Uber Rider Who Killed Driver Said She Thought She Was Being Kidnapped

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Daniel Piedra Garcia had been an Uber driver for three weeks when he picked up a rider on June 16 who was headed to the Speaking Rock Casino in El Paso. It was near the end of his work day, but Mr. Piedra had picked up the rider anyway, his family said.

As they passed a sign for Juarez, Mexico, a nearby city over the border, the passenger grew nervous about where they were headed, she told the authorities. According to court documents, she said that she feared she was being kidnapped and taken to Mexico.

That’s when the passenger, Phoebe Copas, 48, grabbed a brown-and-silver revolver from her purse and shot Mr. Piedra, 52, in the head, the authorities said. The car crashed into a roadway barrier before coming to a stop on U.S. Route 54.

Ms. Copas was originally charged with aggravated assault, but that was upgraded to murder after Mr. Piedra died at a hospital on June 21.

A judge set bond for Ms. Copas at $1.5 million. Her lawyer, Matthew James Kozik, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to an affidavit prepared by a detective for the El Paso Police Department, Ms. Copas was visiting from Kentucky and on her way to meet her boyfriend at the Speaking Rock Casino, where he worked. The route that Mr. Piedra was driving was “a normal route to drive” to the requested destination, according to the court document, and the location where Ms. Copas shot Mr. Piedra was not near “a bridge, port of entry or other area with immediate access to travel into Mexico.”

Ms. Copas did not call the police to report her being in any immediate danger before shooting Mr. Piedra, the affidavit said. After she shot him, it noted, she took a picture of Mr. Piedra and texted it to her boyfriend before she called 911.

When officers arrived at the scene, Ms. Copas was being helped out of the car by her boyfriend, according to the court document, and she dropped “everything she was holding in her hands on the ground,” including a brown-and-silver handgun.

In a statement, Uber said it was “horrified” by Ms. Copas’s actions “that took the life of Mr. Piedra.”

“We have been in touch with his family, and our thoughts are with his loved ones during this unimaginably difficult time,” the company said. “We banned the rider as soon as we were made aware of what occurred and have been in contact with police.”

Mr. Piedra started driving for Uber in recent weeks as a second job to help make ends meet for his family, including his wife, Ana Piedra, and their nephew Luis Barragán, 16, whom they had raised since he was 3 months old.

In April, Mr. Piedra underwent knee surgery after a metal rack fell on him while he was working as a diesel mechanic, his family said. But he lost pay after the injury, Ms. Piedra said, and decided to pick up some extra work that he could perform while sitting down.

On June 16, Mr. Piedra began the day by making coffee for his wife. He asked her to make him a burrito because he was going to be out for the day, she said. Then he left because he had an Uber pickup.

“He left the house happy,” Ms. Piedra said in an interview on Monday. “He didn’t come back.”

When Mr. Piedra didn’t return that afternoon, Ms. Piedra said she called and texted him several times to no avail.

Didi Lopez, a cousin of Mr. Piedra’s, said that family members began calling area hospitals. When a local news report about a shooting of an unidentified Uber driver began to circulate, they called the police.

Ms. Lopez remembered Mr. Piedra as someone who was always looking to make others laugh. She last saw him about a month ago at her sister’s graduation party. Some family members were sitting on the edge of the pool instead of swimming, so he decided to splash them, Ms. Lopez said.

“Even when he was annoying other people,” Ms. Lopez said, “the whole point was him making you laugh.”

Driver advocacy groups and members of Congress have pressured gig companies to improve the safety measures meant to protect their drivers.

It is rare for an Uber driver to be harmed on the job, but it does happen. Last year, Uber’s safety report said that a total of 19 drivers were killed in 2019 and 2020 — 14 in crashes and five in assaults.

But a recent report by Gig Workers Rising, an advocacy group, indicated that those numbers are climbing and estimated that 31 driving or delivery app-based workers — also including Lyft and DoorDash — were killed on the job in 2022.

Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.

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