April 18, 2019
Despite making public claims that a Lyft driver attempted to kidnap her after a heated verbal altercation on Christmas Eve, 19-year-old Zuri Berry headed to court on Thursday to face charges including aggravated assault, criminal mischief and simple assault.
She was joined behind the defense table by Curtis Easter and Curtis Brinkley, her father and friend, who each faced aggravated assault and other charges after physically confronting the driver, who allegedly refused to drop Berry off after a short ride from a ShopRite near East Falls and Nicetown to her nearby home that night.
To Berry, it was a frightening tale that only came to an end after the driver, Ebhozele Ujadughele, crashed his vehicle about a mile-and-a-half away from the Abbottsford Homes family development located right across the street from the shopping center where the ShopRite is located.
The drama played out as the driver told Berry he was taking her to South Philadelphia. She called Easter and Brinkley from the Lyft vehicle to get help, and they arrived to stop Ujadughele from taking her further.
After an 80-minute preliminary hearing before Municipal Court Judge Christine M. Hope – during which the prosecution’s lone witness was Ujadughele – all charges were dropped against Berry.
Hope also reduced the charges against Easter and Brinkley to a single count of simple assault each.
“This case is very, very, very troubling,” Hope said from the bench after watching a six-minute video – which can be seen here and here – capturing the events that night between the driver and rideshare passenger who was trying to get home with chicken, mac and cheese, cornbread and other items for Christmas dinner when all hell broke loose. “What I’m seeing is a girl stuck in a car. I think I heard (her say) ‘Don’t touch me.’”
Video and testimony made clear that Berry asked Ujadughele to drive her closer to her home from the area designated by the Lyft app as her final destination. When a profane verbal battle ensued, the driver took her back to the ShopRite and, after a brief stop, took off again – with Berry still in the car.
He said he was heading toward Broad Street to take her (and her bags of groceries locked in the trunk) to a police station. The South Philly mention made her think otherwise. Still, Ujadughele testified that he was taking Berry to the police station, despite each of them having called 911.
After leaving the ShopRite parking lot, he stopped less than a quarter mile away along Fox Street near Hunting Park Avenue.
“She wasn’t scared. She didn’t cry,” he said. “She took my camera and threw it out the window. I went back later and found it broken near the side of the road. I gave the memory card to police.”
“My life was at stake. I was running to save my life.” – Ebhozele Ujadughele
Ujadughele then hit the gas when Brinkley and Easter arrived.
“My life was at stake,” he said in response to a question about why he didn’t stay put as the 911 dispatcher had advised. “I was running to save my life.”
The pair followed him in another vehicle and, as Berry tried to put the car in park while grabbing for the steering wheel with her free hand, forced him to crash near 16th Street and West Allegheny Avenue, causing some $3,000 to the vehicle.
“I heard a bang on my window, opened it and they started punching me,” he said, something that Easter later painted as a lie, claiming he was banging on the trunk to get him to open it up so he could take his daughter home. “They broke my teeth. My eyes were swollen. She was choking me by my shirt. They dragged me out of the car. I wasn’t fighting back. I was protecting my face.”
The driver went to an area hospital to get checked for internal injuries and treatment for punches to his face and mouth. (He would suffer external bruising and said he still has issues with his eyes watering four months later.) The trio would be taken into custody, where they would spend much of Christmas Day.
Throughout direct and cross examination, the driver staunchly maintained that he was merely driving toward Broad Street because he knew there was a police station there, though he could not say exactly where.
By the end of the hearing, the judge wasn’t buying Assistant District Attorney Lauren Crump’s argument. She chalked Berry’s response up to fear, and Easter and Brinkley’s up to wanting to save a loved one from what they believed to be a dangerous situation.
After the case, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office said, “While we disagree with the Judge's decision, we respect the independence of the judiciary.”
The defendants and their attorneys, however, wondered aloud whether prosecutors got this wrong from the get-go.
“He certainly should be,” said Berry’s attorney, Evan Hughes, when asked whether the driver should face criminal charges in connection with the case.
For her part, Berry was relieved at the outcome, even though her father and friend still have to return to court in May for trial on simple assault charges.
“I am so happy and blessed,” she said. “I didn’t want this on my record. I go to college. I want to get a job and this could’ve been used against me.”