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.

The chain of events that would put Leyvas in harm's way began when Rustin Lee Dood's ancient 1985 Honda died on the side of I-17 just north of Glendale. Dood, a 29-year-old Phoenix woman, and Troy Davis, 27, were left stranded.

Davis was a longtime resident of the land of murky decisions and toxic habits. He'd been steadily eroding for eight years into low-rent crimes and a meth addiction. A ninth-grade dropout, he'd been arrested several times for assault, domestic violence and drug-related crimes. He drank heavily after his girlfriend left him and their daughter, Savanna.

In the last three years of his life, Davis' slide gained speed. He lived on the streets for months at a time, leaving his daughter with his mother and stepfather. He was busted in 1995 for trying to sell a quarter of meth in front of two Phoenix cops. His buyer got away, but Davis, who didn't see the police behind him, was taken into custody. While awaiting trial on that charge, he was arrested again for selling meth to two undercover officers.

Davis' family pleaded with the court not to send Davis to prison. They wrote heartbreaking letters to the judge, insisting that their Troy was not really a bad person. Davis' stepfather promised Davis would have a job and a place to live waiting when he got back on the street. His brother told the court about Troy giving his Christmas money to a poor neighbor when he was a kid. His family even bought him a health-club membership so he could "get back in shape."

On the strength of those letters and a favorable presentence report, Davis was put on probation for both felonies.

But what was wrong in Davis was more than could be fixed by time on the Stairmaster.

Davis got caught in 1997 for possession--meth, again--and forgery. He avoided prison this time by promising to complete a rehab program. He didn't.

The Troy Davis in his family's letters was gone. Only his mother, Diana Gray, got close to what was left of him when she wrote the judge in 1997:

"I know for sure he never wants to go back to jail. He has been there long enough to know that he don't ever want to go back."

Maybe that's why, when DPS Officer Newmark stopped to talk to him, Davis took off running.

Newmark was a 41-year-old rookie, just three months into her field training after a career as a nurse. A mother of four, Newmark had made the decision to join her husband, a 15-year veteran with the highway patrol, as a cop. Just after 3 p.m. on February 6, she saw Dood and Davis standing by the disabled Honda on I-17 and pulled over.

Newmark had just gotten Davis' name down on her notepad when he bolted. He scrambled up and over a chain-link fence and took off running down the road along the freeway.

Newmark got back in her car to follow him, leaving Dood behind, on the side of the freeway. She eventually found Davis, pedaling a stolen bicycle near 25th Avenue and Myrtle.

Newmark wasn't going to try to approach Davis without back-up. She followed him in her patrol car and radioed for help.

But Davis surprised her by doubling back to her car. Newmark later said he put a gun up to her window and ordered her out of the car.

When Newmark hesitated for just a moment, Davis put a bullet through the glass. Newmark was hit in her chin and neck. She could see her skin and tissue flying away from the impact.

Davis took off again. A few blocks away, he ditched the bicycle and stole a car at gunpoint. The car was later found near 39th Avenue and Camelback. Davis was nowhere around.

Remarkably, Newmark drove herself to a nearby fire station while she called in the shooting. Paramedics were just pulling out of the driveway as she rolled up. They took her to John C. Lincoln Memorial Hospital.

The news of Newmark's shooting spread fast over the police bands.
"At first it's just chaos" when a fellow officer is shot, Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Terry Sills says. The radios begin shouting with voices of dozens of cops. "Everybody wants to get there to help. That's inbred in public safety officers and law enforcement. Then they want to help catch the guy."

A battalion of police descended onto the scene, searching for the shooter. Davis--never a master criminal--had left plenty of clues. His name was still on Newmark's pad. Newmark selected his mug shot in a photo lineup, and a clear thumbprint from the Honda confirmed his identity.

Davis became the Valley's most wanted man. "MOM COP SHOT," a headline in the Arizona Republic blared in end-of-the-world type. A $3,000 reward was offered by Silent Witness and the Arizona Highway Patrolmen's Association. DPS and the Phoenix police held a joint press conference about the case. Newmark, just out of the hospital, was there, too, the wound still fresh on her face.

The cops had checked more than 100 leads, they announced, but were coming up dry.

