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Is It Too Easy to Clobber a Cabbie?

Walid Ziada’s fellow cabbies say his attackers are getting off lightly—despite a new state law intended to protect taxi drivers



In the wee hours of Saturday, January 25, taxi driver Walid Ziada was cruising west on Belmont toward the six-way intersection with Ashland and Lincoln. The bars had just closed, and he expected to find plenty of fares.

On the far corner of Belmont and Lincoln, Ziada would later tell a judge, he saw a tall, burly blond man with a camera flagging him for a ride—or so he thought. When Ziada pulled over to the curb, he said, the man started taking photos of him but did not move to get into the cab.

Ziada had seen YouTube videos that mocked cabdrivers and he thought this guy might be up to something along those lines. He didn't want to be made a "clown." He rolled down the window and told the man to stop taking pictures.

The man, he would later tell the judge, refused.

So Ziada told him again, more forcefully. The man smirked, as Ziada tells it, and kept shooting, saying "It's my fucking camera, I can do what I want." He took photos of the cab's license plate, and then, according to Ziada, circled around to the driver's side and through the open window hit Ziada hard in the left eye with the camera.

Ziada told the judge he momentarily saw black, then felt throbbing pain. "And I look in front of me and the guy with the camera is smiling at my face and taking more pictures while I was bleeding."

Then, he testified, a few more people ran up. Another man said, "What, what, you want some?" and reached through the window and punched Ziada with a fist. According to the police report, Ziada said the man also told him, "You think you're slick, we'll put a cap in your ass."

Two women and another man had run up as well. Ziada would tell the judge that one of the women slapped him, but he wasn't sure who.

Ziada says he rolled up the windows and dialed 911 on his cell phone while the man with the camera kept taking pictures and the others banged on and kicked his cab. Then, he says, they all ran off toward a black Ford Focus and drove south on Ashland.

Ziada made a U-turn on Belmont and followed them. At Barry Avenue, a block south, Ziada pulled in front of the Focus at a red light and stopped. The Focus bumped his cab, he would testify, then pulled around him and kept going. Ziada followed it another block to Nelson Street, and then into the parking lot of a shopping plaza with a Dunkin' Donuts and a China Buffet.

Some of the occupants of the Focus hopped out, Ziada would tell the judge, and the man with the camera disappeared into a building on Nelson. The Focus drove off, but the driver, who Ziada would identify as the man who punched him, soon showed up again on foot, and he and his companions resumed pounding on the cab. Ziada was again on the line with 911, and a police cruiser soon arrived.

Cabbie Walid Ziada
  • Ziada on January 25

After talking to Ziada, the officers arrested the driver of the Focus: Bryan Ketter, a 39-year-old ex-marine who teaches social studies at Geneva High School. Along with Ketter's wife, Carrie, his sister Mary Jo, and friends Jay Koyak and Julie Wayland, he'd been attending a party to celebrate Obama's inauguration at Fizz Bar & Grill, 3220 N. Lincoln.

Police called an ambulance, which took Ziada to Illinois Masonic Hospital. His left eye was already nearly swollen shut. He was diagnosed with facial hematoma, blunt head injury, and a fractured maxilla. A couple hours later, after the hospital treated and released him, he went to the police station on Belmont and Western and filed charges against Bryan Ketter. Then he went home to Bridgeview and slept. He woke up later that day with a massive headache and a mass of dried blood and bruised flesh around one eye. It was about a week before he could work again.

Ziada, who just turned 36, was born in Puerto Rico to Palestinian parents and spent most of his childhood in Jerusalem with his family. They moved to Chicago when he was 15.

About seven years ago he opened a hookah bar and cafe on the 5000 block of West Lawrence. A social, outgoing guy who likes cooking, he enjoyed running the place. But Chicago's smoking ban threw a wrench into the works—it meant he couldn't serve both hookahs and food. So about two years ago Ziada sold the business and started driving a cab. He figured it would be a good way to be his own boss and save up money for another project—possibly a 24-hour Greek restaurant.

Ziada doesn't mind driving a cab, though he feels like people look at him as "lower class" than when he owned the cafe. He drives the night shift, from 6 PM until about 3 AM, later on weekends.

