It was after midnight on a weekend last December when a woman in her 20s left a bar in Seattle to make her way home.
A friend had called an Uber for her, so she went from car to car on the bustling city street trying to locate her ride.
A man in a black vehicle, possibly a Dodge Charger, convinced her that he was her driver, so she reached for the door and slid into the back seat. About 10 miles south, he pulled over and raped her, according to a Tuesday statement from the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Details of the case, which were made public this week, resemble the circumstances of a fatal incident last week in which a senior at the University of South Carolina climbed into a black Chevrolet Impala around 2 a.m. Friday morning.
Samantha Josephson, 21, believed that she had located her Uber ride. But the driver did not work for the ride-hailing company, and he never took her home. Instead, police say, 24-year-old Nathaniel D. Rowland killed her and left her body in a wooded area, where it was found later that afternoon by hunters.
The grisly episodes highlight enduring safety problems posed by the explosion of ride hailing.
Companies such as Uber and Lyft have instituted a safety features including panic buttons and annual reviews of background checks. Uber, which has 3 million people behind the wheel worldwide, has required its drivers to snap selfies to ensure that they are who they say they are.
But guaranteeing the integrity of their users does little to prevent someone from circumventing the system entirely, pulling up on a dark street corner with hordes of people desperate to find a ride.
Ryan Abbott, a sergeant with the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state, said his department has seen such cases increase.
“It’s definitely happening more,” the officer said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We’re seeing people impersonating ride shares to try to get people in their car.”
Lawmakers in South Carolina have already vowed action in response to the kidnapping and death of the college student. The Samantha L. Josephson Ridesharing Safety Act, introduced in the state House on Tuesday, would require drivers to mark their ride-hailing vehicles by displaying clearly illuminated signs.
But Abbott said passengers also bear responsibility.
“We would tell people, before you ever get into a car, verify that the vehicle description, the license plate and the name are all the same as you requested,” he said. “Because once you are in the back seat of the car, you might not be able to get out of there.”
For 3½ months, authorities in Washington state were unable to track down a culprit in the December assault. Surveillance footage captured a person of interest near the victim’s home, but the forensic evidence that was available didn’t turn up any leads.
Meanwhile, the victim was afraid that she might be publicly associated with her attacker if details of the incident emerged, so detectives had to work quietly. They submitted a search warrant to Uber, which cooperated fully, Abbott said.
“We gave them a general idea — in the Seattle area, on this date, these times, if the vehicle matches any description,” he said. “They told us no.”
Finally, on Tuesday, authorities appealed to the public for help, having reassured the victim that she would be protected. On its Facebook page, the sheriff’s office uploaded surveillance images of the person of interest and explained, “King County Detectives have, at this time, been unable to associate the man with any rideshare company.”
Local media ran the images, and, two days later, authorities said they had their suspect.
A family member recognized the person of interest, prompting a 34-year-old man to turn himself in, police said Wednesday.
Abbott said the man’s uncle saw the images on the news and called him to say he was wanted by police.
“He said, ‘What? No way. I’ll go down and clear my name,’ ” Abbott said. Instead, he was held on investigation of rape. He has not been charged, and his first appearance is scheduled for Thursday.
After obtaining his name, which they have not released to the public, authorities sent it to Uber. The company confirmed that he is not an employee, Abbott said.
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