By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Sean Taylor's silver BMW 760, its tinted windows down, was parked diagonally on a long patch of grass in the searing South Florida heat outside a modest, one-story home in this tiny municipality. Parked nearby was Taylor's blue 2005 GMC Yukon Denali sport utility vehicle -- with two bullet holes in its side.
The cars were the only signs that the Washington Redskins' safety was inside the home, where he frequently spends the night with his mother and great-grandmother -- and of the events the night of June 1 that led to his legal troubles.
An acquaintance said that Taylor also spent time in a luxury hotel in Miami or with friends. But after concluding his rookie season in January, Taylor has largely stayed at his mother's home, three miles from where his father Pete is chief of police in Florida City. It is a world away from the fast-paced life of Miami 30 miles to the north where Taylor starred for the University of Miami, and from Redskins Park, which Taylor has studiously avoided this offseason, much to the dismay of his team and coach, Joe Gibbs.
Last week, Taylor, 22, had his first telephone conversation with Gibbs in six months. It was arranged by Taylor's agent in the aftermath of Taylor's arrest June 4 on two felony charges of aggravated assault with a firearm and simple battery, the outcome of a dispute over two stolen all-terrain vehicles owned by Taylor. Because of his legal problems, Gibbs excused the 6-foot-2, 231-pound defensive back from the team's three-day minicamp, which will begin Friday at the Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn. Taylor is scheduled to be arraigned next Friday.
Taylor, a Miami native who starred at Gulliver Prep High, didn't emerge from his mother's home late last week despite numerous requests for an interview left on his phone or through his parents and representatives. However, one person aware of his whereabouts said that Taylor was staying there and laying low.
Taylor's mother, Donna Junor, ambled in her carefully kept front yard -- enclosed by a five-foot fence -- when a reporter approached the gate. Junor, 43, politely declined an interview and promptly re-entered her home as a dark gray pit bull thrust its paws against the fence while barking loudly.
Taylor has not spoken with the media since before Oct. 28, when he was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated on the Beltway in Virginia. He was acquitted of those charges in January.
But in interviews, people who know Taylor -- former teammates, friends, educators, neighbors, associates and police officers -- painted a complex picture of the safety who had never lived outside Miami until the Redskins selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft. They portrayed Taylor as a good-natured, family-oriented man who has used his status and local celebrity to make appearances in the community, and begun giving donations to organizations for the underprivileged.
Some who know him, however, said Taylor has also shown a stubborn, recalcitrant side, resisting adult guidance -- including from his parents -- while cavorting with sycophants, some with a dark side. "Punks and wannabe thugs," said one former neighbor who declined to give his name.
Almost everyone interviewed expressed surprise at the severity of the charges against Taylor, who had never been charged with a crime in Florida. Nonetheless, some said they felt that it was only a matter of time before Taylor became embroiled in a predicament stemming from his immaturity and association with longtime buddies he feels loyalty toward.
"Sean is not the type of guy everyone is making him out to be. Sean is not a bad guy," said Arizona Cardinals rookie cornerback Antrel Rolle, a former Miami teammate who has known Taylor since they were 6. "Sean has a big heart and a lot of great qualities. But his friend selection is not good. I don't think that most of his friends have any positive influence."
Rolle continued: "You shouldn't change completely just because you become famous. Even after this incident, he shouldn't be restricted. He just should have second thoughts about his decision-making. He just makes the wrong decisions, and doesn't think of the consequences. I don't think some of his friends are man enough to tell him. They're just in his corner whether his decision is right or wrong."
Rolle said he hasn't had a serious conversation with Taylor since the 2003 Hurricanes season ended.Neighborhood Incident
West Perrine is a low-income, high-crime neighborhood about 16 blocks just south of Miami and less than 20 miles north of Homestead. About 9,000 people, many of them unemployed single parents who receive government assistance, live in the mix of public and private apartment complexes that dominate the area.
At the Cutler Ridge police station about four miles away, officers describe West Perrine as a dangerous place, a neighborhood with high rates of drug trafficking and substance abuse, where reports of assault and battery are commonplace. One officer warned a reporter not to venture there because of the risk of crime on certain blocks.
On the afternoon of June 1, according to the police report, Taylor drove his Yukon Denali into West Perrine because he believed two men from the area had stolen his two all-terrain vehicles, each worth about $7,000. Another car with several of Taylor's friends trailed behind, police said.
Police said that Taylor got out of his car and pointed a gun at two individuals while demanding they return his ATVs. According to a person familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity because the case is still at a sensitive stage, an individual from the car trailing Taylor's pointed an AK-47. No shots were fired, and Taylor soon left, they said. Ten minutes later, he returned with more friends, the police report said.
After returning, Taylor got out of the car and hit one of the individuals with his fist while one of Taylor's friends chased another person with a bat, the police report said. Then Taylor and his group again left the scene and drove to a home in the area belonging to one of Taylor's friends. According to officials familiar with the case who requested anonymity, shots were fired into the home and at Taylor's Denali several minutes later. No one was hurt. Police said they are continuing to look into this incident -- no arrests have been made -- and consider it a separate investigation.
Three days later, Taylor turned himself in to Miami-Dade police after police had described him as a "person of interest" in the incident. He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, a felony, and one count of simple battery, a misdemeanor. Accompanied by a lawyer, Fred Moldovan, Taylor paid a bond of $16,500 and was released.
