Fear on the Road Running scared: Overlea Cab. Co. struggles to overcome shock from slaying of two of its drivers

February 12, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Liz Rossi is troubled and it shows. So is everybody else at the Overlea Cab. Co. garage out in the commercial sprawl of Pulaski Highway, about a mile or so beyond the city line. "They're all scared," she says. "Especially at night."

Ms. Rossi, the dispatcher, abides in a turbulence of cigarette smoke. She is diminished by the darkness of the tiny room where she works, and bleached in the glare of the single light deployed to fend it off. She is there 12 hours a day.

Voices crackle from the receiver at her side. They have an artificial quality, but they are human voices nonetheless. They are the voices of the cabbies out on the streets, her co-workers, searching out fares, doing their work, tolerating the fear.

Ms. Rossi, 36, directs them here and there. Her voice sounds over-used, sad and heavy. Her eyes, lighting a moon-colored face, tell you she does not sleep well.

"I was the dispatcher when Lorusso took his last call," she says, looking up, squinting through the smoke. "It's not a good feeling."

She is speaking of David M. Lorusso, a 44-year-old cabbie killed three weeks ago. He was found at 2 a.m. with a bullet through his brain in the 5500 block of Bowleys Lane. His cab, out of control, struck a parked car. He was the second Overlea driver killed in less than a year. David W. Tidwell was also shot in the head during a robbery in West Baltimore last March. He was 47.

"When Dave was shot, Anthony [Miller] was the dispatcher," Ms. Rossi says. "He blamed himself. I didn't understand. Now I understand."

She is burdened by remorse over Lorusso's death; she cannot rid herself of it. "I know it's not my fault, but I feel guilty, like I'm responsible for those out there," she says. "I've known Dave eight years. He was a good cab driver. He was a friend."

Her mind and heart are at war, and she is the astonished spectator at these hostilities. She keeps remembering that night: the barking speaker, the shrill bursts of human outrage, the phones ringing; she is there alone, teetering on the edge of hysteria, but hanging on.

"I had a driver screaming," she says. "He was shouting, 'There's blood all over the cab!' I got a woman screaming at me on the

phone asking who's going to pay to fix her car." The car Lorusso's cab collided with.

An expression of disgust flashes across her face. Imagine!

"It's I can't explain it. It's a strange feeling." A fascination. "I

couldn't stay away from the car when they brought it in here."

Right away, Harry Miller, Overlea's owner, had Lorusso's car junked.

"It was a mess," he says.

Dave Tidwell and Dave Lorusso constitute the totality of Overlea Cab's fatalities in the 50 years of the company's existence. Eleven months separate their deaths, but within the context of half a century, it seems like one upon another. Bang. Bang.

For a few, people both in and out of the trade, driving a taxi has a romantic, even picturesque, dimension. Two books have been published about hacking in Baltimore: "Taxi Heaven," a novel written by Pat O'Mara in the '30s, and Thaddeus Logan's more documentary, nonfiction book, "Hey, Cabbie," put out in 1983.

To many immigrants, driving a cab becomes their passage into American society. Africans, Iranians, Indians, Koreans, Russians have all come in their turn to drive cabs in Baltimore and other American cities. But the romance is mostly a thing of the past. Now life on the streets is dangerous and sometimes deadly.

Overlea, with about 20 cab drivers, has seen its staff reduced through violence by 10 percent. In the military, that is the numerical expression of utter disaster. More taxi drivers are slain on the job than any other occupation, according to census statistics.

Gas station attendants, sales clerks and police officers follow.

"I don't have a real lot of trouble here," says Harry Miller, who bought Overlea six years ago. "This is a small company. Everybody is familiar with each other. This has had a bad effect. I've had four drivers quit. Two [of the four] came back."

He shakes his head. His face hints at a confusion of feeling: disgust, helplessness, resignation, maybe the beginnings of despair. It all just confirms what everybody here already knows: There are too many predators on the loose.

About 15 miles to the north, at Edgewood Taxi, things are even worse. Edgewood was established about a year ago by Steve and Betsy Hall. They've already endured one armed robbery, and on Dec. 15 they lost one of their six drivers when 26-year-old Christopher Allen Leavitt was shot through the head in West Baltimore. He had picked up his fare at a convenience store in Edgewood.

"It's discouraging," says a morose Betsy Hall, "but this is a hard business." And it's getting harder.

129 armed robberies

Last year, 129 cab drivers were robbed in Baltimore by people wielding guns, knives, clubs or other deadly weapons, an increase of 17 percent over 1994.

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