In St. Louis, a narrow and quiet street shadowed with trees has haunted Brian Blagoue since the spring of 2021. It’s where two passengers carjacked him at gunpoint while he was working as a full-time Uber driver. Three weeks later, police found a Lyft driver shot dead in the driver’s seat of his car in the exact same location.
It all started when Blagoue set out driving around noon on March 25th, he said. As he headed downtown, he got his first ping of the day, someone named “Robert” requesting a ride. He drove to a residential neighborhood and parked at the pickup address. Out of his car’s side window, he saw two young men approach. One was dressed in all royal blue, the other in dark clothing. Both wore covid face masks and baseball hats.
This article was copublished with The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions are using technology to change our society. Sign up for its newsletters here.
“Robert?” Blagoue recalls asking. “They said ‘yep’ and got in.”
It was an uneventful trip with not a lot of talking, Blagoue said, until they got to the destination — that quiet leafy street named Peggy Court. One of the men said he lost his phone, and Blagoue, who’s tall, matter-of-fact, and has perfected Midwestern politeness, got out to help look.
“I’m kind of digging around and then, out of my side vision, I see this guy is holding a gun on me,” Blagoue said. Within the span of a couple of minutes, his passengers took off with his phone, wallet, and Hyundai Santa Fe SUV, according to an incident report from the St. Louis Police Department.
Blagoue found nearby neighbors who let him use their phone to call 911. When police arrived on the scene, a detective told Blagoue he’d subpoena Uber for information on “Robert” and would be in touch. Blagoue called Uber that night to report what happened.
He didn’t hear from the police until three weeks later when they called him in to look at a photo array to see if he recognized anyone. Blagoue said he couldn’t ID the riders since they’d been wearing masks, but while he was at the station, one of the detectives pulled him aside. The police had finally received key details from Uber and believed his incident was related to the murder of a Lyft driver — Elijah Newman. That’s when the detective told Blagoue that Newman was killed the previous night, on April 15th, in a botched carjacking on Peggy Court.
It would take three weeks and Newman’s fatal carjacking for Uber to assist detectives with information in Blagoue’s case. Once the company handed over the data, hours after Newman’s death, police were able to find and arrest the murder suspect in less than a day.
This isn’t the only time Uber has delayed providing data to law enforcement. Lawsuits against the company and accounts from Uber employees say the ride-hailing giant can drag its feet when cooperating with police. Officials from police departments, district attorney’s offices, and prosecutors’ offices in six other cities who spoke with The Markup said they, too, have had trouble getting information from Uber in a timely manner. The consequences of such stalling can have a grim effect on driver safety.
Newman, 45, had moved to St. Louis just six weeks before he was killed. He was originally from Ghana but had been living in the US since 2011; he became a US citizen in 2020. Newman had one child in New Jersey and four in Ghana and hoped to bring all his children to the US one day.
The night he was murdered, St. Louis police said officers found him already dead with a gunshot wound to his torso. A Lyft light was affixed to the front dash of Newman’s vehicle and a bullet casing was found next to his body, according to a probable cause statement The Markup obtained from the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office.
“What happened to Mr. Newman was horrific and our hearts go out to his loved ones,” said Lyft spokesperson Gabi Condarco-Quesada. “Following the incident, we received a subpoena from law enforcement and promptly responded.”
St. Louis police detective Thomas Walsh, a detective on Newman’s case who wrote the probable cause statement, connected the incident with what happened to Blagoue. In the statement, which laid out who Walsh believed was responsible for the crime, he said the alleged suspect was a 17-year-old named Torian Wilson who used the fake name “Robert” in the app.
“While at the scene, detectives told homicide about carjackings of Uber drivers close in time and one to the same address,” reads the statement. “Detectives executed search warrants and found that those carjackings came back to an account with the name of Robert Henderson, but tied to [Torian Wilson’s] email address.”
Wilson, who admitted to being at the scene of the shooting, was charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action and is awaiting trial in Missouri Circuit Court, according to court documents obtained by The Markup. Once detectives received Wilson’s account information, they were able to link to his email address and trace his phone. When police arrested him, he had a 9mm Glock pistol that matched the bullet casing found next to Newman’s body. He has pleaded not guilty.
