washingtonpost.com
The Games and Lives He Left Behind
An Open Case, An Empty House, A Fractured Family

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

MIAMI -- White tulips replaced the yellow roses from just days previous in the large vase next to the granite tombstone engraved with three footballs and a maroon-shirted football player. "Sean Taylor, April 1, 1983, Nov. 27, 2007," the tablet reads, "WE LOVE YOU."

Twice a week, every week, Taylor's father Pedro visits the grave site. It sits on grassy island of memorials at the far end of a West Miami cemetery, the rumble of traffic from a busy boulevard nearby thwarting hopes for solitude.

"Right there, I just thank him for being who he was," Pedro Taylor explained.

Sean Taylor's half-sister, Monika Martin, hasn't mustered such strength. The last time she laid eyes on her brother's grave was when he was buried.

"I can't go. It's just too difficult for me," she said. "We were very close. It's just too much."

One year after intruders fatally shot Taylor during an attempted burglary of his Miami area home, the case is grinding slowly through the Florida court system, and the gradual release of court documents has only stoked the pain for those closest to the former all-pro safety for the Washington Redskins. Relevant police reports, witness interviews and defendants' statements have painted an increasingly tragic picture, revealing the depths to which Taylor's generosity to family members and his openness with their friends provided opportunity to his alleged killers.

His death brought a spare parceling of his $5.8 million estate -- because Taylor didn't have a will, a judge in August ordered that all of it descend to his only child, Jackie Taylor, 2 -- and a more harsh division of the myriad lives once entwined with it.

"It was probably one of the worst things I've ever been through," Martin said. "Nobody knows why this happened."

Four of the five men from Fort Myers, Fla., charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary in connection with the Nov. 26, 2007, shooting await trial, which has been twice postponed and is now set for March.

One, Venjah K. Hunte, 21, pleaded guilty and is serving a 29-year jail sentence. The other defendants -- Eric Rivera Jr., 18, the alleged gunman; Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, 19; Jason Scott Mitchell, 20; and Timmy Lee Brown, 17, who was arrested in May, six months after the others -- waived their rights to a speedy trial, meaning the case could drag on for years.

Meanwhile, the sprawling, buttercup yellow ranch house that until Taylor's death was considered a meeting spot for friends and family sits deserted and desolate. White hurricane shutters cover the sliding glass doors and windows. A heavy chain secures the iron entry gates. A large trash can sits in the otherwise empty driveway, and the house's primary occupants, Taylor's mother Donna Junor, half-sister Sasha Johnson and half-brother Jamal Johnson, have scattered throughout South Florida, the siblings taking up residence with other family members.

At least eight people besides Taylor and his girlfriend lived at various times in the four-bedroom residence that Taylor bought in 2005 for $900,000, according to property records, interviews and court documents. A host of others stayed there infrequently, and about 20 people, including Mitchell, attended a 21st birthday party there for Sasha Johnson less than two months before Taylor's death.

About a year before, Wardlow had visited the house and "hung out" with Sasha and Jamal Johnson, Wardlow told a Miami-Dade Police Department detective. A third defendant, Rivera, told police he also knew Sasha Johnson, who attended high school in Fort Myers.

Jackie Garcia, the mother of Taylor's only child and his high school sweetheart, told police Taylor's siblings "had people in the house all the time" and Taylor had been taking steps to address the issue.

Taylor's mother said during an interview with police she "was shocked" to hear of the shooting but "had felt something was going to happen in that residence eventually."

It is Sasha Johnson, now 22, who seems to carry the heaviest burden of regret, Martin said. At the time her brother was killed, she was dating Christopher Devon Wardlow, who is the father of her infant son and uncle of Charles Wardlow as well as Mitchell's best friend, according to court documents. Christopher Devon Wardlow, 22, who goes by Devon, lived with Johnson in Taylor's house for two months, she told police.

They were "Sasha's friends," said Martin, 28. "It's hard for her. Sometimes she blames herself. I keep talking to her, telling her she didn't tell that person to do that. . . . We comfort her. It's not her fault. It could have been any one of our friends."

Now employed as a corrections officer, Sasha Johnson moved in with Martin after her brother's death, Martin said. Jamal Johnson moved in with Taylor's great-grandmother Aulga Clark, Clark said. And Taylor's mother returned to a townhouse that her son bought her, according to family friend Donald Walker.

Jamal Johnson, who attends Miami Dade College, never speaks about his half-brother's killing, according to Clark, who called Taylor "the love of her life." In fact, she said, he rarely discusses much at all.

