Fare Game

Why did Phoenix police let an armed and dangerous suspect climb into an unwitting cabdriver's back seat before they opened fire?

Frank Leyvas had barely asked his passenger, "Where to?" when the cops, like a black cloud in their raid gear, stormed his cab.

An officer aimed a rifle at his head. Leyvas ducked under the dash as bullets tore through the car's rear windshield--and his passenger's skull.

Moments later, Leyvas' fare lay across the back seat, a bloody gutter of flesh where his face had been, bits of his brain sprayed on the cab's upholstery. Leyvas and a police officer had been wounded by stray bullet fragments.

It wasn't until Leyvas was at the hospital that he learned what the hell happened.

Phoenix police were out to get Leyvas' passenger--and they didn't seem to care who got in the way.

Now, Leyvas is suing the police for putting an unsuspecting civilian in the middle of a firefight.

On February 12, 1998, Leyvas was on his way to pick up some guy named Mike at the Motel 6 at 51st Avenue and McDowell.

A 19-year veteran cabbie and a road supervisor for TLC Taxi, Leyvas didn't see the cop watching him as he pulled his cab into the parking lot.

It was about 11:30 a.m. when Leyvas drove around the side of the motel, looking for his fare in Room 227. Across the courtyard, in Room 108, three Phoenix police officers armed with Steyr Aug assault rifles tensed up, ready to move.

Leyvas, a graying man with a paunch that hangs over his belt, hoisted himself out of the 1984 Buick and threw rocks at the door of 227 rather than climb the stairs to the second-floor room.

Mike, his head badly shaved--it looked as if someone had gone at his scalp with garden shears--peered out the door and hollered that he'd be right down. Next door, in Room 228, two more Phoenix police officers waited.

Leyvas wheeled the cab around while Mike--a big guy, more than six feet tall and 220 pounds--descended the open-air concrete stairs. In the parking lot, Mike paused for a moment and peered into the tinted windows of a Chevy. He didn't see the Phoenix police officer who was quickly ducking down in his seat, trying to stay out of sight.

"Easy, don't spook him," Sergeant Chuck Mount, parked around the corner, instructed his men over the radio. "Let him get into the vehicle."

Mike climbed into the cab right behind the driver's seat. Leyvas began to pull out of the lot.

Suddenly, a blue Corsica screeched out of its parking spot, cutting off his exit. Behind him, the other Chevy pulled in close; a brown van appeared alongside his cab.

With the cab pinned in, police ordered Mike out of the car. They say he went for a nickel-plated Walther PPK instead, and two officers shot him dead.

Mike turned out to be Troy Davis, at that time the most wanted man in Phoenix.

Several days earlier, Davis had shot rookie Department of Public Safety officer Trenna Newmark in the face. Davis eluded a police dragnet then, but an informant's tip led Phoenix detectives to the Motel 6 where he was holed up.

There, for almost seven hours, the police watched Davis' room without making a move to arrest him. The Special Assignments Unit--Phoenix's version of a SWAT team--staked out positions in the parking lot, across the courtyard from Davis and in the room right next to his. They even knew that Davis was expecting a ride and would be leaving before check-out. They could have grabbed him as he left his room, as he went down the stairs, in the parking lot as he approached the cab. And yet they waited until Davis got in the car with Leyvas before they tried to stop him.

This was not a mistake. According to the police reports, this was the way the SAU planned it. They chose to make their arrest in the car because they thought it would be easier to contain Davis there.

The Phoenix Police Department has drawn plenty of criticism over the past few years for its use of force on suspects. Phoenix cops lead the nation in the number of fatal police shootings per capita, and the department was rocked last year with a record $45 million police brutality verdict (later dropped to $5.5 million in a settlement).

In this case, the police put an innocent bystander in the crossfire.
The police aren't talking about the incident, but police reports obtained by New Times through a public records request show that the SAU officers passed up at least two chances to confront Davis before he got in the cab.

Leyvas is understandably outraged. "I just felt like my life, the life of a cabdriver, wasn't worth enough for them to take into consideration," he says. "You expect that attitude from criminals, but not from the police."

Last month, Leyvas filed suit against the department and Motel 6 for risking his life. He's never received so much as an apology for his wounds or his terror.

And now he doesn't want one. It's too late, Leyvas says. What he wants now is to make the City of Phoenix pay for using him as bait in a deathtrap.

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