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Taxi driver in prison for raping passenger was on sex offender registry

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, March 3, 2014, at 8:27 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, March 9, 2014, at 4:29 p.m.

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A Wichita taxicab driver now in prison for raping a passenger last year shouldn’t have been allowed to operate a taxi in the first place.

That’s because at the time Bryon Scott Spohn applied for a taxi driver’s license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect in July 2012 says a taxi driver’s license shall not be issued to anyone who “is now or has ever been registered as a sexual offender with any state, county or local government.”

Spohn shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said.

Spohn’s criminal history is a key issue in a lawsuit that the rape victim, a woman in her 20s, recently filed. The lawsuit is against Spohn and the business he drove for, ABC Taxi Cab Co. Inc.

ABC “knew or should have known by virtue of Spohn’s criminal history that he was unfit for the position of a cab driver and presented an undue risk of harm,” the lawsuit says.

Because of Spohn’s actions and ABC’s “negligent hiring,” the woman suffered “serious injuries, pain and suffering, mental anguish and other damage” exceeding $75,000, according to the lawsuit, filed in Sedgwick County District Court on Feb. 14.

Patrick Turner, the lawyer bringing the lawsuit on behalf of the woman, said he has questions about how Spohn received a license despite being on the sex offender registry.

Craig Robinson, the lawyer representing ABC, said that company president Ted Hill didn’t know until the lawsuit was filed that Spohn had a 2004 federal court conviction for possession of child pornography. Spohn spent about five years in federal prison. The pornography conviction put him on the state sex offender registry beginning in 2009. He will remain on the registry through 2019, according to Department of Corrections records. Hill also didn’t know about the rape until the lawsuit, Robinson said.

When Spohn applied with ABC in October 2012, Hill did a Kansas Bureau of Investigation background check, showing property-related criminal convictions for Spohn from the early 1990s, Robinson said. State records show Spohn had two felony convictions for burglaries in 1990 and 1991 in Saline County. The KBI report said nothing about a sex offender status, Robinson said.

However, the 2004 pornography conviction appears on Spohn’s license application with the city, according to a copy provided to The Eagle on Friday by city finance manager Rob Raine, who also is the city’s taxicab enforcement officer. The application, which appears to include Hill’s signature, required Spohn to list any felony convictions. In a handwritten entry on an attached page, someone included this in the list: “2004 Possession of Underaged Pornography.”

Hill was among the stakeholders involved in the discussion of changes under the new ordinance, including disqualification of registered sex offenders, Raine said.

But after Spohn received a taxi driver license from the city, Hill believed that the vetting had found nothing too troubling in Spohn’s background, Robinson said.

City fixes problem

Raine said that when the police records section checked Spohn’s criminal background in October 2012, the new ordinance banning anyone on a sex offender registry was only three months old. Spohn’s application was one of the first processed under the new ordinance, Raine said.

At the time of Spohn’s application to the city, the new prohibition on registered sex offenders “for whatever reason was not communicated to the people who did the background check,” Raine said.

Raine and police Capt. Darrell Atteberry, who oversees the records section, said a police detective investigating the rape case learned of Spohn’s offender status and notified the licensing officials, who then revoked Spohn’s license.

The revelation of Spohn’s offender status made the records staff members aware of the need to check for registered sex offenders, Atteberry said.

Raine added, “Today, we’re confident we’re checking for this.” Someone in Spohn’s situation wouldn’t pass the background check now, he said.

The city currently has 129 licensed taxi drivers.

According to Robinson, shortly after Feb. 17, 2013 – the date of the rape – the city called ABC to say it was revoking Spohn’s license. But Hill didn’t know why, Robinson said.

Spohn worked for ABC just shy of two months, Robinson said.

In 2013, ABC had 178,000 fares, “and out of that 178,000, we had one licensed driver commit a person felony,” Robinson said.

40 more years in prison

Should Hill have checked the sex-offender registry for Spohn’s name? “Hindsight’s 20/20,” Robinson said. “How far can an employer go into the inquiry of a particular job applicant?”

There also is a question, Robinson said, about whether a pornography conviction would signal that someone is predisposed to commit rape. “You know that the plaintiff is going to have to prove that with some type of expert,” he said.

Robinson contends that Spohn was not an “employee per se” of ABC but instead an independent contractor licensed by the city. “I think it limits the exposure of the taxi company,” he said.

“The person that should be sued is Mr. Spohn. He committed an intentional act, apparently.”

Spohn, 44, was convicted of the rape and is an inmate at El Dorado Correctional Facility. His earliest possible release would be in October 2054.

Guilty of rape

At Spohn’s June preliminary hearing in the rape case, the victim testified that on Feb. 17, 2013, she went out with friends and drank at various places, that she felt nauseous while at an Old Town bar, that she remembered walking into the bar but not leaving, according to a transcript. Later, she recalled being at a Wichita apartment complex with a taxi driver she didn’t know, whom she identified in court as Spohn. She ended up in the back of a cab, she said.

This, she testified, is what she remembered next: She woke up in a house and was so “out of it” she thought she was alone at first. The house was dark, cluttered and “stunk really bad.” She saw “blow-up dolls and sex objects.” Someone had taken her clothes off. She felt a man’s weight on her and realized he was raping her. According to prison records, Spohn is 6 feet tall and weighs 325 pounds.

She asked to leave, and the taxi driver took her home, she testified.

ABC’s records show the victim didn’t call for a ride, Robinson said. “We don’t know where she got into a taxi,” he said.

At his August trial, a jury found Spohn guilty of rape involving a victim “incapable of giving consent due to alcohol/drugs,” a court document says.

In December, a judge sentenced Spohn to 48 years in prison.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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