He likes to chat up his passengers, and he says most of his passengers appreciate it, saying things like, "You're the best cabdriver ever, you actually talk to people." When he gets compliments, he makes sure the passengers know his driver number and suggests they call the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

"And they actually do," he says somewhat incredulously. Last year he was one of 19 drivers honored for exemplary service, which means they received three or more official compliments during the year.

But Ziada has had his share of unpleasant passengers too.

"I've had them run off without paying, smoking crack cocaine in the backseat," he says. A few months ago a passenger racked up a $24 fare and then said he had no money to pay. Ziada took him to the police station, where, he says, officers found $7 in the man's pocket and gave it to Ziada, telling him he shouldn't bother pressing charges. The passenger called him a loser, and as Ziada drove by the man he threw the money back at him.

For the most part, he says, he lets the bad experiences roll off his back and tries to enjoy the work. "I like to associate with people," he says. "It's not like cabdrivers don't have a life."

The United Taxidrivers Community Council, or UTCC, is a group of cabdrivers that with the support of the American Friends Service Committee is organizing drivers to demand better wages and treatment from city authorities, cab leasing companies, and customers. It was founded last year, but its roots go back to the 2005 murder of Haroon Paryani by an enraged city health official, Michael Jackson, who commandeered Paryani's cab and ran him over with it three times after an argument over an $8 fare.

Ziada called the UTCC about his January run-in. When Peter Enger, a UTCC organizer, and other drivers heard his story, they saw him as a dramatic example of what they'd been campaigning against: violent attacks on cabdrivers made with what seemed to them to be something close to impunity.

Cabbies do risky work: driving alone, late at night, carrying cash, they are prime targets. But according to reports from drivers and a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Labor and Employment Relations that was released October 7, the scariest people many drivers face aren't robbers with guns or lead pipes in "bad" neighborhoods but rather inebriated white-collar types partying in trendy areas.

"People think the dangerous areas are where the black, Puerto Rican, Mexican people live," says Enger. "But we suffer the most violence in the most highly trafficked areas. It's the drunks and rowdies who perpetrate violence on the cabdrivers. Is it because [drivers] are immigrants, because of prejudice? We don't know. But what we do know is they do it because they can."

In 2007 the Illinois General Assembly passed a law upgrading battery against a working cabdriver to aggravated battery, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. But whether the state actually brings that felony charge is up to the prosecutors. The law was invoked in the prosecution of Thomas Gniadek for beating Chinese-American driver Stanley Shen in May 2008, breaking his nose and necessitating 12 stitches in his face. Gniadek was sentenced to ten days in jail, a $500 fine, and a year's probation—punishment the UTCC describes as much stiffer than the usual.

The UTCC is pushing Chicago's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP), which regulates taxis, to require all cabs to display a red UTCC-designed placard notifying customers of the new law. The department has refused. UTCC members say they've been told the placard would create too much "clutter."

But BACP spokesperson Efrat Stein says a mention of the law will be incorporated into next year's revision of the sticker posted in every cab that tells passengers how to file complaints, use credit cards, and so forth. UTCC members say that won't be good enough. They want something that really stands out—like the road signs that warn drivers of the dire penalties for injuring a highway worker.

"These laws only work as a deterrent," says Enger. "The public need to know there will be repercussions if they attack a driver, and drivers need to know they can report things and get results."

For weeks Ziada says he worried that Ketter or his friends would seek him out and attack him. He switched cab companies to make it harder for them to find him.

Ziada would testify that as Ketter's June 18 trial neared, Ketter called him. Despite the new law, Ketter was charged only with misdemeanor battery, and although Ketter told him he'd easily beat the charge, "he started blending in that he wanted to settle out of court," Ziada would tell the judge. Ziada asked for $2,000. His bills came to $6,400, but "he wasn't the only person that attacked me, so I wanted to be fair. And he denied that he knew the other person." Ziada would testify that Ketter offered him $700—if he'd fail to show up in court.

About ten days before the trial, the two met at a northwest-side bar Ziada suggested called Chicago by Night. Ketter gave Ziada a check for $350 signed by his wife, Carrie, and promised another $350 if Ziada didn't show up for the trial. As evidence, Ziada's attorney submitted the check signed by Carrie Ketter and a scribbled note signed by Bryan Ketter that said "June 18 3:45 Starbucks at Diversey & Shefield. $350."

Ziada said Ketter also told him that if he skipped the trial Julie Wayland would drop the complaint she'd filed against Ziada—on March 24, two months after the incident—with BACP.

