Sand In My Shoes

UBER RAPIST’S FOX HUNT DRIVE

Phil Dowling was stepping out of his car into the driveway of his parents’ house on Timber Trail Lane in Medford when I approached him and asked if he knew about the Uber driver that lived around the corner that Southampton police say raped a teenage passenger?

“He lives around the corner,” asked a surprised Dowling, director of the Morning Show on News 12.

I told him that that Steven Palmer, 33, lived on Winged Foot Drive, the next street over.

“That’s scary,” Dowling said. “I have two kids of my own, 15 and 10. I wouldn’t let either of them into an Uber on their own. Ev-er.  Especially my daughter. Never. It’s spooky because this is my parents’ house, where I grew up. You never think a guy like that lives around the corner.”

But the Boogeyman lives around every corner in America.

Steven Palmer, 33, lives in one of the 23 houses on Winged Foot Drive around the corner from Dowling’s idyllic childhood home. Nestled just north of the Long Island Expressway in Medford, Winged Foot Dr. is a quintessential laneway of the boundless American suburb where skeletal winter trees tower over well-groomed single family ranches and two-story homes.  Trustful residents leave unchained bicycles, ladders, coolers, shovels, and plow blades on their tidy porches. American flags sag under a drizzly sky. Streetlights fashioned to look like 19th century gas lamps ignite like beacons of safety at the fall of dusk.

From this slice of Norman Rockwell’s Americana, Steven Palmer climbed into his black Uber car last December 1 and tooled down Winged Foot Dr., turning right at a street with the foreboding name of Fox Hunt Drive. From there, police say, Palmer drove onto the LIE, rolling east toward the storied Hamptons which allowed Uber to steer into its tanned and sandy heart last summer.

Uber came with mixed emotions.

Many barked that Uber would add to the summer gridlock. Others welcomed Uber even if the rise of the black car phenomenon had added some 60,000 new cars to the streets of NYC, 46,000 associated with Uber alone, causing unspeakable hardening of the traffic arteries in a city where the average speed of a vehicle is 4 mph.  But as one Sag Harbor resident told me, “I’d rather see more Uber traffic than more deaths caused by drunk drivers.”

Hard to argue with that logic.

But Steven Palmer might have just added a new argument against Uber in the East End – or at least a call for some strict new rules. Because police have charged that on that first night of December Palmer picked up a teenage girl of “16 or under” – somewhere in the Southampton, but cops won’t say exactly where – who was visibly upset and perhaps crying in the rear of his Uber.

Police are also sketchy of all the details leading up to Palmer allegedly crossing the line from Uber driver to fox hunt driver but they claim he drove for a while and then parked his vehicle in a remote area, climbed into the back with the emotionally short circuiting minor, consoling and compromising her. And then, police say, Palmer engaged in unlawful sex with a minor.

When I called Southampton police to find out if the teen was drunk or drugged up or frightened or coerced into the sexual encounter, or if Palmer ever asked her age, or if he claimed that she had lied to him about her age, they would not comment.

What police have already revealed is that Palmer and the teen had sex on three subsequent occasions following December 1, which makes it sound consensual. But sex with a minor is never consensual, it’s statutory rape. Statutory rape is illegal, punishable by jail time but not the same level felony as violent, forcible rape. But if the minor was intoxicated that could be date rape, a very serious felony.

How police learned of the alleged crime is also unclear but police arrived at Palmer’s home on Winged Foot Dr. on Sunday, February 4 and arrested him, placed him in the back of a police car, turning right at Fox Hunt Dr. and heading east for Southampton where he was booked, fingerprinted, mug-shot, and arraigned for rape. He was released on $40,000 bail.

Uber deactivated Palmer’s account.

On Sunday the “UBER RAPE” headlines hung over the Hamptons and this little P-shaped section of cul-de-sacs, and quiet side streets of Medford like a second set of winter storm clouds. “We live in sorry times,” said Phil Dowling, about the accused rapist around the corner. “Who knows who drives these Uber cars? What is the screening is like? A grown man alone in a car with an emotional teenage girl? Why? How? Scary. Maybe we shouldn’t let teenagers, especially girls, ride in Ubers alone.”

When I tell him an Uber driver was arrested in Queens in August for rape and another in California on January 23 for four rapes, Dowling rocked on his heels in horror.

“There just needs to be better screening and safeguards,” he says.

He’s right, of course, and some child advocates have urged parents to implore their teens to form a “buddy plan,” and to never ride alone with any stranger.

Dowling’s belief that better vetting of the drivers must also be part of new Uber safeguards is kind of a no-brainer in a time when an Olympic doctor has been convicted of over a hundred child athlete molestations, when Hollywood icons are accused of abusing minors, when a seemingly endless stream of female teachers are arrested for sex with minor male students and in a time when even the White House harbors accused spousal abusers who handle classified information and write speeches for the President of the United States. Who has been accused himself by 22 women now of sexual abuse or misconduct which would preclude him from even driving an Uber under the current inadequate vetting.

“I dunno,” another person said walking up Fox Hunt Dr. in Medford on Saturday. “Maybe the only answer is driverless Ubers…”

To comment on Sand in my Shoes, email denishamill@gmail.com.