A white man was angry with a Black Metro bus driver when she informed passengers Sunday morning that her route had reached the end of the line near Seattle’s Volunteer Park, charging papers say.
Then, the man — later identified as Matthew R. Mahaffey — took his aggressions too far, prosecutors contend. He allegedly shouted racial slurs at the driver, falsely told her he was a cop and threatened to shoot her if she didn’t take him to Capitol Hill — the neighborhood they were already in, court records say.
Fearing for her life, the driver called for help as the man snapped photos of her on his phone then exited the bus, a police report said. Transit deputies later caught up with Mahaffey walking along a street. He had no gun, but he allegedly admitted threatening to shoot the driver, using a racial slur to describe her, the police report said.
Mahaffey was arrested, booked into jail and on Wednesday became the first defendant charged with a hate crime in King County in 2021, according to prosecutors.
The designation for an offense committed against another motivated by bias upgrades the seriousness of Mahaffey’s alleged harassment to a class C felony, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Mahaffey, who turns 47 on Saturday, was released from the King County Jail on Monday and is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 20. He did not return messages left for him Friday.
King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Bannick, who co-leads the county’s hate crime prosecutions with prosecutor Leandra Craft, said Friday his office initially asked that Mahaffey be held in jail. Aside from the current charge, Mahaffey has prior convictions for at least five felonies and 14 gross misdemeanors, including theft, drug possession, assault and malicious harassment, records show.
“The threat to kill is what we’re worried about, even when someone doesn’t have an obvious weapon on them,” Bannick said.
Instead, a judge released Mahaffey on his own recognizance, pending arraignment, and ordered him to stay away from the bus driver.
The 59-year-old driver told deputies that despite not seeing a weapon on the man, “she takes people at their word and … believed his threats and was afraid,” the police report said.
As he allegedly berated her with racial slurs and threats, the driver “opened her COVID Plexiglas partition, which effectively blocked Mahaffey from reaching her,” the report said.
Based on recent trends, the case against Mahaffey is likely to be the first in dozens of hate crime prosecutions this year, Bannick said. Overall, experts say bias crimes are underreported, but Bannick noted cases have been on the rise in King County in recent years.
In 2020, King County prosecutors filed 56 hate crime cases — 17 more than in 2019, and 26 more than in 2018.
Improved awareness and reporting of bias incidents likely account for part of the spike, with Seattle police dedicating a detective full time to investigate hate crime reports, Bannick said.
“We can’t say for sure all of the reasons why we’re seeing more cases,” he said. “But it’s possible that there’s just more hate crimes being committed. I think it’s hard to argue against that.”