Honest Las Vegas cabdriver gets big tip for returning cash

Here’s one of those stories that could only really happen in a gambling town like Las Vegas.

And as the cliché goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Or maybe for this story it ought to be, “What happens in the cab, Stays in the cab.”

But that’s not how it works for Adam Woldemarim, a big and honest teddy bear of an Ethiopian cabdriver.

Back on Sept. 2 he was cleaning out the back seat of his van just before the start of his 2 p.m. shift when he spotted something between the seats.

It was a black soft laptop case.

It was stuffed with $221,510.

In cash.

Stunned by the stuff that dreams are made of, he immediately calls an Ethiopian pal who had driven the cab earlier that day.

“Is this yours?” he asks.

“No,” the answer comes back real fast. “Take it to security.”

So Woldemarim, surprised by the heft of nearly a quarter-million dollars, lugs the cash to the security office at Frias Transportation Management, which owns his company, Virgin Valley Cab.

There, a security officer expresses the same sort of dismay at all the dough. Will ya look at it? Only armored cars and armored guards come into direct contact with this sort of stuff.

The security guard takes a bunch of photographs as evidence. He sends Woldemarim on his way.

An hour later, while Woldemarim is driving the streets of Las Vegas, hustling for tips as all cabdrivers do, he gets a call from security: “Come on back to the office. We need you.”

He returns to the office and, once again, the surprise factor: There’s a guy who says it’s his cash, standing right in front of him, a broad grin across his face. He’s a white guy. Under 30 years old. Brown hair. T-shirt.

The supposed owner of the cash is very excited. It turns out he won big at the Wynn and was on his way to the airport when he realizes he forgot a little something. The stuff that dreams are made of. He immediately calls the cab company. Security tells him they’ve got it. It’s safe and sound.

He hugs Woldemarim. He thanks him immensely for his honesty. Words cannot describe, nor can money buy. He asks Woldemarim where he’s from.

“Ethiopia,” says the soft-spoken Woldemarim, 42, who knows only a little bit of English.

“Well thank you sooooo much!” the T-shirt man tells him.

He then gives Woldemarim a big tip. $2,000.

Woldemarim is happy. He wasn’t expecting anything. Now he’s got $2,000. Let’s see: Rent is $400. His family, his brothers and sisters, his mother and father, he’ll send them some in Ethiopia. He feels like he just won a mini lottery. Life is good.

But then friends and fellow cabdrivers hear the story.

“That’s all?” they ask. “How about 10 percent, at least? That’s $20,000!”

Others yell, “How about 15 or 20 percent? That’s the going rate for tips in Vegas, after all.”

Tips. It does a body good. But at what point should one feel satisfied?

It’s true, their friend didn’t have any money at all, and now he has some, they muse in Ethiopian.

“But still,” they add in English. So often their passengers short-change them on the tip front because they’re from another country and they speak differently, they say.

Alex “Baharu” Alebachew, 50, a friend of Woldemarim, offers his opinion .

“It would have been nice if my good friend got more money, but I think the most important thing here is that a lot of people think foreign cabdrivers like us abuse tourists or they long haul their customers or we’re just here causing problems and we don’t belong here.

“They never see the good side to us, the honest side. If you can just print that, that would be nice.”

Alebachew said it would also be nice if somebody at the cab company would simply thank Woldemarim. He says his friend never got that.

Yes, the owner of the money might have thanked him, but nobody from the company did.

So they go to the court of last resort. They go to the newspaper.

Several attempts to talk to John Hickman, the chief operating officer of Frias, were unsuccessful. He’s the one whom cabdrivers said to call, the one who was at the center of all this.

Then three days after this reporter places the call – three long days of virtually begging for an interview – his assistant calls back.

It’s company policy, she says, never to discuss any items that are left in the taxicabs in Las Vegas, which brings us back to “What happens in the cab, Stays in the cab.”

“In fact,” the assistant goes on to say, “Mr. Hickman said he can neither confirm nor deny that all this actually took place.”

But it did take place. Woldemarim is a man with proof.

He holds the piece of paper in his hand from the company’s lost and found department.

Since the discovery, Woldemarim has been opening and closing his wallet. He’s been folding and unfolding the paper as if it was the cash reward in and of itself.

Several names and signatures are on it, at the bottom. They are the witnesses to the return of the money to its owner. There was a Las Vegas police officer present, a Wynn employee and the Frias security officer.

To Woldemarim, it’s a sign of his honesty – with a little bit of strange luck thrown in.

It’s the gold star on the homework assignment that is his daily job, where he puts in 12 hours a day, at five – sometimes six – days a week, to take home $350 a week.

Woldemarim came here seven years ago, one of 3,000 lucky Ethiopians each year whose names are chosen in a U.S. government visa lottery.

His country is the second most populated on the African continent. Nearly 85 million people live there. It’s desperately poor. It’s known for its famine, its unsanitary conditions, its lack of water, its past civil wars.

He got lucky, won the lottery and got out. He left his tiny clothing store behind. “Threading store,” as he called it.

He first went to Washington, D.C., where the vast majority of Ethiopians in America live. Then he came to Las Vegas after hearing about the gambling and the free-flowing cash and the tips.

He’s one of roughly 20,000 Ethiopians who live here. Many of them drive cabs.

In Ethiopia, the question is posed, $2,000 will go a long way, right? It will buy a lot, right?

“I’m not living in Ethiopia anymore,” he manages to muster in English. “I’m in America.”

Woldemarim says he loves driving cabs here, and he’s not complaining.

If he knew the phrase, “It is what it is,” he’d probably use it.

He shrugs. He’s still grateful. He’s glad that he did what he did, all the same.

And he wouldn’t do anything different if given a second chance.

And yet, his friends still question the tip, and wonder whether it was just. They also wonder whether the cab company employees got some sort of cut in the deal, behind closed doors.

Mostly, though, they question why their friend wasn’t properly thanked by cab company management.

But nobody knows because nobody in management wanted to talk about it.

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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