Escape artist

How artist David Mayhew made the uncomfortable transition from cabbie to getaway driver

Former taxi driver David Mayhew says he and his escaped-convict fare didn’t “talk or listen to the radio or anything.”

Former taxi driver David Mayhew says he and his escaped-convict fare didn’t “talk or listen to the radio or anything.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department didn’t know it had put a prisoner with time still left to serve into the back of rookie taxi driver David Mayhew’s cab.

Mayhew didn’t know he was transporting an escaped convict either. But he found out soon enough, when he was facedown on the sidewalk with his hands on his head, surrounded by armed officers. It was his third day on the job.

“I had no idea what I was doing when I got the call to go out there,” Mayhew said. “I was told to drop these four guys off downtown, but three of them got out of the car early and—the next thing I know—I drive around the block, and six or seven officers have their guns pointed at me, yelling at me to put my face down on the sidewalk and not to move.”

The sheriff’s department seems to be downplaying the incident that began out at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. It was reported briefly in a recent Sacramento Bee column. Sgt. Lou Fatur told the Bee that inmate Othello Cherry was released from the Elk Grove facility 16 months early “by clerical error.” He added: “We had him back in custody in two hours.” Then, he quipped that the inmate they unintentionally had abetted in escaping thought the entire episode was “amusing.”

The sheriff’s media team has refused SN&R’s requests for information about the incident.

Mayhew, the unwitting cab driver on transport duty, did get a call from the sheriff’s department after the incident. He said the caller apologized for the mistake and wished him well. But the experience traumatized Mayhew so badly he quit his job and has had a difficult time working ever since. He’s an established Midtown artist who’s had his paintings sold in local galleries.

He was visibly anxious when he retold the story and was smoking nonstop to calm his nerves.

“These cops were screaming at me: ‘Where did he go? Where did he go?’ And I told them that three guys got out earlier, but I had no idea what happened. It’s bullshit, really. I can’t handle it,” he said.

Mayhew started as a driver for Yellow Cab Co. of Sacramento a few weeks ago to help pay the bills and support his art. He was unaware that his new employer had a coveted account with Sacramento County to transport released inmates from the Rio Cosumnes facility near Elk Grove to the main jail downtown.

“It was unclear to me at the time whether I was driving criminals or guys who were let out legitimately. If I had known I was driving a real inmate, I never would have accepted the call,” he said. “I mean, I figured maybe the county didn’t have the funds to have cops pick these guys up. But then I thought, well, maybe these guys were released, and the cops just wanted them dropped off downtown instead of hanging out in the middle of nowhere.”

Mayhew said his fare of four were surly characters who didn’t mumble a word during the 30-minute cab ride.

“I think the other three guys knew that the one, the one who took the seat right behind me—right behind the driver—had been released early by mistake,” he said. “They were rough trade, though, and we didn’t talk or listen to the radio or anything.”

When Mayhew got off the freeway, three of his passengers asked to be let off before arriving at the jail. He obeyed promptly, pulled over to let the three out and then continued on to the jail with his remaining passenger.

Mayhew said he drove around behind the downtown jail and was met with a blockade of patrol cars and officers with their guns drawn.

“They took the guy that was left in my car and threw him down. I mean threw him on the ground face first. And they were yelling at me to keep my face down. Then, once they realized it was just the two of us and the other guy had got out early, they ran off. And that was it,” he said.

When the sheriff’s department called Mayhew the next day, he asked if they had caught the guy.

“They told me they caught him just down the street. I guess I’m being kind of wimpy about all of this,” he said. “But I had only been on the job a few days. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The business of transporting released prisoners by cab is nothing new to Sacramento County. Fred Pleines, president of Yellow Cab Co. of Sacramento and Mayhew’s former boss, said his drivers love getting calls to go out to the Rio Cosumnes jail.

“It’s an easy $32, and it’s been a real good account for us,” he said. “Drivers can always reject trips at will. David could have rejected that trip. But I don’t think there’s anything unsafe about transporting released prisoners. They’re no longer inmates. They’re no longer a threat. Just go look and see how many cabs are waiting outside the downtown jail. It’s good business.”

Pleines said what happened to Mayhew is tame in comparison to other drivers’ stories. He has gobs of tales about the dangerous mishaps of driving a cab.

“People can get drunk, they can hit their wife, they can get kicked out of a bar—and then they call a cab,” he said. “It comes with the job. We’re doing two to three thousand passengers a day, and every once in a while, someone causes trouble or throws up in your car. It’s a difficult job.”

Pleines’ father first joined with Yellow Cab in 1937. He said taxis commonly were used to transport real prisoners—not just released inmates—to Folsom State Prison during World War II.

“My dad would always tell me that years ago, we used to deliver prisoners to Folsom prison,” he said. “They’d chain the guy up and put a [California Highway Patrol] officer in front and back and deliver prisoners. But then they decided it wasn’t good policy.”

Pleines said the biggest risk to a Sacramento cabbie these days has nothing to do with getting robbed or cleaning up a drunk’s vomit—or even driving guys downtown from Rio Cosumnes jail for the sheriff’s department.

“By far, the biggest risk for our drivers is getting in a car wreck,” he said. “That’s by far the biggest risk. And it doesn’t have anything to do with who you pick up and who you don’t.”

Pleines said he was sorry to see Mayhew go but doesn’t want to sever the company’s relationship with the sheriff’s department.

“Is it an unfortunate situation? Absolutely,” he said. “But that’s a good account, getting calls out to the jail. I’ve got 20 to 30 drivers who would kill for it. And there’s 140 other cab companies in Sacramento that would love to take it over for us. But I don’t want to lose that account. No way.”

Mayhew, for his part, shrugged his shoulders and said he doesn’t care how good the money is; he doesn’t need another experience like that.

“I guess it’s just one of those things," he said. "Wouldn’t you know it would happen to me?"