What a Crime

Just before Trina McReynolds was carjacked, she remembers being in the crowded drive-through lane at the Cityplace Whataburger. Things were going down that could only happen at 2:30 a.m., during the after-the-bars-close Saturday night rush.

A young woman in the BMW in front of her was leaning out the driver-side window, puking on the pavement. "Eeew...that was nasty," McReynolds recalls thinking to herself as she pulled her car up in the long line.

When she arrived at the speakerphone, she ordered two Whataburger combos, a Coke, and water, which she was going to take back to her boyfriend's Uptown apartment.

"The guy says, 'Will that be it, ma'am?' and I said, 'That's it.'"

At that instant, 17-year-old Gregory McCowan Jr. appeared at the open window of McReynolds' brand-new Mercedes 230C Kompressor. "I have a gun and I'll kill you," he said, putting his hands on the sill and leaning in. "Give me your goddamn purse."

"Excuse me?" McReynolds answered.

"Give me your fucking purse, bitch. I have a gun and I'll kill you."

After McReynolds told her attacker she didn't have a purse, he paused for a second, then unleashed another profane order. "Get out of the motherfucking car, bitch." Thinking her assailant indeed had a gun under his windbreaker, McReynolds stepped out. McCowan jumped in, ground the ignition of the still-running car a few times, and sped away.

For the next several minutes, McReynolds stood in the rain, crying and yelling for help. "I ran to the car behind me, and I was like, 'Please help me! Please help me!'" The Lincoln Navigator's occupants rolled up their windows and backed away.

In the aftermath of the crime, McReynolds says, she received almost as cold a response from Whataburger as she attempted to get the company to "at least acknowledge this happened to me."

One of the two Whataburger employees in the locked burger shop let her inside and called the police. But that was the last thing anyone in the company did right, she says.

McReynolds, a 30-year-old civil attorney, says the corporate-owned Cityplace stand had no security guard, no cameras, and no posted warnings of any kind at the time of the December 1999 carjacking--nothing to tell drive-through patrons that the area, which has been rapidly gentrifying, is not as safe as it looks.

"I wrote a one-page letter to (Whataburger CEO) Thomas Dobson to summarize my feelings about those things and the emotional depth of what happened," McReynolds says. "Some flunky called me back who had no knowledge of what happened whatsoever. I had to fax them a copy of the police report. I didn't expect an admission that they did something wrong, but I at least expected some amount of concern."

When that didn't materialize, she sued. "It was a good way to get their attention," says McReynolds, who has since hired Yolanda Torres, with a downtown civil litigation firm, to press her case. "After we served them, they issued a general denial and never called," says McReynolds.

Hubert Crouch, a lawyer for What-aburger, declined to comment for this story. The company does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy, he says.

In her lawsuit, McReynolds accuses the Corpus Christi-based, privately held burger chain of gross negligence for failure to maintain adequate security despite the high crime rate in the area around its shop at 2428 Haskell Ave. In addition to medical expenses--she sprained an ankle during the incident and says she has been getting psychological counseling--McReynolds is seeking unspecified damages for pain and mental anguish and lost wages. "I feel I'm strong, I'm intelligent, I'm educated, but I haven't been able to get past this. I find myself getting wound up and I still have to take medication. They call them chill pills."

She is also seeking punitive damages. "She's an attorney, she makes a good living," says F. Bady Sassin, a partner in the firm representing McReynolds. "This isn't her lottery case. There was a problem and she wanted it remedied. It was their flippant attitude that turned it into a lawsuit."

As depositions have begun in advance of a trial, McReynolds and her lawyers say they are concerned the company is looking for ways to blame her for becoming a victim of crime. "I'm being treated like I had no business as a single woman driving an expensive car driving through anyone's drive-through at 2:30 in the morning, like I'm some kind of bad girl," McReynolds says.

During her deposition, Whataburger's lawyer led her through a detailed account of where she went that night (salsa dancing at Blackberry's) how much she drank (two or three glasses of white Zinfandel or Cosmopolitans over five hours), even who paid for the drinks (her boyfriend, or as she put it, "I don't pay.") He also asked her numerous questions about whether she was concerned for her safety going to a drive-through alone, late at night.

"I would never, ever have gone there if I thought I was in danger," she replied.

McReynolds says her research, and extensive questioning of a Whataburger manager in a deposition, has led her to conclude that she was in danger, and the company knew it.

The orange-and-blue hamburger stand kept its inside dining area operating 24 hours a day when it first opened in early 1999. But the company closed the inside area after 11 p.m. following a shooting at a nearby gas station, Whataburger area manager David Wilkinson, who oversees 13 shops, testified.

"We heard the gunfire. It was so close," said Wilkinson, adding that the shooting happened the first week "unit 728" was opened on Haskell. He said closing the dining area was done to provide "additional safety for our employees and our customers...but definitely the employees in the unit."

Wilkinson testified that the company added no new security outside the shop to protect customers, who were still invited to go through the drive-through. He said outside security was provided by "state of the art lighting."

Usually, he said, Whataburger shops in higher-crime areas lock their doors at night. "Late-night customers tend to be more difficult. Very many of them are intoxicated. Some are very loud."

Then again, tough customers seem to come with the business.

Graffiti on the wall, irate customers screaming at the employees, people throwing things at employees, the stores have "day-in, day-out incidents," Wilkinson testified. "We have customers come in and throw things at us. We have customers curse at us incessantly. It's all the time in all the stores...You know, it's not unusual for a customer that, you know, gets very irate over a hamburger."

Wilkinson said four security cameras were installed at the Haskell store within a month after the McReynolds carjacking, and they did not stop another late-night carjacking this past fall, when a woman was "tossed out of her car" in the drive-through.

He also said that a security guard did nothing to prevent an armed robbery at a North Dallas Whataburger. The guard was reading a newspaper inside the locked store when someone held up the drive-through clerk.

McReynolds says her research of security at various Cityplace businesses shows that many employ security guards throughout the day. The Target store and movie theater there have roving guards. The Taco Bell has an off-duty police officer outside at night. "I feel safe having that police officer there," she says, adding that she's taken her late-night business to the taco stand. Besides, she says, "My boyfriend prefers Taco Bell."

As for her car and the carjacker, a tracking device led police to them just as McCowan piled the Mercedes into a concrete wall near Fair Park. He had picked up a friend and was speeding around, making calls on McReynolds' cell phone when he totaled the car.

The teen, sentenced to a year in a Texas Youth Commission facility in Pyote, is scheduled to be released in April. "He's in one of those take-responsibility-for-your-actions programs and I'm all for that," McReynolds says.

And when he gets out, she says, he may end up playing a role in her suit.

"We've talked to him and my understanding is he knew, all the thugs knew, that there wasn't a security guard at Whataburger, as opposed to Taco Bell, where there was...He chose that Whataburger because he knew security was lax, and he could get away with it.

"They don't want rowdy or inebriated customers inside, but they want people in the drive-through to make money off of us. They invite customers to come through their drive-through at all hours of the night."