Updated 9:47 am, Wednesday, April 13, 2016
A van that killed a pedestrian in an unsolved hit-and-run crash last month in San Francisco’s Tenderloin was being chased at high speed by an Uber driver after the two vehicles exchanged honks and got into a fender-bender, according to an Uber customer who says he got taken along for the ride.
The customer, 52-year-old Jason West, spoke to The Chronicle about what he called a frightening, 15-minute ordeal — with the Dodge van and the Mercedes he was in running red lights along rainy streets — after contacting police and Uber.
He said the company and its insurer responded by offering him thousands of dollars to cover his medical bills and release Uber from liability, while keeping the deal confidential — an offer that Uber representatives and their insurance company called a routine legal practice.
West declined the offer, and his account — disputed by the Uber driver — offers insight into the March 12 death of Michael Gilmore, 56, a San Francisco native who emerged from hard times and homelessness and lived at the Jefferson Hotel on Eddy Street, just around the corner from where he died at Ellis and Leavenworth streets.
Why he came forward
West said he spoke out because news accounts of the crash — which also injured a second pedestrian — hadn’t mentioned the chase he said he was part of.
San Francisco police officials have refused to discuss the crash in detail, citing the sensitivity of the case, but said Tuesday that the van driver remained at large and that the Uber driver had not been accused of any wrongdoing. An Uber representative said the company had not been contacted by police.
“No one knows what I know, that this was a road-rage incident involving an Uber driver,” said West, a longtime city resident who works in personal services. “This didn’t have to happen. Mr. Gilmore didn’t have to be killed.”
The Uber driver, Omar Dahmash, denied West’s account in an interview Tuesday. He said that while a collision did occur between his car and the van, it was West who prompted him to follow the van. The pursuit never went over the speed limit, Dahmash said, and lasted only one block. He said a third vehicle was also struck by the van, and followed it farther than he did.
“I spoke to the police and there are no charges against me,” Dahmash said. “I didn’t chase him, I was just following and it was only for a block. The passenger is not correct at all.”
An Uber representative said the company had deactivated Dahmash’s account on the popular app — which has faced past scrutiny over its ability to protect customers — after determining that the trip did not meet the company’s safety standards. The representative would not elaborate and declined to be quoted by name.
West said the incident began when he called for an Uber car to pick him up at his South of Market apartment in the early evening. He planned, he said, to pick up some friends near Union Square before heading out for a Saturday night in the Castro.
West was picked up by Dahmash at 6:34 p.m., according to data from the ride-hailing app, and West sat in the backseat as the two headed north into the Tenderloin. He said they were sitting in stopped traffic while westbound on Geary Street, between Powell and Mason streets, when a honk came from a silver Dodge Caravan behind Dahmash’s Mercedes C-Class sedan.
‘Get his license plate’
Dahmash honked back, West said, before the van pulled to the left in an attempt to pass the Mercedes. He said Dahmash sped up and the two vehicles collided.
“From that moment, that was the start of Mr. Gilmore’s demise,” West said.
The van took off, he said, and Dahmash followed. West said that in the initial seconds after the fender-bender, he was sympathetic toward the Uber driver and sought to help him by trying to photograph the van. He said he told Dahmash, “Get his license plate.”
But Dahmash began speeding and running red lights, he said. The chase was fast enough that when the black sedan crested a steep hill, West said, his head hit the ceiling, causing an injury to his neck that is still bothering him.
“At every red light, I’m just bracing myself,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how I can protect myself if a bus or another car doesn’t see us.”
As the Mercedes approached the intersection of Ellis and Leavenworth streets, West said, he saw a commotion, with luggage flying and people jumping from the path of the van. He didn’t know it at the time, he said, but Gilmore had just been struck and killed.
The van gets away
The chase continued, West said, with the Uber driver following the Dodge van the wrong way up Olive Street, a one-way alley, before the van got away, fading into traffic on busy Van Ness Avenue.
“I’m talking to him just to calm him down, but after it ended he’s screaming at me,” West said. “He was very agitated that I didn’t get a picture” of the van’s plate.
West said he asked to get out of the Mercedes, but that the driver told him, “It’s too dangerous,” turned off the app and said the remainder of the trip to the Castro would be free.
A map of the route that night, saved by West in a screenshot from the Uber app, shows that the Mercedes traveled through the intersection where the hit-and-run occurred just before police received the first calls reporting the crash.
Driver’s story differs
Dahmash denied much of West’s account, saying he gave up following the van after a block and did not see the fatal wreck. He said he filled out a police report the same night and gave a follow-up statement to investigators the next week.
West showed The Chronicle a text message he received from Dahmash the day after the crash in which the Uber driver said, “this is 100 percent the guy,” an apparent reference to the van driver, and included a link to a news article about the fatal hit-and-run. West said that’s when he contacted police and Uber.
“When I saw that it was a fatality, all bets were off,” West said. “I didn’t sign up for that.”
The day after that, West said, an insurance adjuster contacted him on behalf of Uber and offered $2,500 for his “pain and suffering,” but he turned it down.
The adjuster called back the next day, West said, this time with an offer of $6,000 — $3,000 for verified medical expenses and an additional $3,000 to release the company from liability. The release, provided to The Chronicle, included a clause that would have prevented West from talking publicly about the deal or doing anything to “disparage or defame” Uber or Dahmash.
John Clarke, a spokesman for Uber’s insurer, James River Insurance Co., said it is standard practice to include confidentiality provisions in a release of liability for bodily-injury claims.
Such settlement agreements are common — and aggressive, said Mark Gergen, a professor at UC Berkeley’s law school.
“Uber was trying to get out in front of it before the customer was fully aware of his medical condition and his legal rights,” he said. Noting that West could make a case for “significant emotional disturbance” and possibly false imprisonment as well as physical injuries, Gergen said, “Uber has a significant liability risk here.”
West, who has hired an attorney, said the release struck him as “like a gag order, and it made me not want to be silenced.”
“I wanted to know who the victim was,” he said. “I felt sympathetic for his family. I wanted to reach out to them. I just feel so bad. It was just so unnecessary.”
Gilmore, the man who died, spent his entire life in San Francisco. He graduated from Mission High in 1977 and worked in food services at UCSF Medical Center for more than a decade before he fell on hard times, said his brother, Raymond Moore of O’Fallon, Mo.
For a long time he lived with a woman he considered his godmother in a rent-free apartment, but when the woman died, he lost his place and became homeless for a few years, sometimes sleeping in tents or cardboard boxes.
“We didn’t come from money,” said Moore, 62, who spoke to his brother frequently on the phone, including the day before his death. “We were trying to scramble through life just like everyone else, and when his godmother died it really threw him for a loop.”
‘He was well-loved’
Nancy Sholkin, a 70-year-old former city employee, met Gilmore on the streets of Laurel Heights and took him under her wing. She helped him obtain an identification card so he could obtain Social Security benefits, and he moved into a room at the Jefferson Hotel in 2012.
“He was well-loved,” Sholkin said. “And he was working on making a life for himself.”
Gilmore’s family was shocked when told by The Chronicle that the van in the hit-and-run may have been fleeing an earlier collision. But the news buoyed their hopes that investigators would catch the driver.
“What hurt us most of all is that someone could hit him and not even stop,” said Moore’s wife, Brenda Moore. “I’m just so glad that someone came forward or we would never have known what happened.”