Wilson’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The police investigations into Blagoue’s and Newman’s cases are still ongoing and therefore sealed and closed to the public. The St. Louis Police Department declined to comment further “due to pending litigation.”
Uber spokesperson Navideh Forghani confirmed the company provided information in Blagoue’s case that assisted police in identifying Wilson. “Our data helped lead to the arrest of a 17-year-old wanted in connection with the shooting of a Lyft driver and other rideshare carjackings,” she wrote in an email to The Markup in July. “We provided account information and account login IP address location to police.”
Forghani wrote in an email to The Markup this week that Uber got the police request for data in Blagoue’s incident eight days after it happened and that “law enforcement did not specify that it was a carjacking.” Generally speaking, she said, “we try to respond in a timely manner” and “delays in response can happen for a number of reasons.”
It was during that window of time, however, that Newman lost his life.
“I just feel sick over that poor man losing his life,” Blagoue said. “Had they caught these people before, this guy wouldn’t be a murderer and Elijah Newman would be alive.”
“Give out as little information as possible”
Uber and Lyft get thousands of data requests from police every year when things go wrong during rides. However, Uber appears to handle a larger volume of requests and turns over information less frequently than Lyft.
By Uber’s own account, it complies in only about half of US law enforcement requests. In the company’s most recent government transparency report, from 2021, it said it received a total of 5,367 data requests and disclosed “some user data” in 2,979 of those, roughly 56 percent. For comparison, Lyft’s most recent transparency report, from 2020, shows it received a total of 2,316 data requests and complied in about 77 percent of those cases.
Law enforcement officials who spoke with The Markup said getting responses from Uber can take time. Because the process of requesting information can be cumbersome and slow, officials said they often won’t even submit data requests to Uber.
The process of requesting information from Uber can be cumbersome and slow
“There are a number of valid reasons why data may not be provided to law enforcement,” Forghani said, giving such examples as the information isn’t available or the incident didn’t involve Uber. She said delays or lack of response from Uber can happen when police provide insufficient information, wrong search criteria, or if there are submission errors.
When police request data from Uber, they must do so online through the company’s “Public safety response portal.” This portal is monitored by employees on Uber’s Public Safety Response Team (formerly known as the Law Enforcement Response Team, or LERT).
Soha Malik worked as a specialist for that team in 2020 and 2021. Her job was to clear a backlog of hundreds of subpoena, search warrant, and court order requests from law enforcement, some of which involved sexual harassment claims and homicides, according to an ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit she filed against Uber in San Francisco Superior Court earlier this year.
In court documents, Malik described a work environment where her managers encouraged her “not to assist ‘any’ law enforcement as it would hinder her ability to reduce the backlog” and “not provide information that was ‘too much trouble’ to obtain.” Instead, she was told to “give out as little information as possible since their job was to ‘protect the client,’” which can refer to either the driver or rider. She also said she was criticized when she provided law enforcement “too much user information.”
When Malik repeatedly brought up concerns about how Uber was complying with court documents, she said she was terminated — just five and a half months into her job.
“She ran into difficulties trying to comply with the subpoenas,” said attorney Dorothy Yamamoto from the firm Michael Yamamoto LLP, which represents Malik. “Her supervisors would encourage her to delay or not comply fully.”
Forghani said Uber can’t comment on pending litigation but that “the Public Safety Response Team is unequivocally committed to working with law enforcement on matters of public safety.”
Ryan Bokoch, assistant prosecuting attorney for the Cuyahoga County [Ohio] Prosecutor’s Office and supervisor of its Crime Strategies Unit, said he’s reviewed carjacking case files and saw that Uber can take time in complying with police requests. He told The Markup that the county, which covers Cleveland, has seen 61 carjackings of gig workers in recent years, including several that appear to have been perpetrated by the same suspects. After reading the case files, Bokoch spoke with local detectives about working with Uber, and they also told him that “subpoenas take a while to get answered.”