The tip that would trigger the shoot-out around Leyvas' cab didn't arrive until 3 a.m. on February 12.

Detective Kenneth Proudfit, the night detective on duty for the Phoenix police, got a call from the Sunnyslope Juvenile Detention Office. An informant had come in to say he knew where Troy Davis could be found. The informant had to remain secret because he feared for his life if anyone found out he was the one who'd turned Davis in. Proudfit agreed.

A couple days before, the informant told Proudfit, a friend came by his place with a big guy named Troy. The friend wanted to know if Troy could stay a while because he was in trouble. The informant said sure, and Troy stayed with him for the next two nights.

On Wednesday, the friend came back and said someone had "snitched on Troy" and Troy had to get out. The informant agreed to take Troy to a motel. He rented a room under his own name with a $50 bill that Troy gave him and $10 of his own.

The informant got Troy checked in about 4 p.m. At 4:20, he went back home and picked up Sunday's newspaper. The man in the picture had long hair, but the informant realized the guy who'd been staying with him was the same man wanted for shooting a cop in the face.

And, he learned, there was a reward.
About 10 p.m., the informant called Davis at the Motel 6. He asked if Troy needed anything to eat, and Davis said he'd ordered a pizza and was going to crash.

The informant waited almost five hours before going to police to cash in on his knowledge.

Proudfit and two other detectives went to the Motel 6 to confirm the informant's story.

The desk clerk verified that someone had checked into Room 227 using the name of the informant. Proudfit and the other two detectives staked out 227 as they waited for back-up.

Davis' choice of the motel was the only good decision he'd made in the series of colossally stupid moves that started when he ran from the DPS officer. It is one of a cluster of generic overnight stops along I-10, designed to provide anonymous shelter and minimal human contact. If his friend hadn't sold him out for $3,000, it's possible no one ever would have known he was there.

But now that the police had him, they weren't about to let him get away.
Sergeant Chuck Mount, commander of Special Assignments Unit Sam 52, was called in at 5:20 in the morning. He paged his team and had them converge on the Motel 6.

As the SAU members started to show up, Proudfit drove downtown and briefed Detective Mike Meislish, the investigator heading up the probe into Newmark's shooting. Meislish got a search warrant for Room 227 and Troy Davis.

Four hours later, around 9:30 a.m., a second SAU squad showed up at the motel to assist. There were now 17 SAU members--plus about a half-dozen other cops--surrounding the motel. The officers parked their undercover vehicles in strategic positions in the lot; two cops moved into the room next to Davis; another three took a room across the courtyard.

Then, they sat and waited.
At 10:30 a.m., the front desk clerk called Davis' room to ask if he'd be staying. Davis said he'd be checking out and that he had a ride coming, police reports say.

An hour later, Frank Leyvas showed up in his TLC taxi.
Police say shooting broke out because Davis refused to put his hands up when officers approached the cab, and instead aimed a gun at one of the SAU officers.

Officers Mike Perry and Vic Roman pumped a total of five rounds into the cab from an assault rifle and a shotgun. Davis died in the back seat, his face blown off by a bullet that struck him in the back of the head and kept on going.

Leyvas, trying to scrunch down and out of the way, was hit in the neck and forearm by bullet fragments.

One Phoenix police officer, Greg Redmon, was standing at the front of the cab where he was hit in the shoulder by a bullet ricocheting off the cab's window frame.

Leyvas and Redmon were lucky. A bullet lodged in the dashboard, just a few feet from Leyvas' head. Shotgun blasts also hit the front windshield, the rearview mirror and the back of the driver's seat.

Just after the shooting, fire department medics took a video of their first aid efforts. In it, Leyvas watches the chaos all around him with the glazed look of a man at the edge of a plane crash. When a paramedic asks him if he's hurt or just pissed, Leyvas says, "Pissed." He is the last to be helped to an ambulance.

He and Redmon were both taken to the hospital, treated and released the same day.

TV news copters buzzed overhead and reporters clamored at the edge of the crime-scene ribbon.

Police found two guns on Davis in the taxi: the first was the Walther PPK .9 mm, still in Davis' lap. They also took a .22 Magnum five-shot derringer from the pocket of his leather jacket. Neither had been fired.

