An Anchorage taxi driver facing assault and weapons misconduct charges after spraying a customer with pepper spray and shooting a gun into the ground says he was acting in self defense and only fired shots to summon help.
Hee Joong Chai, 63, said he is speaking up to salvage his ability to make a living driving a cab. He said he is puzzled about why he ended up in such serious trouble.
He's been indicted on a felony assault charge and also faces misdemeanor charges of assault and of weapons misconduct. He was in court on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty.
"There's a lot that happens to cabbies in this town. They've been shot," said Chai's attorney, Rex Butler. "So the fact that one cabbie stands up and protects himself -- it sends a poor message to prosecute him to the hilt this way."
The troubled cab ride on Sept. 7 began with a call to pick up a man off Ingra Street and take him to his apartment on Reka Drive. Chai said he had trouble understanding the customer, identified in court records as Eric Stoneback. When Stoneback found out he was from Korea, the man told him to go back there, which didn't make him happy, Chai said.
Prosecutors said in the initial charging document that the dispute arose when Stoneback said he didn't have the full fare and Chai became upset, locked him into the cab and pepper sprayed him, according to what Stoneback told authorities. Stoneback kicked out the passenger window and climbed out, and Chai, by then on the street too, fired two shots, the charging document said.
Chai maintains Stoneback never said he was short the full fare and instead demanded money from him. He told police he locked the doors and demanded the fare.
"He tried grabbing me so I got the spray, all the time," Chai said. He said he felt unsafe driving a cab at night, so carried both a gun and canisters of pepper spray.
Chai said he tried to call 911, but in the stress of the moment misdialed, his phone history shows.
After Stoneback kicked out the window and got away, Chai said he followed him, questioning who was going to pay for the damage. He grew afraid that Stoneback was going to assault him so he pulled out his pistol and fired it twice at the ground, he said. He told police he feared for his life, the charging document said.
"Somebody help me. That's why I shot the ground there," Chai said. "How can I do?"
A neighbor who was an off-duty military police officer came out and told police he directed Chai to back off.
For now, Alaska Yellow Cab has suspended him as a driver dispatched through the company. Chai said he is fighting that action.
Police say the case needs to work its way through the courts. It's being closely reviewed, prosecutor Clinton Campion said. "It's kind of a stressful situation."
Stoneback, 50, didn't return recent calls but earlier said he didn't do anything to bring on such a reaction. He said he had had a few drinks that night. Chai told police that Stoneback appeared intoxicated.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER