Farhan Hassan said the early-morning ride started like most during his overnight shifts working for Yellow Cab in St. Cloud.
But it quickly took a violent turn.
Investigators say 23-year-old Zachary Degraw choked Hassan, who was driving he and another passenger in his cab to Rollie’s Rednecks and Longnecks, a bar on Highway 23 east of St. Cloud.
Degraw, who was seated directly behind Hassan, put his arm around Hassan’s neck while he was driving and began to choke him, according to the criminal complaint charging him with bias-motivated assault.
Degraw made his first appearance before a judge in Benton County this week.
“He was drunk or whatever,” Hassan said. “I don’t know why he did this.”
“I see the hand coming… this side by the door. And then, boom! I almost died.”
Hassan told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Friday that he spent two days in the hospital following the March 25 incident and is struggling to swallow even now.
He doesn’t remember much of what happened, including how he managed to stop the cab without crashing.
Hassan said he is from Somalia, but is now an American citizen. And he has been working in St. Cloud for about three years.
The other passenger in the car with Degraw … “told deputies that the defendant was racist,” according to the complaint.
She also described for deputies how Degraw attacked Hassan.
When investigators at the scene asked Degraw what happened, officers said he responded: “Well, he is Muslim.”
Degraw also told a deputy a story about how he had been wronged by a Muslim in the past, according to court documents.
Hassan said the woman spoke with him after the incident.
“I remember when the police came she hugged me and said sorry,” Hassan said.
“I hear a lot of people saying on he was drunk. It doesn’t matter. This hurts our community,” said Natalie Ringsmuth of the group UniteCloud.
Ringsmuth said the incident demonstrates the importance of witnesses cooperating with investigators in these types of cases.
“When you see something, stay there and tell the police what happened,” she said. “If it was just the man and the driver it would have been one word against another word.”
“It shouldn’t happen to anyone, regardless of their faith, regardless of their skin color,” said Haji Yussuf of Midnimo USA.
Yussuf said the incident has rattled the already-unsettled Somali community in St. Cloud.
“For someone who is providing for his family, working an overnight shift, driving a cab” Yussuf said. “This should not be happening and it should not be happening in our community.”
Degraw is scheduled to go before a judge again in May. 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reached out to his attorney Robert Stoneburner via email Friday, but have not heard back.
Stoneburner had previously said he’d try to get the charges dismissed, and denied the incident was motivated by bias.