Photo by Danny Wicentowski
UberX driver Gary Dees thought he was following the rules when he dropped off a passenger at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport last Thursday. He had made the same trip dozens of times before. Yet the 67-year-old retiree from Hillsboro found himself leaving the airport in handcuffs.
Dees says he spent around five hours in custody. He had to pay $130 to retrieve his Chrysler minivan from an impound lot.
According to his arrest notice, he was cited for owning and operating an unlicensed taxi cab. But that was only the beginning of his woes. While no one in law enforcement would give details on the record, it appears that Dees may end up facing more serious charges.
Dees' problems with the police force at Lambert began earlier this month, when he says he ran into trouble at the airport for the first time in his Uber career.
After months of the ride-sharing app operating here in defiance of regulators, the region's Metropolitan Taxi Commission vowed in May to start citing UberX drivers
. And sure enough, Dees says an MTC enforcement agent confronted him after dropping off a passenger at Lambert earlier this month. The agent demanded Dees hand over a driver's license.
"I said to him, ‘I don’t think you’re a law enforcement officer. You’re just for taxi cabs, making sure they got their medallions.' Anyway, I refused to give it to him, so he called an airport cop over."
When an officer from the St. Louis Airport Police Department made the same request, Dees says he handed over his license. The officer, in turn, gave Dees a warning: "He said, 'Don’t come back to the airport.'"
Dees didn't heed the warning. He says he returned to the airport multiple times over the next week or so.
Then, on the morning of July 14, Dees picked up a male passenger in Clayton and delivered him to the American Airlines terminal at Lambert. After helping the passenger with his bags, Dees says he was about to drive away when an airport cop ordered him to exit his minivan.
It was the same officer who had previously warned him not to come back, Dees says. Another officer stood in front of the minivan, which Dees says was already in gear and moving forwards. Dees remembers someone yelling that he was assaulting an officer.
"The whole thing lasted two or three seconds," Dees says. "I hadn’t touched anybody at all. And then they cuffed me. "
Dees' minivan was towed and impounded. Dees was arrested and transported to Clayton for processing. Some five hours later, he was released.
The next day, Uber disabled Dees' account while it conducted an internal investigation of the incident. That same day, an Uber spokeswoman told Riverfront Times
that the investigation determined Dees was not at fault, and his account was reactivated a short time later. Dees says Uber has offered to pay his fines and attorney fees.
He's not sure where everything stands beyond that.
"I’ve never been arrested. I didn't know if you get a phone call or if that's just in the movies. And I really didn’t even know what I did," he says.
UberX drivers like Dees (who use their personal vehicles) to only perform drop-offs at the airport. Pickups are the domain of the licensed taxi cabs and Uber's more expensive limo service, Uber Black, whose drivers are regulated by the taxi commission.
When Uber launched its regulation-defying UberX service
in St. Louis last year, the ridesharing company was essentially challenging the MTC to defend its own turf. The California-based company filed an antitrust lawsuit
against the MTC and also attempted to pass statewide legislation to overrule the MTC's control of taxis in the region. But when the legislative efforts stalled, the MTC announced that it would to start writing citations
against UberX drivers caught in the act.
Still, an uneasy truce has persisted while Uber and the MTC slug it out in federal court. Thousands of UberX drivers ply their trade in St. Louis.
Among them is Dees, who started working as an UberX driver seven months ago.
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," Dees says of Uber. He appreciates the flexibility of working off an app. "I’m on a lot of meds for diabetes and high blood pressure. I've got bad knees. With Uber, I go online and I’m going to work. I get tired, I go offline and I’m done."
Government spokespeople have been cryptic about the incident. On Friday, we spoke with Jeff Lea, a public relations manager at Lambert Airport, in hopes of obtaining further details on the arrest.
"He was not arrested for anything being related to being an Uber driver," Lea said. When we noted that Dees' arrest notification specifically lists violations for owning and driving a vehicle without a license from the MTC, Lea simply repeated his answer.
"He was not arrested for the citations that you see on that sheet," Lea said. "It's not for those violations."
The arrest notification Dees provided to the RFT is below. Although the document features the logo of the St. Louis County Police, a spokesman said the department was not involved in Dees' arrest.
A search of online court records shows no pending criminal cases against the Uber driver — for now.
In any case, Dees isn't letting the arrest get in the way of his job. He's back to ferrying passengers around St. Louis — and yes, even to the airport.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com