"That child hardly says anything," Clark, 88, said. "He's just lost."

Mitchell, who was alleged in his indictment to have worn a hood or mask while participating in the burglary, spent four days sleeping on Taylor's living room couch less than two months before the break-in. He told police he and Devon Wardlow arrived a few days before Johnson's birthday party and helped prepare Taylor's home for the event, cutting the grass, pressure-washing the pool and organizing Taylor's weight sets. For their help, Mitchell said in his statement, Taylor personally gave each of them $300 in $50 bills.

Mitchell even sat in Taylor's BMW, unbeknownst to Taylor, admiring the refrigerator hidden in the console.

Mitchell got a further look at Taylor's wealth when Taylor left to fly to Virginia before the birthday party. He gave both Sasha and Jamal Johnson Hallmark gift bags with $10,000 in cash inside, according to police reports, and they happily showed off the cash. Sasha Johnson, Mitchell told police, took photographs in her bathroom of her brother with the money; Jamal Johnson carried the cash fanned across his torso, announcing that he was going to use it on women in strip clubs.

Longtime friend David Walsh told police that Taylor "was very generous when it came to his family and always gave his brother and sister money." Added Walsh, according to a police report, Taylor would keep up to "$100,000 in his residence."

Brian Williamson, one of Taylor's cousins who was contracted to do yardwork for him, said Taylor kept large sums of money in his house and "would not hide this money. . . . [He] had a habit of putting money in plain view on dressers," according to a police report.

After Taylor died, Martin -- who lived in Taylor's house for several months with her two children and their father -- received a $650,000 death benefit from a life insurance policy, according to probate records. Pedro Taylor received $327,795.38 that remained in a joint checking account with his son. In September, two dozen items from Taylor's residence in Ashburn, from personalized pool balls to fishing poles, were auctioned off, with the proceeds directed to his daughter's trust fund.

But most of the family members upon whom Taylor had showered gifts and cash when he was alive received nothing.

Junor, Taylor's mother, spent a recent night hovered over her personal computer, watching every video clip on YouTube pertaining to her son that she could find, according to Walker, the family friend. She watched game clips and clips from the funeral. She silently clicked on interviews of her son, and about her son. And then she did it again a night later with Walker by her side. He left the townhouse before she had finished.

"She told me she stayed up all night looking at every video," he said. "She said it was hard, but she did it."

Junor finds solace in spending time with Taylor's daughter, who calls her "Grandma," Walker said. The two make frequent visits to Jackie Garcia's modest house across from a children's playground in an upscale section of town.

Garcia, 25, has not responded to several requests for interviews since Taylor's death. She is the niece of actor Andy Garcia and daughter of Miami businessman Rene Garcia. Family members said she is attempting to finish her degree at the University of Miami, which she attended with Taylor. The couple had dated for seven years, since their high school days at Gulliver Prep. Taylor's family said she is warmly regarded and has tried to ensure that her daughter spends time with all of her relatives.

On the night of the shooting, little Jackie slept with her parents in Taylor's bedroom. Taylor woke up Garcia at approximately 1:40 a.m. after hearing noises in the house, handing her his cellphone while he grabbed a machete and went to investigate. Moments later, Garcia heard a loud noise, then silence. She found Taylor moaning and bleeding profusely in the hallway leading to the master bedroom.

Garcia applied towels to his abdomen until police arrived. Then, she rushed through the bedroom's sliding glass doors to direct the officers inside.

"My boyfriend is shot," she yelled, according to a report by detective Juan Segovia. "He's going to die."

Taylor survived the night, but died a day later at age 24. Jacqueline Michelle Marie Taylor, then 18 months old, could not comprehend the tragic events. During her father's funeral on Dec. 3, she wore a burgundy dress and bobbed playfully and obliviously around his casket.

Now, family members say, she has begun to question.

"She's started to ask about her dad," Pedro Taylor said. "We have to be real sensitive."

Taylor, the police chief of Florida City, south of Miami, held his granddaughter tenderly on a recent Saturday afternoon, not long after accepting a plaque in his son's honor on a University of Miami football field where an annual youth tournament had been renamed the Sean Taylor Classic. Jackie Taylor had just woken up from a nap, and looked groggy and undecided about whether she should remain awake. Her legs were long and lean; her features that of a little girl, not a baby.

She buried her head in Pedro Taylor's shoulder as he grinned and planted a kiss on her cheek.

"It is one day at a time," Taylor said. "We're getting over a tragedy. . . . You never want to lose a child at a young age. By the same token, I know God don't make mistakes."

Researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company