A police official said non-residents are rarely brazen enough to enter West Perrine to commit a crime. However, friends said Taylor was familiar with the neighborhood, having grown up at his father's home less than two miles away.
"Sean is known all over South Florida," Rolle said. "I don't think it's the area that got Sean in trouble. Growing up, it's somewhere he's familiar with. He's going to go there before he goes to Washington. Home is home regardless of it's a bad neighborhood or not."
Two witnesses to the June 1 incident, Xavier Gibbs and Terrance Randolph, each 21, said that they knew Taylor casually from when they played football at Palmetto High School. Gibbs and Randolph were advised by their lawyers not to discuss the case, they said. "What's the profit for me?" Gibbs said.Rocky First Year
Taylor made quite an impact in his first NFL season, using ball-hawking skills and a mean streak to rattle opposing receivers. He added to his aura by inserting sparkling gold false teeth before games. Although his play was at times undisciplined, Taylor emerged as one of the NFL's best rookies and among the league's top safeties. He was voted a first alternate to the Pro Bowl, the second-best showing among Redskins players.
Still, Taylor generated several negative headlines for situations off the field. He hired and fired agents and was fined $25,000 for leaving a mandatory NFL rookie symposium early. He missed the bulk of the Redskins' voluntary offseason workouts last year. Once the season began, the league fined him nearly $20,000 for personal fouls and for violating NFL uniform rules during games.
Friends say Taylor felt picked on by the media during his rookie year, and targeted by the NFL. One associate, who requested anonymity because he wasn't sure how Taylor would interpret his comments, recalled Taylor saying, "They can't break me." Taylor has a tattoo on his right biceps with the words, "Steel Standing."
After the season, Taylor and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said they wanted to renegotiate the seven-year, $18 million contract Taylor had signed before the 2004 season, feeling his rookie deal, which with incentives is potentially worth $40 million, did not have enough guaranteed money. People close to Taylor say the contract dispute was not the reason for his decision to skip all of the team's voluntary workouts this offseason -- he was the only member of the team with an unexcused absence. He told friends that Rosenhaus assured him that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder would be willing to offer him an improved contract.
While Taylor -- the second oldest of four children -- struggled last year adjusting to aspects of his new life in Washington such as the cold winter weather, his main qualm about life in the D.C. area was not being able to see his parents and his buddies back in South Florida.
So when the season ended, Taylor returned home.Looking Back
Although Taylor's parents split up shortly after his birth, he remains close to both. "My parents weren't together after I was born," Taylor said in an interview last year, "but they've always been there for me."
Friends said that Taylor still loves home-cooked meals, and attributes his size to eating his great-grandmother's cornmeal during summer visits. Taylor has a large extended family in the area, friends said, that has increased recently as some cousins moved here from Georgia.
Although Taylor frequents popular clubs at Miami Beach and Ocean Beach, one friend said that Taylor also occasionally enjoys the solitude of fishing for snappers, bluefish and other saltwater fish.
Residents of Taylor's neighborhood from his high school years -- where his father and stepmother still live in a one-story, yellow home -- said that he occasionally drops by, and is quick to offer a helping hand. The working-class area has tree-lined streets with one- and two-story homes near a park with basketball and tennis courts.
Sean Martin, a teenager, moved into the neighborhood from Brooklyn about two months ago to live with his cousin Marc Spencer, 11, and his aunt. Soon after arriving, Martin said he met Taylor when the safety was tending to his car across the street.
"I was like, 'Wow,' " Martin recalled last week, standing outside his home. "He seemed like a nice guy. My aunt had some groceries. And he saw her and came over to give her a hug and then helped us take the stuff inside. I heard about the [June 1] incident, and I was kind of surprised."
In late April, Taylor made an impromptu appearance at Gulliver Prep Middle School -- located in an affluent neighborhood -- and spent both 45-minute lunch periods signing autographs for fifth- through eighth-graders.
"He was great. He just sat there and signed for all the kids," recalled Mark Schusterman, the athletic director. "Then he walked throughout the school and did neat stuff like that."
Taylor graduated from nearby Gulliver Prep High -- an exclusive private school on a picturesque 13-acre campus. After returning to the area in January, Taylor occasionally appeared at the school to watch his brother Joe, a senior forward on the basketball team, play. Their father coaches football part-time in the afternoon.
Adorning the wall of the athletic director's office is an oversized frame of a newspaper article with the headline: "Historic Win by Gulliver." The bank headline reads: "Taylor (3 TDs) leads Raiders to the Title." Taylor is pictured clutching the ball with his right hand, leaping over a pile of burly bodies while a defender tries to tackle him. In the fall of 2000, Taylor led Gulliver Prep to the state championship with a state-record 44 touchdowns.
"When Sean came to us, he was a great athlete and a student willing to put effort in the classroom," said Chuck Tobey, the school's athletic director.
Taylor also played basketball at Gulliver.
"His dad, being a police officer, understood the importance of education, and kept Sean focused," Tobey said. "Sean was very respectful. He was a competitor on the field, but he was a pretty quiet kid, friendly. That's why the incident is rather surprising."
Added Schusterman: "The people in Washington should understand that this guy will work out. We all make mistakes. Have I done stupid things when I was young? Yes. And I probably still do today. Just because somebody gives you money doesn't mean all of a sudden you're perfectly mature.
"When you get in a position like him, it's not so much that he might hang around with the wrong crowd. It's that they stay attached to him. It's not as easy to let that go as you think."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.