By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
PALMETTO BAY, Fla., Nov. 27 -- At 1:47 a.m. on Monday a call came to the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department of a shooting at 18050 Old Cutler Rd. Within seconds, fire department records show, one rescue truck, two fire engines and a fire chief made their way out of the Coral Reef Fire Station on SW 152nd Street and sped southeast toward the sprawling, yellow house not far from the edge of Biscayne Bay.
The race to save Sean Taylor was on.
Nine minutes later, the paramedics were at the house trying to stem the flood of blood that poured from the Washington Redskins safety's leg. He was fading fast. More than 10 minutes had passed since one or more intruders apparently climbed through a bathroom window off a patio in the back of the house, a family member said, and were confronted by Taylor near the rear bedroom where the player, his girlfriend Jackie Garcia and their 18-month old daughter had been sleeping.
Two shots were fired, one of which hit Taylor in the groin, striking his femoral artery.
Ultimately all efforts were futile. Tuesday afternoon, as the reality of Taylor's death settled in among family members, there was sadness, said Emory Williams Jr., Taylor's cousin. Taylor had been working to change his life in recent months after facing a possible prison sentence in 2005, family, friends and teammates said. But just like the paramedics who worked frantically to keep him alive on Monday, it wouldn't be enough. Neither he nor they could save him.
Because rescue helicopters do not have enough space in a residential area to land, the helicopter headed for Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church at 184th Street and Franjo Road, some two miles from Taylor's house. Taylor was loaded into an ambulance at 2:15 a.m. and rushed to the church parking lot. Somewhere in the process, family members said, his vital signs stopped, meaning he was legally dead. But the paramedics or trauma workers in the medevac were able to revive him.
At 2:27, more than 40 minutes after the first 911 call was made by Garcia, the helicopter took off for Jackson Memorial Hospital, a giant complex just across the Dolphin Expressway from the Orange Bowl where Taylor starred as a safety for the University of Miami. Seven minutes later, the helicopter landed at the hospital, but his prognosis was already grave.
Twice on Monday afternoon Taylor's heart stopped, friends and family members said. Even the hopeful squeezing of a doctor's hand that gave the everybody hope Monday evening faded in the early hours of Tuesday when the player died suddenly at 3:30.
"His body just shut down," Williams said.
As Pedro Taylor went through his son's house Tuesday afternoon, family and friends tried to sort out Sean Taylor's legacy. Understanding his life in his home town has always been a tangle of contrasts.
Taylor played 3 1/2 years in Washington, but his reputation was sealed by a celebrated 2005 incident in suburban Miami during which he waved a gun at a group of men he accused of stealing a pair of all-terrain vehicles he owned. It was an act that led to Taylor's truck being shot up with bullets. And it ultimately led to him facing a felony charge of aggravated assault and a misdemeanor count of battery, which were bargained down to 18 months of probation after a lengthy legal fight that nearly resulted in him spending at least three years in prison.
There were also the fines from the National Football League for missing a mandatory rookie symposium and late hits in games, a DWI charge in Virginia that was dismissed and a petulance that irked coaches and left him with a label of troublemaker.
But here in this upper-middle-class neighborhood, he was a sweet, smiling teenager who dazzled his teachers at the exclusive Gulliver Preparatory School when he transferred in midway through his sophomore year because his father thought he would have a better chance at college if he left the public school system.
Frank Gisonni, who taught marine biology to Taylor and Williams, remembered Sean as a bright child who mingled easily among the children of prestige at Gulliver.
Taylor met Jackie Garcia, the niece of actor Andy Garcia, at the school, and everyone felt they were destined to become a couple, Gisonni said. His senior year he was named prom king and he attended it wearing an all-white tuxedo and a white top hat. He even danced with the school's founder and matriarch, Marian Krutulis, who is in her 80s.
"She was very proud of him," Gisonni said. "He was such a charmer."
Family members bristle at the perception of Taylor as a brutish loner, and several would not speak to reporters because of it. Those who did said he was a good kid who lived in a solid neighborhood with his father and kept out of trouble. The problem, they said, came when Taylor spent time with his mother, Donna Junor, in a less desirable area near Homestead, south of Palmetto Bay. It was those acquaintances who pulled him down, they said.
When Taylor starred at Miami and then was a first-round pick of the Redskins in the April 2004 NFL draft, signing a seven-year, $18 million deal, the old friends put more pressure on him.
"You don't want to seem like you are better than them," his father, who is the police chief of Florida City 10 miles to the south, said Monday night as he stood outside the hospital. Pedro Taylor said what often happens is a person who moves away from the area and starts his life anew will occasionally return to the old neighborhood and resume his friendships with the people he always knew without understanding what had happened in the time that he was gone. His friends may have found new enemies, stirred up rivalries, and the person coming back has no idea what is going on. He was not certain this is what happened in Sean's case, but he said he urged his son to cut those ties nonetheless.
"That's the biggest problem," said Ed Hill, one of Taylor's cousins, as he sat on a bench outside the waiting room on Monday. "Once you grow up you can't go back and do the things you used to do. Now you got people in the area who want to take what you got and you've got too much to lose when you do that."
One family friend, who asked not to be identified for fear of insulting the family, said he told Taylor to simply stay out of Florida. "Too many people here know you. Too many people are jealous of you," the friend said.
Hill asked former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton, who was arrested in 2001 for transporting more than 100 pounds of marijuana, to speak to Taylor about the dangers of hanging around with the wrong people. Pedro Taylor said he had a long father-son talk after Sean's arrest, telling him to realize the opportunity that existed for him. And, many in the family said, the talks worked.
"I think he realized the important things in his life," Pedro Taylor said. "All this foolishness and people wanting to get in, I think it went away. He never was a partyer."
Many who were close to him say having a child changed Taylor, making him understand the responsibility for taking care of another life. But it might have been the 2005 arrest and the fear that he was going to go to prison that jolted him the most.
"That's cold reality -- looking at going to jail," Hill said.
Taylor took his closest relatives on house-hunting trips three years ago, searching for a quiet place where he could escape. He liked the peacefulness of the house on Old Cutler Road. Jackie and their daughter lived there much of the time, and Williams said Taylor loved to tinker around with home projects when he was around.
The machete he reportedly kept in his room for protection and reportedly wielded against the intruder on Monday morning, was usually used for whacking weeds in the yard, his father said. A favorite pastime of Taylor's was chasing the wild iguanas and peacocks that would make their way into the yard. Just a few weeks ago, Williams and Taylor sweated in the afternoon sun, painting the wall around the house white.
In fact, Taylor felt so comfortable at the house, he either never installed or rarely turned on a security alarm system -- accounts from family and friends differed. Police told the family that the intruders scaled the fence in the front near the sliding gate in the driveway.
Tuesday morning, that gate stood open as detectives combed the house and yard for clues. Williams stopped by a couple of times but left because the feeling of seeing the house as the murder site of his cousin was unbearable. Gisonni remembered an assembly last spring when Taylor returned to Gulliver and addressed the school. He talked about dreams and how the students needed to seize the opportunities they were given in life.
When Taylor saw Gisonni, his face brightened.
"Mr. G!" he shouted, Gisonni recalled.
Which is why Gisonni seemed so disheartened to see news reports casting Taylor as some kind of rogue figure.
"I knew him!" he shouted in the phone. "People will always judge without knowing a person."