“If the company were to respond quickly, these are very solvable crimes,” Bokoch said. “They can make it as easy or as hard as they want to get this information. You’d think they’d want to protect their drivers and that they’d be as cooperative as possible with law enforcement.”
Uber’s Forghani said, “We are happy to offer local law enforcement in Cuyahoga County additional training … and we make every effort to expedite the most serious cases.”
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who co-wrote “The Taking Economy: Uber, Information, and Power,” said that if police requests are lawful, then Uber must comply, but “they can make it harder and make it slower.” In broad sweeping requests for data from a consumer privacy perspective, Calo said, it’s good Uber would push back. But in requests for an individual’s information in a criminal investigation, delaying could be problematic.
“Then they could just be getting in the way of police trying to hold folks accountable for violence and crime,” Calo told The Markup. “It’d make drivers less safe.”
In emergency situations, some law enforcement officials say contacting Uber can also be a complicated process. Earlier this year, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a female Uber driver was allegedly kidnapped and raped by her passenger, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.
Contacting Uber can be a complicated process in emergency situations
The driver’s boyfriend called her as the attack was happening and he could hear that she was in distress, so he frantically called 911. Various law enforcement agencies saturated the area to search for her and 911 dispatchers pinged nearby cellphone towers trying to locate her, but they had no luck.
“My supervisors began looking to contact Uber,” Jeff Carney, director of operations at Hamilton County’s 911 center, told The Markup. “They weren’t able to find any contact information for Uber, but they kept looking.”
Eventually, the driver was able to dial 911 herself and dispatchers quickly located her, Carney said, but the whole process took 90 minutes.
What Carney later learned is that in order to get Uber’s help in finding the driver, dispatchers would have had to submit an emergency request through the company’s online portal, which he didn’t know existed.
Forghani confirmed that emergency requests must be processed through the portal but said that once the submission is in, Uber will “respond to emergency requests on a 24/7 basis and those requests are processed immediately.” She said Uber attends law enforcement conferences to raise awareness of the portal.
“Speaking of 911 centers, I’ve yet to come across one that is aware of what you have to do to track an Uber,” Carney said. “I would hope that Uber would reach out to the 911 state and national community and educate them on how to use the portal. It’s bad to learn about this after something happens.”
Uber’s “own justice system”
After the carjacking, when Blagoue tried to contact Uber, it wasn’t easy. No phone numbers were listed online, and since his phone had been taken, he couldn’t contact the company through the app. And frustratingly, he said, any attempt to email Uber required a verification code, which kept going to his stolen phone. Finally, he found the number to a local Uber office, and they patched him through to the company’s “Critical Safety Line.”
Blagoue said he was trying to piece together the details of the incident. One of the things he couldn’t remember was the street name where “Robert” first got into his car, and he thought that information would be useful to police. He asked the operator from the safety line, but, he said, she wouldn’t help.
“She said, ‘No sir, I’m sorry. That’s a privacy issue for our clients and I cannot give that to you,’” Blagoue said. “Everything was just so difficult.”
Uber also appears to be reluctant in voluntarily sharing information with law enforcement. When drivers or passengers report a crime to Uber, the company doesn’t necessarily notify the police. According to depositions in an ongoing lawsuit filed in US District Court in San Francisco in 2019, the company doesn’t let its employees alert police about reports of sexual assault and other crimes, even when the suspect admits to what happened.
One witness in that case, Briana Lambert, worked in Uber’s Special Investigations Unit from 2016 to 2018. In her testimony, she said she didn’t notify the police about any of the approximately 600 sexual assault allegations she investigated for Uber. Around 20 of those cases involved rape allegations. She didn’t report those cases to law enforcement because, she said, Uber’s policies prevented her from doing so.
“I was told when I initially joined the incident response team that we would not be able to make outreach to law enforcement on behalf of riders or drivers,” Lambert testified.
In one incident she investigated, two armed passengers physically assaulted a driver, Lambert testified. She asked her supervisors if she could report it to the police. “I wanted to reach out on behalf of this driver after hearing their statement of what happened,” Lambert said. “It was emotional for me to hear at the time just given the facts.”
