It was late on a Friday night in a Long Island beach town, and a 15-year-old girl was trying to get home from a party. So, like many teenagers in similar situations, she got in an Uber.
The ride-sharing company does not allow unaccompanied riders under age 18, but teenagers frequently travel in Ubers alone, experts said. In most cases, the rides are believed to occur without incident.
But on July 12, a parent's worst fears came true when the driver who arrived did not bring the girl safely home. Instead, prosecutors said, he kidnapped her and tried to take her to his place in Brooklyn, where he intended to sexually assault her.
"He took advantage of the situation," Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said Tuesday. "He found a vulnerable victim and he preyed upon that."
The girl escaped after persuading the driver to pull over so she could use the bathroom, prosecutors said, then calling the police.
The driver, Sean Williams, was arrested four days later and charged with two counts of felony kidnapping, as well as child endangerment and unlawful imprisonment.
Williams, 32, pleaded not guilty in Nassau County Court last week. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison on the top count.
His lawyer, Steven Gaitman, disputed the prosecutors' account, saying there was more to the case than the district attorney was claiming, though he said it was too early to elaborate.
The 15-year-old, whom prosecutors did not identify because she was a minor, had been attending a Sweet 16 party in Atlantic Beach, New York, a seaside village on a barrier island. Williams picked her up at about 11:15pm and was supposed to drive her home to Merrick, about 30 minutes east.
The girl's family does not have a car, prosecutors said, and public transit was not an option.
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When Williams arrived, Singas said, he motioned for the girl to get in the front seat, which she did, and then began driving east through the city of Long Beach.
But at some point in Long Beach, Williams cancelled the ride in the Uber app and began driving away from Merrick, westward, toward his home in Brooklyn, Singas said.
"When he cancels that route, the GPS turns off, and the ride is terminated," she said. "For us, that's sort of a consciousness of guilt. You know, he's taking her somewhere that he's not supposed to take her, and he cancels the route so we can't see where he's going."
While driving, Williams told the girl that he wanted to take her drinking, Singas said. The teenager refused, repeatedly telling Williams her age. When it became clear that Williams was driving the wrong way, she requested that he take her home.
According to prosecutors, Williams declined. Because the girl was in the front seat, she was afraid to pull out her phone and call the police or text her parents in case Williams saw her, Singas said.
"She was scared, and she didn't know how he would react to that," she said.
Just after they crossed into Brooklyn, the girl told Williams she needed to use the bathroom, prosecutors said. He pulled the car over, and she ran into a McDonald's on Linden Boulevard in East New York, where she called the police.
Williams followed her, prosecutors said, but fled before officers arrived at the restaurant, which Singas said was about 10 minutes from Williams' home.
Based on conversations recounted by the girl, prosecutors believe that Williams had been planning to "engage in some kind of sexual misconduct" with her, Singas said.
But Gaitman took issue with the prosecutor's account.
"She had a phone with her the entire time," he said. "When she made the request to go to the bathroom, he obliged. And certainly those factors alone don't lend themselves to a kidnapping."
Williams, who also works in real estate, had been driving for Uber for about six months, his lawyer said.
In a statement, Uber said that Williams was no longer driving for the company and that his access to the app was terminated in July once the accusations were reported to Uber.
Both Uber and its ride-sharing rival Lyft prohibit children younger than 18 from riding in vehicles without an adult. Both companies said they asked drivers to report passengers who violated the policy.
But the policy is regularly broken, experts said. And though drivers are tasked with enforcing the rule, they often have little financial incentive to do so, according to Harry Campbell, who writes about the industry at his blog The Rideshare Guy and occasionally drives for Uber and Lyft.
Ride-sharing apps are attractive to teenagers who do not want to rely on their parents for transportation and to parents who do not have time to chauffeur their children around.
The relatively low price of getting a for-hire car also makes the apps enticing, Campbell said.
"It definitely has given kids a lot more freedom," Campbell said. "The cost is so cheap for these rides that they could literally be paying for their own rides."
According to a poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan, 1 in 8 American parents said their teenager had used a ride-sharing service.
But because the poll was taken by parents, Gary L. Freed, the co-director of the poll and a paediatrics professor at the University of Michigan, said it was possible the portion of teenagers using Uber and Lyft was even higher.
"There's no real way of knowing," Freed said. "They're prohibited from using them, but we know that they do, and we know that ride-share companies don't require identification or age verification."
The Mott poll also found that two-thirds of parents were concerned that a ride-share driver might sexually assault their teenagers.
Given the ease of circumventing the companies' policies, Freed said parents concerned about their children's safety should have open discussions about ride-sharing apps.
He suggested that parents encourage their children to speak out if they are worried about a driver's behavior, use the apps to share their routes and whereabouts, and call 911 if they feel they are in danger.
Written by: Michael Gold
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES