By Amy Shipley and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 1, 2007
MIAMI, Nov. 30 -- Miami-Dade police announced the arrests of four men Friday in connection with the fatal shooting of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor in his Miami home and said more than one has confessed.
Police said the men broke into Taylor's home early Monday in a targeted attempt to burglarize the professional football player's residence. They did not expect Taylor to be home, police said, and fled in a waiting vehicle after the shooting.
"They were certainly not looking to go there and kill anyone," Miami-Dade police director Robert Parker said.
All of the men -- Venjah K. Hunte, 20; Eric Rivera Jr., 17; Jason Scott Mitchell, 19; and Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, 18 -- resided in or around Fort Myers, Fla., which is about 160 miles from Miami.
A police spokesman said the men faced burglary and murder charges.
Police did not say why the men decided to target Taylor's home but said they might have visited the house before the burglary. People close to the family indicated there was a link between the men and Taylor's stepsister, Sasha Johnson, who often stayed in Taylor's house when he was out of town. Wardlow's uncle, Christopher Devon Wardlow, 21, was dating Johnson, a neighbor of Wardlow's said.
A family friend said Johnson, 21, and her brother Jamal Johnson, 18, were looking after Taylor's house over Thanksgiving weekend and were the house's "primary residents" along with their mother, Donna Junor.
The family friend, Donald Walker, said he suspected a party might have been held at Taylor's house that weekend, as he, Junor, and Taylor's girlfriend and infant daughter spent Thanksgiving with Taylor in the Washington area.
"While the cat is away the mice will play," Walker said. "They were trying to figure out where we were, and when we would get back, so they could clean up."
The Miami Herald reported that Mitchell attended a birthday party for Sasha Johnson at the house on Thanksgiving. The newspaper also reported that Mitchell mowed the home's lawn. Taylor's attorney and longtime friend, Richard Sharpstein, could not confirm those details but described the four as "hangers-on and wannabes of people related to Sean, not even Sean himself."
Sasha Johnson declined to confirm in a telephone interview whether a party was held at the house in the days before the fatal shooting. "I don't mean to be rude, but people are twisting everything around," Johnson said. She said she could not talk further because she had to "give a statement." She did not elaborate before hanging up. Junor said she did not know whether a party had been held.
Police also said they were looking into possible connections between the break-in Monday and an attempted burglary at Taylor's home eight days before. In that incident, the intruder or intruders rifled through drawers, looked through a safe and left a kitchen knife on a bed, but appeared to take little.
The arrests came four days after Taylor, 24, was fatally shot in his upper thigh after he and his girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, were awakened by noise in the living room of Taylor's $900,000 house in an upscale section of Miami-Dade County. When the shooter kicked in the bedroom door -- perhaps in search of the safe in Taylor's bedroom -- he fired two shots. One struck a wall and one pierced Taylor's femoral artery.
Taylor died Tuesday from his wounds.
The four men were transported to the Lee County Jail on Friday night. Formal charges will be announced after the Miami state attorney's office reviews the case, a Miami-Dade police spokesman said.
All four men have criminal histories, according to public records. Rivera was charged in August with felony possession of a firearm and removing a serial number from a firearm and in October with felony cocaine and amphetamines trafficking. Wardlow was arrested three times in 2005-06, twice on drug charges and once for felony grand theft. Mitchell was charged with disturbing the peace in 2004. Hunte was arrested on drug possession and trespassing charges in August.
The Miami-Dade police announced the arrests after picking up three of the men in Lee County early Friday and questioning them throughout the day at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Fort Myers. A person carrying a court reporter's typewriter could be seen coming and going. Police later picked up a fourth, and Parker said other arrests could be made.
The family of one of the accused -- Mitchell -- visited the FDLE regional headquarters in Fort Myers and his grandmother told reporters there that her grandson was home the night of the shooting.
Sharpstein said the arrests proved that Taylor had no involvement in incidents that led to his death. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle, a childhood friend of Taylor's, and others had speculated that Taylor had been hunted down by enemies.
"People always said Sean's life led him to this, saying he was violent," Sharpstein said. "But if anything here his openness and generosity led to this crime, which is shocking and horrific. I said all along it was a burglary and it was planned. There are 17-, 19-, 21-year-old pathetic criminal wannabes and they carry a gun like every other dime-a-dozen jerk in the streets, and they happen to come upon someone they don't expect to be there and they fire the gun and run like cowards.
"This is a shame, but it's not over and this will be of no solace to the family. If anything it will only make it harder to swallow."
The accused all hail from the Fort Myers area, a place where youth football is big. At least two of the suspects had football connections, and possibly aspirations, just as Taylor did.
Rivera's father, also Eric Rivera, is president of the Greater Fort Myers Junior Football Association. The association's Web site boasts of NFL stars who come from the area.
"That's my son," the father said last night. "This isn't a good time to talk right now."
Charles Wardlow is the quarterback at Florida Christian Institute in Fort Myers.
"All the kids are bad," said Benny Williams, 59, Wardlow's next-door neighbor. "They just growed up wrong, that's all."
He said he often saw Sasha Johnson at Wardlow's home. She was there for Thanksgiving and had been there as recently as the Sunday before the shooting, he said.
Garcia, the niece of actor Andy Garcia, and the couple's 18-month-old daughter were asleep in Taylor's bedroom when the break-in occurred. Garcia hid with the baby in bed while Taylor grabbed a machete. Garcia and the baby were uninjured. She made a 911 call at 1:46 a.m.
Garcia and her father, Rene Garcia, spent part of the afternoon Friday at the house of Taylor's father, Pedro Taylor. Pedro Taylor said the family selected the suit Taylor would wear for his Monday funeral and some things that would be placed in the casket.
The killing has stunned the Redskins as the team prepares to play a game Sunday at FedEx Field against the Buffalo Bills. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder released a statement in which he praised police, Jackie Garcia and Taylor's parents.
"This is another step, but not a conclusion, in a very personal and painful tragedy," Snyder said. "The police have done a wonderful and professional job in quickly making arrests. I thank them for keeping us informed and involved from the very beginning."
Whoriskey reported from Fort Myers. Staff writer Jason La Canfora and staff researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith in Washington contributed to this report.