By Peter Whoriskey and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 2, 2007
FORT MYERS, Fla., Dec. 1 -- Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor and his half-sister Sasha Johnson grew up on different coasts of Florida but Taylor wanted to be closer to her and bring a broken family together, according to friends and family members.
Taylor bought a $900,000 house in his home town of Miami for his mother, Donna Junor. He invited Sasha Johnson, who grew up in Fort Myers, and her brother to live in it, the friends and family members said. And they said Taylor also bought Johnson a new Toyota Camry to drive to classes at Miami-Dade College.
"He wanted them all to be together and never want for anything again," said Dwayne Johnson, 44, Sasha's father. "Sean was her everything."
But over the past few days it has become increasingly clear that investigators working on Taylor's killing believe Sasha Johnson, apparently unwittingly, provided a direct link between Taylor and the four Fort Myers men charged with killing him in a bungled burglary attempt of that same home.
Johnson, 21, has been dating a relative of one of the accused men since her senior year at Dunbar High in Fort Myers. Her boyfriend's relative, Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, has confessed to having had a role in the crime, John E. Evans III, Wardlow's defense attorney, said Saturday. And Johnson's boyfriend, Christopher Devon Wardlow, brought another Fort Myers man to Johnson's birthday party at the Miami home, Johnson's father said.
Police said Friday they believed one or more of the suspects had visited Taylor's home.
Taylor, 24, died Tuesday morning from apparent blood loss from a gunshot wound to his upper leg. Police declined to name the alleged shooter but said they had several confessions. The youngest of the four alleged killers, Eric Rivera Jr., 17, confessed to shooting Taylor after Taylor surprised him, Taylor's attorney, Richard Sharpstein, said Saturday, saying he obtained the information about the confession from police sources.
Three of the four men, Rivera, Charles Wardlow, 18, and Venjah K. Hunte, 20, were denied bond during an initial hearing at Lee County Circuit Court on Saturday. The fourth man, Jason Scott Mitchell, 19, will have his initial hearing Sunday. All have been charged with felony murder and armed robbery.
Sasha Johnson did not return a phone call Saturday. On Friday she declined to comment, saying she had to file a statement with police. Christopher Wardlow, reached at his house on Friday night, has declined to comment, as has Junor.
Previously, it was reported the house belonged exclusively to Taylor, but in interviews Saturday, friends and family members said Taylor bought the house with the intent of his mother living there.
By family accounts, Sean Taylor and Johnson were close. Though they grew up miles apart, they remained linked despite the upheavals of their childhoods, family members said. Junor gave birth to four children, two boys and two girls, from three different men, and then struggled to keep the household afloat. At one point, she has said, they had to stay with the Salvation Army.
Sean Taylor spent most of his childhood living with his father, Pedro Taylor, now the police chief in Florida City, Fla. Dwayne Johnson said he raised Sasha from the time she was 2. They moved from Miami to Fort Myers when she was about 5. During Sasha Johnson's senior year at Dunbar -- she graduated in May 2005 -- she began dating Christopher Devon Wardlow, who goes by the name Devon.
Dwayne Johnson said he disliked Devon Wardlow from the beginning.
"I don't like her boyfriend -- never did, never will," he said.
Besides going to classes, Sasha Johnson coaches cheerleading for a Pop Warner League and works in after-school programs at a Miami area elementary school, Dwayne Johnson and his current wife said.
After buying the house for Junor, Taylor invited his half-brother Jamal Johnson, 18, and Sasha Johnson to stay there. They all had bedrooms in the house. Family friend Donald Walker said the trio were the house's "primary residents" since Taylor rarely was in town. Neither Junor, Jamal Johnson nor Sasha Johnson was in the house the night of the shooting.
When Taylor bought Sasha the Camry earlier this year, he provided Jamal with a Yukon Denali. Taylor "loved his brother, and he loved her," Walker said.
Sasha Johnson celebrated her 21st birthday Oct. 1 with a party her mother helped organize, said Walker, who added that Sean Taylor flew down from Washington to attend it. Christopher Wardlow attended with the man from Fort Myers, who the Miami Herald has reported was Mitchell. It was from that party, some people close to Taylor believe, that the four accused killers became acquainted with Taylor's house, and then decided to target it for a burglary.
Junor had considered throwing the party at a nightclub, but gave up that idea after realizing some in attendance would be underage, Walker said.
Taylor's house also was burglarized eight days before the shooting, but the thieves took little. Police said they are trying to determine whether there was a link between the two incidents.
"These thugs used her to set up the whole thing," Dwayne Johnson said during an interview at his home here.
Evans, Charles Wardlow's attorney, said his client "is obviously very upset and very concerned about the allegations made by the [state attorney's office] and the Miami-Dade Police Department. He is beginning to realize the gravity of what he is charged."
Two neighbors said Christopher Wardlow is Charles Wardlow's uncle. The Miami Herald reported they are cousins.
Dwayne Johnson said he had seen media reports suggesting that Sasha Johnson was somehow complicit in the crime. "Now people are trying to say that my Sasha set it up. But that's crazy. She loved Sean," he said.
Said Taylor's cousin Ed Hill, who was a college roommate of Taylor's father: "I don't think she had anything to do with that. I think those guys saw the opportunity. They figured Sean would be out of town. I think they saw the opportunity and took advantage of it."
Dwayne Johnson said that after the news broke, he talked to Sasha. "She was devastated," he said. "She said 'Daddy, I don't know what's going on. I don't know anything.' She said, 'Why did they take my world away?'"
Meanwhile, preparations continued for Taylor's funeral service on Monday at Florida International University in Miami. Three members of the New England Patriots flew to Miami on the private jet of team owner Robert Kraft on Saturday for a viewing of Taylor's body. All three -- defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Santonio Thomas and safety Brandon Meriweather -- formerly played at Miami.