Detectives went through Davis' room. They found an empty Pizza Hut box, six empty cans of Pepsi and an overflowing ashtray. The TV set was still on.

Fourteen live .380 caliber rounds, baggies of white powder, and glass vials and syringes were on Davis' body. A toxicology report later showed meth in Davis' blood.

Aside from the guns, drugs and ammo, all Davis left behind in this world was an iron cross and a patch with the words "WHITE POWER."

Almost two months later, Davis was released from his probation when officials realized he was dead.

The case of Troy Davis may be closed, but one question remains, even a year later: Why was Leyvas put in the middle of a firefight?

There are no good answers yet.
The public records available on the shooting only add to the questions.
According to police reports and an internal review of the incident provided by Phoenix police to New Times, police got on the scene at 5:30 a.m. and waited for Davis to make a move. Five hours later, when police knew Davis had a ride coming, the SAU decided to make a "street jump"--cop talk for an arrest in a car. They figured once Davis was in the vehicle, it would be safer than trying to arrest him in his room.

They didn't try to evacuate the motel or warn the motel's guests, despite the hours-long stakeout by a heavily armed SWAT team.

There's nothing in the reports to suggest police even discussed trying to take Davis at some other point, or stopping cars from driving into the lot. When Leyvas arrived, the police in the room next to Davis overheard the suspect say, "My ride's here." There was no attempt to intercept or warn Leyvas.

The police also passed up at least two opportunities to grab Davis before he got near the cab.

Officers were right next door to Davis in Room 228. Yet they let Davis walk past their door, down the stairs and into the parking lot where he passed yet another officer in an undercover vehicle.

One expert on police procedures says the best move would have been to arrest Davis before he approached the taxi.

Jim Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and a former New York City police veteran, won't comment on the specifics of the Davis shooting. But he will say that the best way to stop a suspect is usually out in the open.

"The job of the police is to control the situation. You try to get the guy while he's exposed and you're not," Fyfe says.

By waiting until Davis got into the cab, the Phoenix police created a problem for themselves.

"It's tough to get someone out of a car," Fyfe says. "There are felony stop procedures, where you surround a vehicle and order people out of the car, but if you have one bad guy and one innocent person in the car, you have a potential hostage situation."

Instead, the police gambled that they could shoot around Leyvas. Officer Redmon says Leyvas' head blocked a clear shot at Davis. Perry and Roman both said they knew Davis was right behind Leyvas, but felt that the angle of their shots would carry the bullets away from the driver.

Leyvas didn't have to be there. Once the cab entered the lot, the police could have replaced the driver with one of their own officers before he pulled around behind the building to Davis' room.

In one case cited by Fyfe, police emptied a New Jersey turnpike restaurant when they had a tip that robbers were about to hit the place. They substituted everyone--wait staff, customers, cooks--with cops. "So when the robbers showed up, the police's job was relatively easy," Fyfe says.

Still, none of the officers who watched Leyvas enter the parking lot attempted to stop him or warn him. They let him pick up a man they knew to be an attempted murderer--a man they had warned the whole city was armed and dangerous.

No one at the Phoenix Police Department will talk about what happened that morning. Sergeant Mike Torres, a spokesman for the police, declines to comment because the matter is in litigation. Chief Harold Hurtt did not respond to a written request for an interview sent to his office.

Terry Sills, the police union president, has plenty to say in the SAU's defense, however.

"We sent the very best that we had," says Sills, a 25-year veteran of the force. "These were our most highly skilled, highly trained officers, and we accomplished this with minimal danger to the citizens and to the officers."

Things could have been a lot worse for Leyvas, Sills maintains. The driver should be thanking the police, not complaining, he says.

"Would he be saying this if this criminal got in his cab and drove him out to the desert and shot him? Would his family be suing us then for not doing our jobs?" Sills asks. "He came out of a very dangerous situation with a lot of exposure, with some pretty good results."

Sills says the cab was the best place to stop Davis because he would no longer be in the open.

"We're talking probably a matter of seconds here. And one of the things you have to consider here, knowing [Davis'] potential for violence, if they'd taken him out in the open, it would've exposed a lot more of the public. At least in the cab, there was a containment. There was a real containment in that cab. Out in the open, he could flee, he could pull a gun and start shooting whoever."

Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon also justifies the police's actions in the shooting. After Leyvas was injured, the cabdriver's niece appeared on a TV newscast, criticizing the police for putting her Uncle Frank in danger. Gordon wrote a letter to the editor defending the police.

"The critics are wrong to judge the police department before all the facts are known," Gordon wrote. "These officers are trained to quickly assess volatile situations and to make decisions that will minimize risk to innocent bystanders."

Now that all the facts are in, Gordon still doesn't think it's his place to second-guess the cops.

"I can imagine in the minds of the supervisors, to allow Troy Davis, with his history of violence, with a gun, with a captive, to get away, was not a desirable result," Gordon says. "I believe the police made the best decision under the circumstances."

Motel 6, also named in the lawsuit, blames the police for what happened to Leyvas. "When a SWAT team comes and takes over your property, I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that we had any control over the situation," says Emmett Gossen, a spokesman for the chain. "We don't see what we could have done to prevent the police doing what they did. . . . We weren't the ones using the force. We weren't the ones out there with guns."

When Leyvas was interviewed at the hospital by Officer David Swearingin, the cop seemed surprised that the cabbie was angry.

"Mr. Leyvas was very irrate [sic] when I first contacted him and was short in his answers to me," Swearingin wrote in his report. "He told me he was 'pissed' because we--the Phoenix Police Department--had put him in this situation and he had been shot. He finally calmed down and we were able to discuss this incident."

Leyvas wasn't hurt badly. But he could have been. And that's why, even after a year, he's still pissed.

Leyvas is basically a conservative guy; he's never been in trouble and says he has always supported the police. He's a single father who still works 12 to 15 hours a day as a road supervisor for TLC Taxi, driving passengers around and handling other drivers' wrecks and breakdowns.

During an interview, Leyvas sits, arms folded across his chest, reluctant to talk about it again. Then he starts retelling the tale and his eyes go from cold glass to bewildered.

He can still smell the blood, he says. A week after the shooting, Leyvas got a call from the cops telling him he could pick up his personal effects from the cab, which had been impounded.

A detective wore a biohazard suit when police parked the car in a basement room at headquarters. Leyvas didn't even get air conditioning when he arrived. "You could smell the stench all the way out in the door," Leyvas says.

Leyvas had put his time and sweat into the car, a painstakingly restored 1984 Buick LeSabre. "I've been doing this 19 years, and I know what people expect from a cab and a cabdriver," Leyvas says. "A clean cab means good tips."

The windows of the Buick were broken, and the back seat was covered with Troy Davis' blood and brains. He hurriedly put his things in a paper bag and left, trying not to look in the back. "I'd seen enough," he says, shaking his head.

Leyvas' sister Lydia says the experience has marked her brother.
His anger has led him to take a very uncharacteristic step, she says--filing the lawsuit.

"In our family, we're not the suing type; this is not how we usually handle things," she says.

But to her, it's clear that the police were wrong.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that he was in harm's way," Lydia says. "I truly believe they thought he was dispensable at that point. They didn't take the proper precautions to protect him or anyone else in that situation."

Though he was back to work a day after the incident, he contends he's never gotten over it. He says he still gets nightmares and flashbacks. The incident replays in Leyvas' head when he picks up his fares, "especially if I go into a parking lot, and if someone pulls out between the cars," he says.

Leyvas says he pushed his 7-year-old daughter, Ramona, away from him, leaving her with family while he slept in motel rooms and cabs for two months.

"I was a real asshole, in plain language," he says. "People couldn't stand me. I would take it out on friends, take it out on dispatchers, take it out on customers."

Leyvas says he still drives out to the Motel 6 at 51st and McDowell sometimes. He parks his cab on the street at night and just looks at the place, wondering how this happened.

Now it looks as if the only answers Leyvas will get will have to come from a lawsuit. Percival Bradley, Leyvas' attorney, says he's attempted to settle the case, but the city has taken a cavalier attitude.

"The seriousness of this situation seems to be obvious to anyone, but they don't seem to recognize it," he says of his talks with the city's risk management office. "They seem to be asking, 'He didn't get seriously hurt, so what are you crying about?'--as if they didn't play Russian roulette with the man's life."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at 229-8430 or online at cfarnsworth@newtimes.com

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