“I only have a minute,” he whispered. “I took a photo of the guy with my phone. If something happens to me, make sure you tell the police about the photo.”
The guy, 18-year-old Cody Pettit, of Brookings, sat in the back seat of Humphrey’s white 412-Taxi van parked in front of the toilet, keys in hand. For the last three hours and some 70-plus miles, Pettit had ordered Humphrey to drive to various places — Brookings to Smith River, up Highway 199 toward Hiouchi, to Crescent City, Klamath and Orick. They eventually drove as far south as Eureka.
Humphrey had picked up Pettit at a Brookings motel at 8:49 a.m. Saturday, with instructions to go to Lucky 7 Casino in Smith River. Once there, the passenger told Humphrey to drive south to Crescent City.
“He didn’t know where he wanted to go,” Humphrey said.
He said Pettit was agitated most of the time, mumbling nonstop about people following him or hiding behind buildings. Humphrey calmed the young man down again and again.
By the time the taxi reached Crescent City, Humphrey had determined his passenger was high on drugs or mentally ill — or both.
“There was something wrong with this guy,” he said. “I didn’t want things to escalate. When he told me where to go, I said ‘No problem. You’re the boss. Whereever you want to go’.”
Humphrey was getting scared, but didn’t show it.
Without Pettit knowing, Humphrey, who wore a Bluetooth device in his ear, dialed his boss on his cell phone, allowing Heston Collins to listen in on the conversation and keep track of the taxi’s location.
Collins got in his own car and left Brookings, heading south. He used his cell phone to monitor what was happening in the taxi. Occasionally, Humphrey alerted Collins to his location by slipping it into his casual conversations with Pettit.
It was hard to tell if Pettit was armed — he was wearing a bulky jacket — but Humphrey was certain his passenger might kill him if he said the wrong word or made a wrong turn.
“He was delusional or paranoid. He was always looking around. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Humphrey said. “The whole thing lasted six hours but it seemed like forever.”
At several places along the way, the taxi stopped at an ATM so Pettit could withdraw cash and pay the increasing fare. At an ATM in Crescent City, Humphrey secretly snapped a photo of Pettit with his cell phone.
A half-hour later down the road Pettit demanded they stop at a mini-mart in Klamath, but Humphrey talked him out of it.
“I wanted to keep him from having an impact on other people’s safety,” Humphrey said. “I wanted to keep this between the two of us.”
Four hours into the ride, after a stop at the portable toilet, they arrived in Eureka. Pettit ordered Humphrey to drive to San Francisco and that he had plenty of money to pay for it. Humphrey called his boss for approval, but Collins said no and said if Pettit wanted to go to San Francisco, he would have to get out and use a California taxi service.
At that point, Pettit reluctantly agreed to pay $70 for the return trip to Brookings – no stops, Humphrey insisted. By that time, Collins had caught up to the taxi and was following it.
But the ordeal didn’t end once they returned to Brookings. Pettit changed his mind and ordered Humphrey to drive north toward Gold Beach.
Humphrey had had enough and turned the taxi off Highway 101 onto Carpenterville Road.
“I was mentally spent, and couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “We were still close to town, close to the police, but in an area where there were no people; where no innocent people could get hurt. I told him ‘The ride ends here.’”
That’s when, according to Humphrey, Pettit “lost it” and pulled a knife and pressed it to his face while they drove. Humphrey tried to push Pettit backwards. During the struggle, the key in the ignition was bumped. The engine died. The steering wheel locked. Humphrey managed to bring the car to a stop and started yelling “It’s gone bad! Call 911!”
Collins, who was driving a few miles behind, heard the commotion over the phone.
“I told him to unbuckle and get out,” Collins said. “At one point I had Bob yelling in one ear and the 911 dispatcher in the other ear. The whole thing lasted less than five minutes.”
Humphrey managed to unlock his seatbelt and Pettit pushed him from the taxi and drove away.
Humphrey escaped without injury and was picked up by Collins. Meanwhile, authorities received a second 911 call from a motorist reporting a white taxi van driving erratically north on Highway 101 near Thomas Creek Bridge. Police chased Pettit, catching up to him when he crashed the vehicle into a rock slide on Meyers Creek Road at the top of Cape Sebastian.
Pettit was arrested without incident and arraigned at the Curry County Courthouse Tuesday with a $550,000 bail. He was charged with robbery, menacing, coercion, reckless endangering, car theft, eluding police and unlawful possession of methamphetamine.
The drug was found on Pettit at the time of his arrest. The knife believed to be used in the crime was found on the floorboard of the taxi, according to the Curry County Sheriff’s Department.
“I’m just glad it ended with everyone walking away in one piece,” Humphrey said.
Being connected to his boss via cell phone during the ordeal eased his fear, he said.
“It helped that people knew where I was at any given time,” he said. “But I never knew how close help was. I just did my best to stay calm. Keep thinking of ways to keep the kid calm.”
On Sunday, the day after the ordeal, Humphrey received a phone call from Pettit’s mother.
“She said she was sorry for what happened and it was difficult for her to believe that her son had done all that,” he said. “I felt sorry for her. I told her that her son had some serious problems and needed help.”
On Tuesday, Kelly Pettit told the Pilot that she understood the seriousness of the charges.
“What my son did was wrong, but I ask that people keep in mind that he is an incredible, intelligent, kind human being,” she said. “The problem is doing drugs. It changed him. And I hope that people don’t judge him for one afternoon of his life.”
She hoped that the incident would benefit her son.
“Kids make mistakes; this was a bad one,” she said. “If something can be learned from this, it’s that drugs can take an extremely kind person and put you into a whole ‘nother category.”
She said her son does well in school, often gives money to homeless people and spends much of his time playing guitar.
“He plans on going to Berklee College of Music when he graduates,” she said.
She hoped the community would not condemn her son.
“Take the drugs away and you’d have another story,” she said. “Drugs are killing our kids. They need our help, they need counseling and support.”
Humphrey agrees. He was willing to share his story with the Pilot in an attempt to “wake people up” about the drug use.
“This really isn’t about me. It’s about the problem of drugs and the young people in our community,” he said. “It’s about the police who have to deal with drugs, putting their lives on the line. It’s about the families that are being torn apart. It’s really bad out there in the community.”
Humphrey knows it from first-hand experience. He worked in property management for 15 years before moving to Brookings in 2007. He has been driving taxis in Brookings for five years. He’s been verbally threatened a few time, mostly by tenants or passengers drunk or high on drugs. He’s witnessed domestic and other violence, often the result of people on drugs, he said.
“As a property manager and a taxi driver, I’ve seen it all. The drugs. The violence. Nothing good ever comes it,” he said. “And now, the life of one boy has forever changed because of drugs. It’s a tragedy.”
Humphrey hopes that telling his story will open other people’s eyes to the “endless cycle of drugs.”
“If something good can come of this, then it was all worth it,” he said.