Her supervisors denied her request, she testified, and instead told her to route the incident to Uber’s LERT — the team Malik worked for and described as giving “as little information as possible” to police.
Lambert didn’t respond to a request for comment.
This practice has come under scrutiny from California’s Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, which covers several cities in Silicon Valley. Based on Uber data, the office estimates that about 62 sexual assaults happened during Uber rides in the county in 2017 and 2018, according to a memo written earlier this year by Assistant District Attorney Terry Harman and shared with The Markup. Harman’s memo said only one of those incidents was reported to the police — and the victim filed that report.
Harman and other local officials, including San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo, have met with Uber over the last few months to pressure the company to report crimes to law enforcement. It’s a critical public safety issue, Harman said, adding that “nothing in [Uber’s] approach protects future victims because the offender is not held accountable in any meaningful way.” But so far, she said, Uber has adamantly refused.
“At the very least, these companies should be honest with survivors.”
This led to the officials proposing an ordinance in San Jose last week, which would require Uber, Lyft, and taxi companies to disclose all reports of sexual assault to local law enforcement. According to Liccardo, Uber and Lyft give victims the impression that they’re in contact with police, but that’s not the case. “At the very least, these companies should be honest with survivors,” Liccardo said in a statement.
Lyft didn’t respond to questions asking if the company explicitly tells victims their cases won’t be reported to law enforcement. Forghani gave The Markup a copy of the email script Uber sends survivors, which reads, “We believe the decision to report to law enforcement is entirely up to you.”
Both Uber and Lyft have repeatedly said it should be the victims who decide when to report incidents to police. Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada said a victim’s decision to tell law enforcement is “deeply personal.” And Forghani said, “Guidance of experts and survivors themselves have told us that assuming someone wants the police involved, or pressuring them to do so, takes away their power to choose and risks retraumatizing them.”
Whether it’s sexual assault cases or carjackings, Uber will still “take action” on its platform, Forghani said, including banning accounts. In Blagoue’s case, after he spoke with Uber’s safety line operator the night of his carjacking, he got an email saying, “We have already restricted this user’s access to the Uber app and are investigating this situation further.” He said after that, he didn’t hear from the company ever again.
“The reality is that Uber receives a complaint, investigates the complaint, makes a finding and handles said finding internally and privately,” Harman wrote in her memo. “Uber has essentially carved out its own justice system.”
The ideal location
Ridehail drivers have little say in who they pick up and where they go and can be penalized for declining trips — all of which makes them relatively easy targets for carjackings, experts say. In the apps, perpetrators can control the situation, choosing the driver, type of car, and time of day. Carjackers can also pick the ideal location, often out-of-the-way places.
It turns out that Wilson, the suspect who allegedly used the name “Robert” in the app, lived less than a mile from Peggy Court — the small, quiet street where both Blagoue and Newman were carjacked, according to court documents.
On a humid day this past September, a year and a half after the incident, Blagoue went back to the spot where it happened. He explained that Peggy Court is difficult to find because it’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood and only accessible through a narrow entryway.
“You go through an alleyway to get to the street,” Blagoue said, using his finger to trace an imaginary map. “And then the street ends on a cul-de-sac and you have to go back up the street and back out the alley to get out of there.”
As he steered his car down the tree-lined street dotted with single-story brick homes, Blagoue counted the house addresses to find the exact location where he was carjacked. It was within 50 feet of where Newman was found dead.
When police arrived on Newman’s doorstep the night he died, his roommate and longtime friend Elizabeth Hylton came to the door. She’d been sound asleep. “Still trying to get my groundings, I opened the door,” Hylton said. The police asked to come in and explained that Newman had been shot and didn’t survive. They said they needed her to photo-identify his body.
“It was a black-and-white photo, and my daughter was there with me, and we both were about to cry before we looked at it,” Hylton said. “And it was him. He was gone. Lifeless. He still had the medical garb on him. It was so surreal.”
