KXAN Austin

North Carolina police take down Lyft with Austin passenger inside

Reader warning: Parts of this story contain strong language.

CHARLOTTE (KXAN) — Police lights lit up the Charlotte sky at dusk, sirens blared, and officers charged toward me from every direction. I heard a loud smash, and a spray of glass covered my body.

With my hands high, I quickly looked back to my right, directly at the officer whose gun pointed at my head.

This story is about how the ridehailing company Lyft put me in this situation. More importantly, it will show you why ridehailing companies and law enforcement are doing nothing to prevent it from happening to you — in Charlotte, in Austin, or anywhere else in America.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police officers search through my belongings with my consent shortly after taking off my handcuffs. (KXAN Photo/Wes Wilson)

The drive-by shooting

Just before 3 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19, police in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews, North Carolina, say a white Ford Escape pulled up to a home on Tanfield Drive. The driver got out a .22 caliber gun and opened fire. Seven people were inside the home but no one was hurt. The driver sped away.

This is a Google Street View image of the 2000 block of Tanfield Drive where the Sept. 19 shooting took place at 3 p.m. ET (Courtesy: Google Maps)

Matthews Police issued what’s called a BOLO for that wanted white SUV, or an alert for other officers to “Be On the LookOut” for it. They also had the SUV’s license plate number — HCS-8232 — which would play a key role. They did not share this information with the ridehailing companies, according to a Lyft safety employee.

At about the same time police were investigating this crime, I was halfway around the world packing. It was the final night of my vacation with the most lasting memory still to come in a city I had no plans to visit — Charlotte.

Remnants from Tropical Storm Imelda scuttled my travel plans through Dallas. American Airlines instead booked me on a flight to Charlotte where I had friends and could spend the night. I wouldn’t make it home to Austin until Saturday.

Getting into a Lyft vehicle wanted by police

I arrived at Charlotte Douglas International Airport travel weary. I had been on the go for more than 20 hours. All I wanted was Bojangles and a bed. (Bojangles is to North Carolinians what Whataburger is to Texans.)

I ordered my Lyft at 7 p.m., and the Lyft app told me driver “Bruce” would arrive in a white Ford Escape in 12 minutes — a white Ford Escape with North Carolina license plate number HCS-8232.

This is a screengrab from my Lyft app, showing the white Ford Escape, its license plate, and my driver, Bruce. (KXAN Photo/Wes Wilson)

Unknown to me, police also knew that white Ford Escape was at the airport. It tripped a nearby license plate reader. While Bruce waited in line to pick me up, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department waited too — ready to stop the SUV with a vehicle takedown. More than a dozen police officers planned to intercept the SUV on the road. They knew there was a good chance the driver had a gun.

At 7:23 p.m. Bruce called me from the arrival line at the airport. I saw where he was parked, walked over to his SUV, tossed my backpack and suitcase in the trunk and hopped in the backseat on the passenger side. He had a black duffel bag in the front seat.

The car smelled faintly of weed. It wasn’t strong and could have even been from his previous passenger. Bruce had a 4.8 driver rating on Lyft, so I didn’t think too much of it. We took off, heading to a Bojangles fast food restaurant in Matthews. I planned to meet my friend and then crash on his couch. He was just getting off work.

Bruce made small talk with me, telling me he was a musician. I was tired, so I texted a few people and looked out the window.

“Oh shit,” he said. I looked up.

“I think the cops are following me.”

That got my attention.

I looked out the back of the SUV. There was a police car following, but its lights weren’t on and neither was its siren. Then I saw a second police car. We were in the middle of three southbound lanes on Wilkinson Boulevard. My Lyft driver slowed down and pulled to the far right lane.

That’s when everything changed.

The police takedown of my Lyft vehicle

All of a sudden, lights and sirens all came on. There weren’t just two police cars. It felt like there were 10.

“Oh fuck!” Bruce said. He came to a complete stop in that far right lane.

One police officer swerved over in front of us, threw the patrol car in reverse and backed into our SUV, ramming us. A second hit us from behind. We were boxed in and jostled like bumper cars.

Police officers poured out from every direction.

The first officer I saw came from the passenger side of the car in front of us, his gun aimed at my Lyft driver. A second officer came up yelling from my right side behind me, his gun’s sights set on me. I don’t consciously remember putting my hands in the air but they were there. So were my Lyft driver’s.

Glass is scattered across the backseat of my Lyft car. A police officer smashed in the rear, driver-side window in a move that officers later told me was a “shock and awe” tactic. (KXAN Photo/Wes Wilson)

Lights caught my eye to the left and I looked over as glass exploded. A police officer bashed in the rear driver-side window. Glass sprayed across the seat and my lap. I jerked back and could feel the glass scratching into my back.

I looked to my right again at the officer pointing his gun at me. 

“Get out of the car!” he yelled.

I was oddly calm. I wasn’t hysterical. I was just trying to think as logically as possible to avoid getting shot. 

“My seatbelt is on,” I told the officer. He gave me permission to unbuckle it. I reached down and did that very slowly. Then I said I was opening the car door. I also did that slowly. Then everything happened fast. 

I instantly had hands on my body, my arms, my wrists.

“I’m just a Lyft passenger,” I said. It didn’t seem to register. Maybe I should’ve said Uber.

They locked handcuffs around my wrists, very tightly on my left, a little looser on the right.

They asked if I had ID. I told them my passport was in my front left pocket. They reached in and grabbed that and my iPhone. They led me over to the police car behind my Lyft and put me inside. 

A journalist in the back of a police car and a gun in the front of his Lyft

Police allowed me to take photos of the car to show Lyft. I did not realize when I took this photo that it captured the gun police officer’s found in Dominick Kroma’s bag. (KXAN Photo/Wes Wilson)

I really had no idea what was going on. Bruce, my Lyft driver, had broken no traffic laws. And the intensity of the takedown had me baffled. I wanted to find out. 

