The Taxi Driver

Military sales to Latin American dictators, CIA contacts, and the strange odyssey of OC cabby Richard Schorling

Photo by Jack GouldRichard Schorling knows something about second acts—and third and fourth, it seems. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he flew around the hemisphere, wheeling and dealing among the powerful and the infamous, routinely hanging out with Central American guerrilla leaders and military dictators.

So how does a guy like that—a guy with CIA contacts and multimillion-dollar business contracts—end up driving a cab in Orange County?

And how does that same guy end up running that cab company?

And how does that guy launch his own taxi company, walk into the county Hall of Administration and grab a lucrative monopoly contract to provide service to and from John Wayne Airport?

Schorling says it was fatherhood.

"I ended up being a single parent with a 5-year-old daughter to raise," he says, explaining why he first became a cab driver. "I couldn't travel anymore, and I had to find something to fit my schedule."

Actually, Schorling hasn't driven a cab for a living in years: today, he's president of American Taxi, the Costa Mesa-based cab company that has become the darling of John Wayne Airport officials.

But Schorling isn't simply one of the many drivers-turned-company-presidents that make up Orange County's taxi industry. In 1996, as general manager of A-AAA Taxi, Schorling made a name for himself when he took on Larry Slagle, one of the county's most powerful and entrenched political figures. Since 1974, Slagle had held the lucrative county contract to provide exclusive service to John Wayne Airport; under the terms of the deal, no other cab company could so much as enter the airport. Slagle made much on the deal and cemented his relationship with airport officials by joining them: from 1979 to 1987, he sat on the airport commission that voted him the contract.

Then came Schorling. Though the commission voted for Slagle, Schorling hired an attorney, worked the local media and appealed to the commission's bosses—the county Board of Supervisors. It worked. Still hearing the echoes of the 1994 bankruptcy, the supes voted 5-0 to approve Schorling's bid for the contract.

"It would have been nothing but political if they had given [Slagle] the contract," Schorling said then. "But our persistent badgering, the pressure from the press, and a fair deal for the public made us the right choice. The public's finally going to get decent service."

(The Weekly itself hailed Schorling's victory in an October 1996 story headlined "How Rick Schorling Outfoxed the Local Good Old Boy Network.")

The story wasn't over. In mid-1999, Schorling dramatically split from A-AAA and formed his own company, American Taxi. Just six months later and already $130,000 in the hole, Schorling and American Taxi repeated his 1996 victory by pulling the lucrative airport contract from his former employer.

With its all-natural-gas fleet, Schorling quickly won clean-air awards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Sierra Club. But American's financial troubles have never abated. They are so severe that last August, the company sued its own natural-gas-fuel provider to prevent that firm from cutting off American for consistent failure to pay its bills. Despite this trouble, Orange County airport officials remain infatuated with American Taxi, saying Schorling provides the best taxi service in the history of the airport.

Schorling wears the jeans and jacket that seem to pass for a uniform among the county's hard-edged cab bosses. But from 1975, when he was 30 years old, until sometime in the early 1990s, he worked as a helicopter broker. Based in Long Beach near that city's airport, Schorling spent nearly two decades jetting around Central America, buying and selling helicopters. He was a master of a particular helicopter deal: locating damaged birds in one country, he would repair and sell them in some other country at a substantial profit.

And he got rich—very rich, according to some of his former associates—and powerfully connected. Schorling spent the 1980s dealing with such notables as Nicaraguan rebel leader Eden Pastora and Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega.

Like Graham Greene's character Harry Lime, Schorling apparently moved through an underworld. Money got lost. Checks bounced. Promised helicopters never arrived.

Frequently juggling two or three deals at once, Schorling moved quickly. That made tracking him difficult. And some people got hurt.

"He's a goddamned scam artist," says Richard Probert, a former Schorling associate. "He scammed me out of $325,000 in a bullshit helicopter deal."

Others share Probert's assessment. Court records from the early 1990s detail various stings in which Schorling was allegedly involved—including forgery, bounced checks and the sale of helicopters that never existed.

By 1992, a year after Schorling says he became a single parent, Schorling's alleged victims were closing in. It got so bad that when Schorling faxed Probert in March of that year, he warned him, "Do not mention my name. The front door in most places is closed for me right now. I'm normally coming in from the side or the back."

Schorling vanished a few months later. For years, none of his former friends or pissed-off business associates could find him. Most say they considered the well-armed crowds he dealt with and figured he was dead. Then, in 1996, he reappeared without fanfare—as general manager of a cab company.

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