One of the reasons cheated or assaulted taxi drivers are reluctant to press charges, says Peter Enger, is the threat of a complaint being filed against them in retaliation. Drivers say the complaint system is skewed against them: they have to sacrifice valuable driving time to show up at hearings, while the complainants are allowed to testify by phone. And any hearing might end with the loss of their chauffeur's license—their livelihood.

Wayland's complaint alleged that Ziada "recklessly swerved into our lane repeatedly, eventually forcing us to pull into the parking lot of Duncan [sic] Donuts." As a result of the experience, "I am weary [sic] of cab drivers and have suffered from related nightmares."

Another piece of evidence the state introduced at the trial was a typed and signed note that Ziada said Ketter gave him along with his wife's check. The note said, "To whom it may concern: I Julie Wayland have no intention of maintaining my consumer affairs complaint against Walid Ziada. I do not intend to show up at the administrative proceedings."

But Wayland's wasn't the only complaint that had been filed in March against Ziada. A second complaint was lodged by a man named Jeff Bierbrodt on March 25.

Bierbrodt, a consultant for a California-based environmental engineering firm, was the host of the Obama party at Fizz and, as it turned out, the man with the camera. In his complaint, he claimed Ziada attacked him. As he was leaving Fizz, he told the city, he took some pictures of friends departing. Ziada's cab pulled over and "the taxi driver lowered the front passenger side window and stated that I could not take photographs of him. . . . Upset about the possibility that I photographed him driving through the intersection . . . the taxi driver became visibly agitated."

Though Bierbrodt assured him he was merely shooting the "streetscape," he said, Ziada exited the cab and "stepped around the rear end of the vehicle and rushed up to me. The driver swung at me with his right hand. I reacted defensively by putting my hands up to block my face and stepped backward. While I stepped backward, I lowered my hands. My right hand, which was holding my Nikon D80 digital single lens reflex camera fitted with a Nikkor 18-200mm/f3.5 to 5.6 G ED AF-S lens struck the left cheek of the taxi driver who was rushing forward to fill the space of my retreat. A friend from the car that I was originally photographing approached and directed me into his vehicle."

In Bierbrodt's account, he and his friends got out of the car in the parking lot "to assess the situation and phone the police" and then returned to "our vehicle for safety and tried to drive to the Belmont and Western police station. The taxi driver again cut us off, so we parked back in the lot near Nelson. . . . I fled on foot hoping the taxi driver would follow me and allow my friends to reach safety, however the driver did not follow. The next day I realized that my camera and camera lens were broken."

"Bierbrodt was undone by filing that complaint," says Ziada's attorney, Laurie Burgess. "Otherwise, we would never have known his identity."

The city didn't notify Ziada of the two complaints until mid-May, and because he'd recently moved, they didn't catch up with him until June—a few days before the trial. He says that when he met Ketter he found himself sympathizing with him. Ketter had two young daughters, was worried that he'd lose his teaching job if convicted, and claimed that in the heat of the moment he got drawn into a situation he didn't understand involving a guy with a camera he didn't know. Ziada says that's why he was willing to take the $700 and let bygones be bygones.

But the UTCC was on the case. It sent representatives to every court hearing, and one driver—acting on his own, says Burgess—e-mailed Ketter's boss to make sure he knew about the pending charge. After the complaints surfaced, giving them Bierbrodt's name, the UTCC established that Bryan and Carrie Ketter, Julie Wayland, Jay Koyak, and Jeff Bierbrodt had all gone to high school around Peru, Illinois, and they were all friends on Facebook.

The UTCC's proposed placard
  • The UTCC's proposed placard

Ziada was furious. He decided to show up in court.

The battery charge Ketter was facing threatened him with a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. His attorney, Michael Goggin, argued his client was a victim of mistaken identity. By focusing on Ziada's statement that he'd seen black after being struck by the camera, Goggin floated the idea that Ziada couldn't have clearly seen the man who punched him. After all, he wasn't sure which woman had slapped him. But Ziada was certain it was Ketter. He told the judge, "I could identify him from a mile away."

