Even the Koran-burning preacher himself was surprised when he was approved to drive for Uber last month.
“I don’t know how much research they do,” Terry Jones, 65, said from his Florida home Saturday.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Jones made headlines worldwide in 2010 when he organized International Burn a Koran Day. It sparked death threats and global protests and earned him a No. 2 spot on an al-Qaeda hit list. There’s a $2 million bounty on his head, and a radical Iranian cleric has called for his execution.
Since then, his financial pursuits have been under scrutiny. He was hoping to relocate his “Fry Guys” french fry stand from one Florida mall to another when managers began figuring out who he was. It was 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, and his fry stand became the pulpit for his anti-Islam message. He made the local news.
He recalled how one mall manager took “one good look at me” and said “Fry Guys,” and Jones knew he wouldn’t get the sought-after location.
But Uber, he said, didn’t follow up about his past when he sought work to subsidize his “semi-retirement” earlier this year.
“I wondered if this would be a similar thing,” Jones said. “They didn’t ask.”
After inquiries from a Washington Post reporter, Uber suspended Jones on Saturday to investigate his account and activity on the platform. Jones admits he had been sharing his anti-Muslim message with passengers and carrying a 9mm gun for self-defense — in violation of Uber’s firearms prohibition policy.
The Post learned of Jones’s employment with the company after it was contacted by a customer who had ridden with him, recognized him, and was disturbed.
“If you’re driving people around, it doesn’t hurt to have some type of defense,” Jones said, adding that he didn’t know about Uber’s firearms policy.
Jones had been driving for Uber in the Bradenton, Sarasota and Tampa Bay areas since late last month, around the same time the ride-hailing firm was defending itself for giving rides during a taxi protest of President Trump’s travel ban, and reaffirming its support for immigrants and refugees.
“As Uber’s community guidelines make clear, we maintain a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement Saturday. “We expect drivers and riders to always treat each other with respect and nothing less. What’s been described here is totally unacceptable and has no place in our community. We’ve removed the driver’s access and are looking into this matter.”
Jones said he enjoys the opportunity to make money on his own time. He estimates that he made $400 last week, working a little more than 50 hours.
However, the fact that Jones was able to gain employment with the company raises renewed questions about the effectiveness of the company’s screening process for its drivers. Jones is outspoken in his condemnation of Islam, and the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have both placed him on their watch lists of hate groups.
Jones has not tried to hide his beliefs, and he insisted in an interview Saturday that he believes Trump’s travel ban should go even further and stop “all Islamic immigration into America for right now.”
Uber said Jones passed a background check in late January and had been active on the app for less than two weeks. The screenings, which encompass local, state and federal databases and motor vehicle records, go back seven years. While it condemned Jones’s actions, Uber said his past behavior was not disqualifying because two recent arrests of his were dismissed.
One passenger who rode with Jones recently feared for other riders because of the threats on Jones’s life. The passenger included a screenshot of Jones’s account and vehicle information, which The Post confirmed but is not publishing because of concerns he and others could be targeted.
“An innocent customer could get caught up in that insanity,” said the passenger, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation.
“This is not a good situation, and I have lost all faith in Uber.”
Jones was pastor at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville before moving to the Bradenton area. The fundamentalist church was known for such inflammatory tactics as sending children to school in T-shirts reading “Islam Is of the Devil.”
When Jones announced in 2010 his plans to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by burning Islam’s holy book, he received hundreds of death threats. Protests erupted in Afghanistan and Indonesia, The Post reported, and Defense Department officials asked him to stop because they said his protest was putting soldiers at risk.
As The Post reported:
He ended up not burning any copies of the Koran in 2010, but the following year, he was at it again, holding a mock trial in which he accused Islam of evil and appointing himself as judge. The proceedings were held at Dove Outreach, in worship space that doubled as a warehouse for an e-Bay furniture business Jones ran on the side. This time a Koran was burned, sparking rioting in Afghanistan that reportedly left 20 dead, including several U.N. workers.
In 2013, Jones was pulled over by Polk County, Fla., deputies towing a trailer full of kerosene-soaked Korans. Jones was charged with unlawful conveyance of fuel, reports said, though Uber said its checks didn’t flag the charge for disqualification because it was dismissed.
Last weekend, social-media users targeted Uber for its decision to serve passengers during the taxi strike opposing the travel ban and zeroed in on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to serve on President Trump’s economic advisory council. Twitter users flocked to the #DeleteUber hashtag, suggesting Kalanick’s actions enabled Trump’s policies. Set to meet with Trump on Friday, Kalanick instead stepped down.
“There are many ways we will continue to advocate for just change on immigration but staying on the council was going to get in the way of that,” Kalanick said in a memo to employees. “Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s.”
Dave Sutton, spokesman for “Who’s Driving You?”, a taxi industry initiative that lists offenses committed by ride-hailing drivers on its website, feared for customers who might ride with Jones.
“With the bounty, you’re potentially placing a target on your unwitting passengers’ heads,” he said. “Someone with these type of extremist views is not going to mix well with his fellow drivers but is very likely to get into an inflammatory argument. That’s a bad setup, it’s a terrible setup.”
Neither the FBI — which had investigated the death threats against Jones — nor the local Manatee County Sheriff’s Office could be reached for comment.
Jones said multiple passengers have recognized him since he began driving. While his views are unchanged, he said, he doesn’t bring them up unless customers ask. In one recent instance, when a customer asked if he believed there were any “good” Muslims, Jones replied: “Yeah, I think there’s good Muslims and bad Muslims, but I don’t think there’s any good Islam.”
Jones said he applied to drive for Lyft about a week ago but has yet to be approved. One key difference between the two ride-hailing giants: Lyft requires drivers in most cities to meet a “mentor” for a practice ride, a vehicle inspection and to have any questions answered.
Jones has not yet met his mentor, a step that precedes the background screening — so it’s unclear if he will be approved to drive.
“Before I go any farther, I wanna tell him who I am,” Jones said.