Just One Cab Left After Arrest

New town taxi laws ensnare Afghanistan war veteran in a web of permits
Jorge Jerome, 25, a Montauk resident and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was arrested last week by East Hampton Town detectives and charged with having a forged permit on his taxi. T.E. McMorrow

A Montauk veteran of the war in Afghanistan was arrested on June 25 as part of the town’s crackdown on taxi drivers and charged with possession of a forged government-issued document, a felony.

“I just thought I was going to get a ticket,” Jorge Jerome, 25, said last week. “I didn’t know it was going to be a big deal.”

Mr. Jerome’s cab company, Airborne Taxi, now in its second year, owns two minivans and a big 2008 Ford Econoline 350. He was driving the Econoline when East Hampton Town detectives pulled him over on Davis Drive, minutes from the house in Hither Hills where he lives with his wife, Jordi, and their two sons. The license plate number on a town-issued taxi permit, the detectives said, had been changed.

It was true, said Mr. Jerome, who named his cab company in honor of the 82nd Airborne Division combat team he was part of, patrolling the Arghandab River Valley in Kandahar Province for one year. He explained on Friday that he had had a wedding party reservation for June 14, and that the two minivans were not large enough to hold all the guests. “I needed the big van.”

He had bought it in February, he said, and obtained New York State livery plates and the required insurance policy to operate it as a taxi, which cost $11,000. All that was missing was an East Hampton Town permit.

“I put in for a permit on June 3,” said Mr. Jerome, paying the town the required fee of $200. Last year, he said, getting a town taxi permit was a matter of two days, so there should have been plenty of time before the wedding. But a week went by with no word. He called the town clerk’s office and was told it could be months before the permit was issued.

“This is the time of year where you have to make money. I have to provide for my family,” he said. A few more days went by, and now the wedding, a job that was paying him $700, was near. Frustrated, Mr. Jerome then did something he surely did not learn at St. Joseph’s College, where he is starting his senior year in September, majoring in criminal justice.

He took the permit from one of his minivans and put it on the Econoline, planning to keep it there until the paid-up town permit came through.

The wedding went off without event. The following weekend Mr. Jerome drove the big van to the Montauk train station, where he was ticketed by a town code enforcement officer — not for the altered permit, but because he had not yet marked the outside of the vehicle as a taxi, as required under town code. Code enforcement then apparently notified detectives about the permit.

Born Jorge Rostran Obando in Nicaragua, Mr. Jerome came to this country when he was 13, dreaming of a career in the military or law enforcement. At Patchogue-Medford High School, he was a member of the Air Force Junior R.O.T.C. He enlisted in the Army in 2008, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.

“Firefight after firefight after firefight,” he said. “If you see a village empty, the farmers running away, you knew a firefight was coming.”

He felt a sense of satisfaction, he said, when villagers his unit had liberated from Taliban control returned home, but great distress when friends were killed, either in combat or as victims of roadside bombs.

On June 7, 2010, he himself narrowly escaped death when a roadside bomb blew up the truck he was riding in. The blast killed one close friend and wounded two others. Mr. Jerome’s photograph wound up online in a Wall Street Journal blog, lying by the side of the road being comforted by another soldier.

The proudest day of his life, he said, was Dec. 3, 2010, when he became a naturalized citizen of the United States, changing his last name in honor of his stepfather. “It was the best feeling in the world,” he said. “I had served my country, but now I could really say, ‘This is my country.’ ”

When he first came back to the United States, Mr. Jerome said, he found civilian life stressful. “I felt like going back over there. Life was hard. It felt easier at the time not to worry about anything else. All you had to worry about was fighting the enemy.”

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by Veterans Administration doctors and classified as disabled, he now speaks to a V.A. doctor via teleconference every two weeks.

Mr. Jerome is now down to one minivan, police having confiscated the permit that was on the Econoline. “This is the time of year you make money driving a taxi,” he said, “but it is very hard to make money with just one taxi.” Last weekend he did not drive at all, leaving the small van to an employee who also has a family to support.

“I’ve never been in trouble before. It is nerve-wracking,” Mr. Jerome said.

“I know I have really screwed up, and should not have done that,” he told the detective who interviewed him before he was arrested, according to the court file.

Town Clerk Carole Brennan, who is in charge of taxi permits, said on Tuesday that she would have no comment, “because it is an ongoing case.”