Carrie Ketter testified at her husband's one-day bench trial on June 18 that Jeff Bierbrodt's party had been her first real night out in ages; she'd been staying home to take care of the couple's daughters and was still breastfeeding the younger one. The Ketters, who live in Saint Charles, had driven all the way down to Peru, more than 70 miles one way, to drop the kids off with Carrie's parents before heading into Chicago. Jay Koyak, Mary Jo Ketter, and Julie Wayland had had dinner and drinks together; Carrie and Bryan joined them at Fizz.

Carrie testified that when Ziada gave chase he first tried to run them off the road, then pulled in front of them at the light, put his cab in reverse, and rammed them. She described Ziada in his car in the parking lot chasing the others on foot.

Jay Koyak testified that he'd squeezed into the Ford Focus hatchback outside Fizz to make room for Bierbrodt to get in. He said Ziada didn't seem to care about the women, but was trying to "run us down"—meaning the men. When the squad car pulled up, Ziada "raced" over to it, Koyak said, while he and his friends "didn't try to run or anything. We just walked off and we figured that we really had not done anything wrong."

On several points, the defense testimony conflicted with the narrative offered by Jeff Bierbrodt in his complaint against Ziada. He'd said that after his camera inadvertently struck the onrushing driver, a "friend . . . approached and directed me into his vehicle." But Carrie Ketter testified that her husband went nowhere near Ziada's cab. Her testimony that after reaching the mall her husband parked the Focus on a side street didn't square with Bierbrodt's account that "we parked back in the lot." Nobody at the trial made any mention of the dash to Belmont and Western that he said they attempted. As for the brief conference "to assess the situation and call the police," assistant state's attorney Becky Hougesen had every defense witness who'd been in the Focus acknowledge during cross-examination that nobody called.

In her closing argument she marveled, "Everyone is just so scared and shocked that they don't think to call the police during this brutal chase!" They all admitted in testimony that they'd been drinking free beer at the Obama party; no one was sure how many drinks he or she had consumed. Hougesen's closing argument described the scene in the parking lot as drunken chaos:

"Some say the car was chasing them. Some say that the car was not. Some say they have no idea. Really, you have no idea if a car is chasing you in a parking lot? It simply does not make sense."

Furthermore, she went on, after Ketter fled from Ziada's rampaging cab, what did he do? He parked his car on a side street and went back to the parking lot.

"Does that make sense? No. He doesn't call the police once he has gotten away. . . . No. He wants to see where his friends are. Because at this point each one is intoxicated. . . . And all of his friends are all over the place."

Judge Anita Rivkin-Carothers found Ketter guilty of misdemeanor battery.

"I would have to ask myself, would a person who did not strike Mr. Ziada offer to pay him and did in fact tender him a check for $350?" she said.

Before the judge sentenced him, Ketter told her he'd lost 15 pounds from the "incredible" stress of the past five months, and Carrie's breast milk had dried up. He said he'd had to take four or five days of unpaid leave to deal with the case, and that his boss had been told "I was being charged with a felony." He went on, "You know, 453 people applied for my job last year—453. I was fortunate to get it." Said Ketter, "The stress has been unbelievable."

The prosecutor asked for supervision and anger management classes. The defense asked for supervision only. Ketter was sentenced to 12 months supervision. He's still teaching at Geneva High.

Ziada felt vindicated by Ketter's conviction. But in the case of Bierbrodt, awaiting trial on the same charge of misdemeanor battery, he hopes for more. "I want this guy to get a felony," he says. "I could've lost my eye."

But Andy Conklin, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, says there isn't enough evidence to support a felony charge against Bierbrodt, and a police detective told Ziada's attorney, Laurie Burgess, that the problem is the state lacks witnesses. "Obviously the felony review unit is aware of [the new] law and will charge it when appropriate," Conklin says.

Then what good is the law? Enger wonders. "There will often be no witnesses because we are always alone," he says. "If they are going to use that argument, they're basically saying this law can't ever apply. But if you're talking about coming down to the credibility of one guy against another, that's why we have a court system. The courts deal with cases without witnesses all the time."

The charge against Bierbrodt could be upgraded, and Burgess hopes it will. "In my mind, if this is not the case to upgrade, then the law is useless," she says. "It's undisputed he's on duty, undisputed he was greatly harmed, undisputed he's a taxi driver, undisputed he called the police four times asking for help. I don't understand why this isn't the right case to go for a felony."

Meanwhile, Bierbrodt and Wayland's complaints against Ziada still hang over the driver's head. A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, October 13, but the city postponed it to February.

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