I could see the officers questioning Bruce. They asked him multiple times if he had a gun inside the Escape. It appeared he said yes.

That shocked me.

The police computer in the front seat was still on. That’s when I learned my Lyft vehicle was wanted by police. It didn’t say why at the time, only that they had issued a BOLO for that specific white Ford Escape and a license plate scanner had tipped off police.

Two different officers entered the name of my Lyft driver — Dominick Martin Kroma — into the computer with two different spellings of Dominick. Neither called him Bruce.

Later after police confirmed that I was not a suspect, they took the cuffs off, searched my bags with my consent, and allowed me to get a few pictures of the SUV. I didn’t realize it at the time but one of those pictures captured my Lyft driver’s gun, barrel down in a black duffel bag. 

Zoomed-in shot of the gun stuffed barrel down in a black duffel bag. (KXAN Photo/Wes Wilson)

I had a number of questions:

  1. Why did Lyft and Charlotte Mecklenburg Police allow me to get into a car tied to a BOLO alert and a violent crime?
  2. If police were so concerned for their safety that they had to perform a vehicle takedown, how is it OK for that vehicle to pick up passengers at the airport?
  3. Do police officers not have a database of driver names and vehicles registered to work for ridehailing companies?
  4. Is there no coordination between ridehailing companies and law enforcement to make sure these companies have the most updated information for rider safety?
  5. If Dominick was my driver, who the hell was Bruce?

No coordinated cooperation between law enforcement and ridehailing companies over BOLOs

What I’ve learned from Lyft and law enforcement in the ensuing days is that there is no coordinated cooperation over potentially dangerous vehicles. Lyft performs driver background checks but that’s where it stops unless police notify them. That’s according to a Lyft safety employee who spoke to me the day after the shooting.

Police say there is no database and currently no standardized process for law enforcement to make ridehailing companies aware when a BOLO has been issued for a vehicle. That information is for law enforcement, not for ridehailing companies, they told me.

And there’s no standardized way for police to tell whether a car they are pursuing is currently in the process of completing a ridehailing trip with a rider like me on board. There’s no database of vehicle license plates or drivers. And unlike taxis, there’s no obvious signage on the cars unless drivers choose to add it. My driver did not.

Criminal history of Lyft driver Dominick Kroma

Dominick Kroma’s mugshots from Dec. 2017, June 2018, July 2018 and Sept. 2019.

My Lyft driver, Dominick Kroma, has been arrested multiple times before for a number of felonies:

Lyft says those first three charges were ultimately dropped, and Kroma was eligible to drive for them. The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office is not allowed to comment on even old charges for defendants who face current charges.

Who is Bruce and why is that different than my driver’s real name?

“Bruce” is on the left. (Courtesy: Lyft) and Dominick Kroma is on the right (Courtesy: Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.)

Take a look at the two pictures. The one on the left is “Bruce,” the driver who was supposed to pick me up. The one on the right is the mugshot of Dominick Kroma.

Their ears are different. Their hairline is different. Compare it back to all of Kroma’s mugshots.

My coworkers also thought perhaps the image of Bruce was flipped if it was taken as a selfie, so here are the two images again with the one of Bruce flipped. That’s closer — especially the right eyebrow and left ear — but the hairline is still different.

“Bruce” picture on left flipped horizontally. Dominick Kroma on right.

Lyft says it has no reason to believe my driver and “Bruce” are not the same person. Lyft allows drivers to change their names in the app for inclusivity reasons.

But the Lyft Privacy Policy prevents riders from asking even basic questions about their experience like — “Who was my driver that got arrested?” or “Why does his name differ from that on the app?”

What does Lyft have to say?

“Safety is fundamental to Lyft and the incident described is terrifying. We have permanently banned the driver from the platform and have been in touch with the rider to extend our support. We stand ready to assist law enforcement.”

Lyft statement

Lyft says it performs background checks on drivers both before they start driving and again yearly. They have a Law Enforcement Response team that monitors for new warrants, pending cases and criminal convictions.

I called Lyft’s safety team from the back of the police car as CMPD officers finally gave me a ride to that Bojangles. I told them police had arrested my Lyft driver with me in the car. They put me on hold and kept me on hold for so long I hung up.

I wouldn’t speak to Lyft on the phone until the next day.

The woman from Lyft who did call me Saturday was very nice and listened as I took her through my Lyft experience, but she was not very helpful answering my questions.

She assured me the driver would never be allowed to drive for Lyft again. (I figured.) But she wouldn’t tell me if that meant Bruce or Dominick, whether Bruce was an alias or if they were two different people. That was disconcerting.

She cited Lyft’s Privacy Policy.

Lyft offers no support for riders who go through a traumatic experience

Lyft’s statement also said they “have been in touch with the rider to extend our support.” I’m that rider so I can tell you that’s a stretch.

When something like this happens to a Lyft rider, there is no support team standing by. Like I mentioned, I was put on hold for so long I hung up.

Lyft’s own team called my experience “terrifying.” But they never offered to put me in touch with or pay for any counselors or anything like that. Lyft also did not point me toward any resources or help online.

Instead, they just gave me $75 in Lyft credits and assured me I would not have to pay for my Lyft with Bruce, or Dominick, or whoever it was they let me get into a car with Friday night.

When I got back to Austin Saturday evening, I had a friend pick me up at the airport.

Officers told me they were shocked when they learned I was a Lyft passenger.

But this could happen again.

Police could be searching for a vehicle wanted in a shooting — just like in this case — and that vehicle is still free to be used to pick up passengers like you.

The last Lyft ride given by Dominick Kroma. (KXAN Photo/Wes Wilson)