Mazen M. Abdallah became a cab driver because he thought it was safer than working at a deli.
He died on the job anyway.
The 55-year-old native of Jerusalem was found lying face down on the floor in the back of his white Lincoln Town Car last year with two .22-caliber bullets in his head.
Abdallah’s first fare on March 6 became the last one of his life.
“These two defendants did it,” prosecutor Christopher J. Belling said in his opening statement this week at the trial of Sean Austin and Maurice “Quell” Howie. The two 17-year-olds face charges of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery.
The defendants were 16 at the time of the crime. Howie was a star quarterback at South Park High School and held school records in every category for a quarterback.
Abdallah became a U.S. citizen after coming to this country about two decades ago.
He worked at a deli but landed a job at Airport Taxi Service about 10 years ago because “he felt it was not safe for him to stay anymore at the deli,” said Zuhair Ahmed Rizeq, a cousin of the victim and also an Airport Taxi driver.
Abdallah started driving a cab about two years ago after initially handling luggage and other duties, Rizeq testified.
On March 6, Abdallah was dispatched at 4:30 a.m. to pick up a fare at the Commodore Perry Homes near downtown.
His fellow drivers feared for his safety after his dispatcher lost contact with him.
Michael Porter, another dispatcher who arrived at work at 6:30 that morning, described the scene at the taxi office at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
The other dispatcher told him that the last time anyone had heard from Abdallah occurred as he waited for his customers outside 312 Perry St. for a ride to 95 Comstock Ave.
“Oh no, that’s a bad call,” Porter recalled telling the dispatcher.
The company would not normally have taken such a call, because it focuses on serving patrons at the airport.
Porter testified he got in his car to look for Abdallah. The taxi company’s other drivers also swarmed the city neighborhoods looking for him. Porter eventually found Abdallah’s cab in the 700 block of Norfolk Avenue, not far from Kensington Avenue.
He looked through a window into the front seat but saw nothing. Then he peered into the back seat and spotted Abdallah.
“I lost it,” he said. “I started screaming.”
Abdallah had been shot in the head from behind, according to the prosecution.
Belling gave jurors an overview of the evidence the prosecution plans to present during the trial before State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia. The trial may run a month or longer and include 60 or more witnesses.
Belling said Austin told police during questioning in early April that Howie used Austin’s cellphone to call the cab company for a ride that morning and that they shot Abdallah with a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle on Clarence Avenue, then ditched the cab and body on Norfolk.
The call requesting the cab came from a cellphone number listed to Austin on his Facebook page.
Police surveillance video from a camera in the area where the cab was found show two men in dark clothing walking away from the cab shortly after 5:33 a.m., Belling said.
The prosecutor said DNA evidence links the two suspects to Abdallah.
Abdallah’s blood and Austin’s DNA were found on athletic pants that match the pants seen on a surveillance video of one of two men getting into the cab at 4:58 a.m. at the Perry Street address, Belling said .
Abdallah’s blood also was found on jeans that had Howie’s DNA on them and that matched the jeans seen on the video, he said, and DNA from Howie was also found inside Abdallah’s cab.
During testimony Thursday, a prosecution witness who had told police that Austin called for a cab early on March 6 just before Austin, Howie and another teenager left his apartment at 312 Perry, said he wasn’t sure if Austin called for a cab.
Mileec DeBerry also was unable to identify two men seen in a surveillance video getting into a cab that morning at the Perry Street address, although he had identified them as Austin and Howie when questioned by police last April.
He admitted under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Paul Parisi that he didn’t want to testify and that he was a friend of Austin but not Howie. “I don’t want to hurt Sean and his family,” he said.
The fatal holdup was the last in a series of six robberies targeting cab drivers and food deliverymen that started in late 2012. Austin and three others have been charged with robbing two other cab drivers at gunpoint and two deliverymen on Dec. 2 and 3, 2012, and Feb. 1, 2013. Two of the three co-defendants face a separate trial. The third has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify at this trial. Austin and Howie also have been charged in a Feb. 9, 2013, cabbie robbery.
Belling said Austin’s cellphone was used to set up the robberies.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Jeremy D. Schwartz, who represents Austin, said the prosecution has implied that his client was the leader of the robbery ring. He said Austin was a 16-year-old kid “left holding the bag by people who didn’t care about him.”
He noted that Howie’s DNA, not Austin’s, was found in the victim’s cab. He told the jury that his client is unsophisticated and immature and that he is not a ringleader or a killer. He said the evidence was not sufficient to convict him of murder
Defense lawyer Michael L. D’Amico, Howie’s attorney, told jurors not to trust Austin’s statements to the police about Howie’s actions, calling Austin immature and prone to offering differing accounts.
He said Belling failed to tell them in his opening statement that prosecutors don’t have the murder weapon because it was never recovered.
He said Belling also didn’t tell them that DNA can be transferred from one person to another and that DNA was not found on the keys to the cab or the steering wheel.