By María Luisa Paúl
El Paso - Three weeks into his new job as an Uber driver in El Paso, Daniel Piedra was shot in the head multiple times after police said his passenger, who had seen a traffic sign that said "Juarez, Mexico", wrongly believed she was being kidnapped and driven to another country.
Piedra, 52, had been on life support at a Texas hospital since the June 16 shooting. But when doctors said he would have to remain on a ventilator forever, Piedra's loved ones, who had been praying for a miracle, decided to let him go.
He died on Wednesday.
"My aunt didn't want to see him suffer," Didi Lopez, Piedra's niece, told The Washington Post. "But, honestly, we don't think that we made the decision to disconnect him. That decision was made for him the second that those bullets went into his head."
Phoebe Copas, 48, of Tompkinsville, Kentucky, was charged with murder on Thursday. She was arrested on June 16 and accused of aggravated assault, but the charge changed after Piedra's death. Her bond was also increased from $1 million (about R18.6 million) to $1.5 million, according to jail records.
An attorney assigned to Copas did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Her bond hearing on Friday was postponed. A new hearing date has not been set.
On June 16, Copas booked an Uber ride to a casino, where she had planned to meet her boyfriend after he got off work, according to a criminal complaint. Police say Piedra picked Copas up around 2 pm in his grey Nissan Maxima.
As he drove, police say, Copas, who was in the back seat, saw a sign referring to the Mexican city of Juarez, which is about seven miles across the border from El Paso. The sign along US 54 left the passenger worried she was being kidnapped, investigators wrote.
Copas then took a "silver and brown handgun" from her purse and repeatedly shot the driver, police said. The vehicle hit barriers before coming to a stop on the highway.
Copas did not try to call police before opening fire and did not immediately call them after, authorities say. Court documents allege that she took photos of Piedra after the shooting and texted them to her boyfriend, before calling 911.
When authorities arrived around 2:20 pm, they found Copas's boyfriend helping her out of the crushed Nissan, court documents state. When she got out, officers saw her "drop everything she was holding in her hands on the ground," including the gun, according to the complaint.
Officers then called an ambulance for Piedra, who was slumped over in the driver's seat with gunshot wounds to his head.
Investigators said Piedra never deviated from the assigned route, one they described as "a normal route to drive to the destination requested by" Copas. That area, they added, is "not in close proximity of a bridge, port of entry or other area with immediate access to travel into Mexico".
Piedra's family is questioning why a ride that followed a planned route would end in bloodshed.
Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday night, but a company spokesperson told NBC News that the company is cooperating with authorities and is "horrified by the rider's actions."
When news of a driver being shot began spreading in El Paso, Lopez said, "it never crossed our mind that it was going to be him." But when Piedra didn't come home after hours of unread texts and missed phone calls, his loved ones knew something was wrong, she said.
In the hospital, Piedra was a shadow of the playful, selfless and kind man his loved ones remembered. Still, they held out hope that his brain would heal and he'd get back to downing coffee at his beloved aunt's house and lightening the mood at family gatherings.
It was over coffee, days before the shooting, that Piedra told his family he loved his new job, Lopez said. A longtime mechanic, Piedra had injured his knee, requiring surgery in April. Piedra, the sole provider of his family, started driving for Uber in late May. He wound up enjoying getting to meet people from so many backgrounds during the rides, his family said.
One of those passengers even came to visit Piedra at the hospital, Lopez said.
"He showed up and said my uncle was a wonderful man and that they'd become friends after one ride," Lopez said. "The fact that he had an impact on him in such a short time shows you the kind of person that my uncle was."
On Friday, Vigils for Piedra were held on both sides of the border. In both, loved ones and community members held candles while sharing memories and reflecting on what Piedra's cousin said was "unimaginable tragedy, pain and violence."
"In some way, we'll come to accept the will of God, who does things in a mysterious way," he said in Spanish, while loud sobs broke in the background.
The Washington Post