“The rest of that night was kind of a blur,” she said.
Newman had been living in New Jersey but, in early 2021, decided to move to St. Louis. Hylton told him she had an empty room and he could live there. He arrived in a U-Haul at the end of February. Hylton said Newman was always joking around and was a loyal friend and that he was deeply ambitious and wanted to make a positive mark on the world.
In the afternoons and evenings, he drove for Lyft full time to make ends meet, and late nights, he worked online for his IT business back in Ghana. Hylton said he regularly spoke with his kids over video chat. Just six weeks after coming to St. Louis, he was dead.
“People come here from all over the world, and they lose their lives trying to make a living,” Hylton said. “It’s just unsettling to know that everything had to stop because of something as simple as an app.”
“People come here from all over the world, and they lose their lives trying to make a living.”
Both Uber and Lyft say their apps are designed around safety, touting features such as GPS tracking, emergency assistance buttons, and check-ins when the apps monitor rides for unusual activity, like long stops. Because of that, Blagoue said he felt safe when he was driving. So the whole incident caught him off guard because he never thought a targeted carjacking could be orchestrated through the app.
“I knew things happened in this world; I’m not naive,” Blagoue said. But “I felt like if I was out in that area and driving for Uber, I was coming to pick someone up who requested me... I felt protected.”
From that day forward, Blagoue said he never drove for Uber or Lyft again.
On top of the mental trauma that both Hylton and Blagoue had to cope with in the aftermath of the carjackings, they also seemed to have been left without financial assistance from the companies. Uber and Lyft treat their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, so when carjackings occur, workers are usually left to fend for themselves. That means drivers or their families are often left shouldering medical costs, car payments, and funeral expenses.
In Blagoue’s case, Uber didn’t help with his $2,500 insurance deductible and other costs after his car was stolen. When The Markup reached out to Uber with questions about Blagoue’s deductible, Forghani said, “We are looking into Mr. Blagoue’s experience as we have programs in place to help provide support to drivers and their families during times of tragedy.” Blagoue said he’s “received no communication from anyone with Uber.”
When Newman died, Hylton set up a GoFundMe to cover his funeral and burial, the expense of which quickly soared as she considered sending his body back to Ghana. One generous supporter stuck out: someone had anonymously donated $7,000.
In an email to The Markup this week, Condarco-Quesada confirmed that Lyft donated to the GoFundMe, which hasn’t yet reached half of its current goal. Hylton now believes the mysterious donor was Lyft.
Fake accounts and repeat carjackings
Two months ago, an FBI field office in Illinois issued a warning to all Uber and Lyft drivers in St. Louis. “Criminals are using fake profiles to conceal their identities when requesting pickups. When the driver arrives, their car is stolen,” the warning read. It said at least seven drivers had been carjacked in East St. Louis since late June, one of which ended in homicide.
Other cities across the US have also seen scores of Uber and Lyft driver carjackings. The Markup has tracked 430 carjackings or attempted carjackings of gig workers nationwide, the majority of which took place after the apps paired drivers with their attackers — as happened with Newman and Blagoue. Many of the drivers we tracked were elderly, immigrants, and women. Thirty-one of them were killed.
Oftentimes, it appears to be the same suspects doing the crimes. In local news stories, both Uber and Lyft repeatedly say they remove offending passengers from their systems. But perpetrators regularly use fake accounts, and it doesn’t take much to create a new one.
Experts say it’s fairly simple for people to create accounts using burner phones, stolen credit cards, and spoofed email addresses.
Uber said in October that it’d stop allowing fake names in its app and would freeze any rider account with an obviously fake name. But it’s unclear how the company will enforce that with names like “Robert.”
Neither Uber nor Lyft requires passengers to provide any sort of identification to sign up for an account — the only exception is when a rider uses an anonymous payment method, like a gift card (and Lyft only has this policy in a few cities). Both companies say they instead require a valid email address, phone number, and payment method to get an account. Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada didn’t respond to questions about how those are verified, and Forghani didn’t say how payment methods are verified but that Uber verifies emails and phone numbers by sending users a four-digit code.
Last fall, the Minneapolis Police Department reported nearly 50 carjackings of Uber and Lyft drivers over a two-month period. The police said the crimes followed a pattern in which suspects used a stolen phone to hail a ride through the Uber or Lyft app and then ambushed the driver.
It turns out that four young men were allegedly responsible for the majority of those carjackings, according to the US Department of Justice. Two of the men were charged in a 20-count indictment in April, and the other two were charged in a 30-count indictment in July.
“As part of the scheme, members of the conspiracy lured victim-drivers to particular locations under the guise of picking up or dropping off passengers,” reads a statement from the US Attorney’s Office in Minnesota. “Members of the conspiracy then carjacked the victim-drivers at gunpoint. To intimidate and force compliance, members of the conspiracy struck, pistol whipped, and threatened to kill the victim-drivers.”
When it came to warning drivers about the carjackings, Officer Garrett Parten of the Minneapolis Police Department told The Markup last fall that police had reached out to Uber and Lyft to get the companies to provide drivers with safety tips, and “they just weren’t very responsive.” Toward the end of the two-month crime spree, however, Uber did send drivers a warning. Forghani told The Markup that carjacking safety tips are “sent to drivers regularly.”
With data requests for those carjackings, Forghani said the company “provided critical account and location details that directly resulted in arrests in this case.” She added that “a majority of the requests received a response the same day or within 24 hours … but delays may happen for a variety of reasons.”
Over Labor Day weekend in Kansas City in 2021, three separate female Uber drivers were carjacked in nearly identical attacks involving three female assailants. One of the drivers said she was tased by those passengers. Forghani said Uber cooperated with Kansas City Police on all requests they submitted in those cases; she didn’t respond to questions about the timing of those responses.
There’s little incentive for Uber to quickly turn over data
Leslie Foreman, a Kansas City Police Department spokesperson, said the investigation into those cases is still open, so she couldn’t provide specific details, but that, generally speaking, Uber isn’t cooperative. “I reached out to the investigative unit,” Foreman wrote in an email to The Markup. “They stated No, they do not cooperate with us at all.”
Christopher Herrmann, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former crime analyst supervisor with the New York City Police Department, said in most cases there’s little incentive for Uber to quickly turn over data in law enforcement investigations, even when they involve repeat incidents.
“There’s a big incentive for the police to stop or deter or control or minimize these things,” Herrmann told The Markup. “It’s kind of like catching the serial killer after he kills the second person, rather than the eighth or ninth.”
“But what’s the perk for the ride-share companies?” he said. “These aren’t their cars, these aren’t their employees.”
The return home
The summer after Newman was killed, Hylton traveled to Tema, Ghana, to meet his family and bring them some of his belongings. When she arrived, they were gathered at his mother’s home. Hylton gave them the light pink button-up shirt Newman was wearing earlier on the day he died and other mementos she thought they’d want.
“They were sitting there anxiously awaiting my arrival knowing that I had a piece of their father or son who they’d lost,” Hylton said. “His mother was still in disbelief, you know. It seemed like a part of her heart was ripped from her.”
Hylton arranged to have Newman buried at New Bethlehem Cemetery in St. Louis because it ended up being too expensive to fly him back to Ghana. Initially, her GoFundMe was to pay for his funeral expenses, but she has since kept it going as an education fund for his children. She hopes one day they’ll be able to come to St. Louis to visit his grave.
This past September, Hylton went to the cemetery to see about placing Newman’s headstone. It’s black and white with etchings of doves and set with his portrait in the center. Newman is wearing a floral shirt and his signature chunky black-framed eyeglasses. Beneath his name it says “De-Good Sheppard.”
Walking through the cemetery, Hylton pointed to a long row of freshly dug mounds of dirt on a sunny, grassy slope. “It’s here, where there are these new ones,” she said, going over. Newman’s plot was marked with a small pink flag.
Hylton scanned the cemetery and the woods that surround it and said, “It’s real peaceful out here.” And then quietly, as if to herself, she added, “Hopefully he’s at peace.”