?' I said no. I said, 'If you don't arrest him I'm going to file a formal complaint with the city. This man harassed me by calling out my number without cause, then he disrespected me by calling me scum, and then he menaced me with a knife. This is beyond tolerance--he needs to be brought before a judge and disciplined.'"

So the police took away Garcia's hammer and chisel and his knife. They slapped on the handcuffs and took him away. "There must have been 50 to 60 cabbies watching, and they were really getting excited," says Stewart. "I'm saying, 'Gentlemen, please. Calm down. Let the police do their jobs.' When the cops put the cuffs on the guy there was a great roar from the cabbies. It was like, oh, man, the lambs had finally kicked the wolves' ass. The score is still wolves 2,000 and lambs 1. But we finally got one."

The police report charged Garcia with a misdemeanor: "assault, aggravated, knife." On July 20 Stewart wrote a letter to Department of Consumer Services commissioner Caroline Shoenberger outlining his complaint against Garcia. He wrote that Garcia "called out my cab number," said "I don't mind killing scum," and "repeated his scum statement while threatening me with a knife."

Six days later Stewart received a letter from Robert Soelter, deputy commissioner of consumer services. "Please be advised that your allegations against Mr. Garcia are being taken very seriously," Soelter wrote. "Your letter is being sent to Alexander Vroustouris, the Inspector General for the City of Chicago who is also investigating the matter....Needless to say, the City of Chicago will not tolerate inappropriate conduct from any employee."

The case started dragging through the courts. "There were three, maybe four continuances," says Stewart. "Garcia always was there. And me, I had to be there. First time I don't show up, they throw the whole thing out. It was always a different prosecutor--basically, whoever happened to be in court that day. It was assembly-line justice, man. Just another incident coming down the line that no one gives a damn about, except for me and Garcia."

Before the January 22 hearing, Stewart decided to contact Dankha. "I had his number, but I'd never called, 'cause the police told me he would be subpoenaed," he says. "But they never did subpoena him, so I figured I'd better get him to court. He said he'd testify as a witness."

But on the day of the hearing, Dankha awoke to discover that his car had been vandalized. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I came outside and saw a hole in the passenger side. Someone had broken the window and stolen my radio."

Dankha says he took the car to get repaired, and by the time it was fixed the hearing was over. "I was driving to court--I was halfway there--when Stewart called me on my cell phone," says Dankha. "He said not to bother. The case was over."

Without testimony from Dankha or the arresting officer, who didn't show up either, the prosecutor moved to drop the case. "The prosecutor said, if it gets to trial you don't have a chance of getting a conviction because you don't have a witness," says Stewart. "I said, 'What about the police officer? How come he's not required to be here?' The prosecutor said, 'The police officer will be reprimanded by the police department.' I said, 'That's like putting a bandage on a corpse--it's meaningless.'"

The case was "stricken off with leave to reinstate," according to a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. That means the case is over, unless the state's attorney revives it within four months.

Vroustouris, the city's inspector general, didn't return calls for comment. But Connie Buscemi, a spokeswoman for consumer services, says the city completed its investigation and suspended Garcia for two weeks without pay. According to her, Garcia did pull a knife, but only after Stewart had been belligerent. "Our inspector, Mr. Garcia, was at the airport checking for suspended medallions," she says. "The medallion number on Mr. Stewart's cab seemed familiar to him. He was going to see if it was on the suspension list. He came back to Mr. Stewart and said, 'It's similar to the number on our suspension list.' Allegedly, Mr. Stewart then made a comment that he wouldn't let anyone take his medallion. He would do him bodily harm."

So Garcia pulled out his knife?

"Frankly, it was a mistake to engage in something like that," she says. "Felipe made a mistake. He knows that. He was punished for what he did. The official reason for his suspension was 'unacceptable conduct by a city employee.' If you put that into lost income, it was about $1,400. It was made clear to him that this was not something he should have done, and that it's not going to be tolerated, and any lack of good judgment in the future and he'll be looking for a new job."

Garcia didn't return calls for comment either, but his union defended him. "We feel the two-week punishment was appropriate," says Peter Schmalz, regional director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "Further punishment is not warranted." Schmalz doesn't dispute Stewart's contention that Garcia pulled a knife, but, he says, "Lots of people carry knives in the city of Chicago. There are lots of incidents like this. Yes, Felipe overreacted, but it was a normal human reaction. Frankly, I don't see this as a major issue. No one was hurt. Our argument is that a healthy suspension is sufficient, but we would vigorously oppose any effort to discharge Mr. Garcia."

Michael Roman, Garcia's lawyer, has a different account of what happened. He says Garcia never pulled his knife. "He had a knife, but it was always in his pouch--he never pulled it," he says. "Here, let me tell you what happened. Mr. Garcia, while performing his duty, called out a medallion number. He was off by only one digit and called out Stewart's number by mistake. Stewart heard it, and right away he jumps on Garcia and said, 'I wouldn't give a fuck about killing an inspector and going to jail for it.' That was the first thing that came out of his mouth. Now, Felipe understands he should have gone away. But he had a normal reaction. He said, 'I wouldn't mind tangling with scum like you,' or something like that."

Roman says he was looking forward to cross-examining Stewart. "I wanted the case to come to court, but unfortunately Mr. Stewart never supplied his witnesses," he says. "He said he had witnesses, but he never supplied them, so I can't help that. I tell you what, I was ready to crucify him on cross-examination. I was ready to show that this man, Stewart, has a tremendous bias, an ongoing vendetta against all sorts of authority, including my client. I was going to say, 'Your honor, look at my client. He's five foot six or whatever. Now look at Mr. Stewart--he's much bigger. Are you going to tell me that my client would threaten a man that big?' Oh, I was ready."

Roman may get his wish, because Stewart says he plans to ask the state's attorney to revive the case. "This time I'm going to make sure that Nino shows up--I'll drive him there myself if I have to," he says. "I mean, this stuff [Roman] says is just ludicrous. Do you really believe they would tolerate me telling Garcia that? As a cabdriver I can't curse anybody out, especially a city inspector. If I talked to Garcia like that they would have had my medallion way back then. And if I did talk to him like that, how come Garcia didn't say that to the police officers? If I had talked to him like that, he had the option to write me up for being rude and discourteous. But he didn't write me up--because I wasn't rude and I wasn't discourteous. I was then what I am now--a cabdriver who wasn't going to stand for this sort of treatment."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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