Two Years After Sean Taylor's Death, His Mother Faces a Wall of Hardship

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Donna Junor sported a flowing print dress, bejeweled flip-flops and manicured orange nails when she answered the door last week at the three-bedroom townhouse she fears she will lose to foreclosure.

Her sporty but aging Mercedes-Benz, the one with the "Sean 21" tag, was parked just outside the door. The living room featured plush red furniture and a brightly colored area rug. In the dining room, just below the airbrushed portrait of her son -- the late Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor -- sat a neatly set dining table with cloth napkins.

When she could afford it, Junor, 49, lived a nice, comfortable life. Her son made sure of that, handing out massive checks, even gift bags filled with tens of thousands of dollars, to family members. Now, those days are long gone.

When Taylor died without a will on Nov. 27, 2007, the bulk of his $5.8 million estate went to his daughter, Jackie Taylor, now 3, who lives with her mother, Taylor's high school sweetheart, Jackie Garcia, in Coral Gables, Fla. Taylor's mother did not get a penny. Nor did his grandmother, great-grandmother, two of his half-siblings or any of the cousins or relatives who had grown accustomed to his largesse.

In Junor's case, she was left with possessions that carry costs and fees that she says exceed her income as a substitute teacher. She could not pay the real-estate taxes last year on the townhouse she bought in 2005 with $222,000 her son had given her. Another tax bill is due at the end of November. She hasn't paid her homeowners association dues in months. The lawyers have begun chasing.

"I'm not looking for a handout, but I just don't think when you have a son in the NFL who was so progressive, his mother should end up this way," Junor said. "I don't feel I should be left out in the cold like this."

Taylor died a day after suffering a gunshot wound while confronting burglars in his south Miami home. After his estate was settled, Taylor's father Pedro "Pete" Taylor, who shared a bank account with his son, received the $328,000 remaining in the joint account. Pete Taylor has long been estranged from Junor.

An additional $650,000 from a life insurance policy went to Taylor's eldest sister, Monika Martin, 29, one of Junor's four children.

Though the money represented just a small portion of Taylor's estate, it provided a significant financial cushion to two members of his extended family, neither of whom, at least formally, has spread the wealth. Anything short of the generosity Taylor showed during his life likely would have been met with resentment from the family members left out of the settlement. Indeed, a family divided long before Sean Taylor's birth -- Pete Taylor and Donna Junor did not raise their son together -- seems to have grown further apart since he died.

"People do change, even though she's my daughter," Junor said about Martin, who has two small children. But "what about Pete? . . . Sean's daughter was supposed to get what she got, but the injustice is Pete. Whatever he got of Sean's savings, he should share."

Pete Taylor declined to comment. Reached by phone, Monika Martin said she did not know the extent of her mother's financial woes, but she said she had previously taken some of the insurance money "and helped my mom with it." A significant cut of the insurance money, she said, went to pay taxes.

Four months after her brother's death, Martin, a schoolteacher, purchased a $300,000 home.

She said she understood the frustration over the way her late brother's assets were distributed. "I don't think everything went fairly, either," Martin said. "That's life. . . . I know [Taylor] would have wanted it to be different.

"All of us, we all were spoiled by him. The reality is, he's not here anymore. The reality is, we didn't always have money. . . . I don't think the reality has hit" my mother.

Reality hit when the letter from the homeowners association's attorneys came recently, informing Junor that legal action would be taken against her in 30 days if she did not settle the balance on her account. The letter indicates that she owes more than $1,400 in association fees; she said she also owes more than $3,000 in unpaid real-estate taxes with another $3,000 due soon.

After 14 years of part-time classes at Miami-Dade Community College, Junor finally got her degree this year. But, she said, she has not been able to find regular, full-time work as a teacher. She lives with her daughter Sasha Johnson, 22, and Johnson's baby, Christopher, 1.

It isn't just her son's wealth that bypassed Junor; she said she doesn't have any of his memorabilia, either. All of it either was auctioned to raise money for the estate, or, she says, collected by Taylor's father or fiancée, Garcia.

Junor says she knows her son took good care of Garcia, whom he dated at Gulliver Prep and the University of Miami. She produced a copy of a certified check for $400,000 that Taylor had written to Garcia, a niece of actor Andy Garcia's, a month before his death. He also gave her a $200,000 check for their baby's account. Garcia did not respond to an interview request.

"I'm hoping somebody gets some kind of conscience and tries to help her financially," said Joan Martin, an aunt of Junor's. "A lot of times when I speak to Donna, I get tears to my eyes because I know how she cared for her children. . . . I'm very angry about the situation."

So much did not go as planned. Taylor died after attempting to defend the $900,000 home he had bought largely for his family; the house has been padlocked and uninhabited since his death, and is in the process of foreclosure. Just a month before he died, Taylor had given his half-sister Sasha Johnson and half-brother Jamal Johnson, 20, bags of $10,000 in cash; both promptly showed off the money to friends, including a man by the name of Jason Scott Mitchell. Mitchell faces possible life in prison in connection with the burglary attempt that led to Taylor's death.

"I don't have a brother anymore," Sasha Johnson said. "I don't care about money. I never did."

At her mother's house, Johnson made lunch, washed dishes in the sink, and spoke little as her mother spoke about her financial situation. Eventually, Johnson went upstairs and produced a cardboard box from her bedroom filled with mementos of her late brother.

In her high school graduation card, Taylor addressed her as "little sister" and then, in parenthesis, "prom queen." She showed off an autographed jersey and keepsakes from restaurants they visited and trips they took. She smiled when recalling fishing trips to the Keys during which they sat under bridges, having fun and catching few fish.

She grew quiet, though, when asked about the decisions her sister, Martin, made with the insurance money she received.

"That's life," she said. "That's my sister. I love her regardless. . . . It's money. It's not an issue. It comes and goes, and that's what tears families apart."

Jamal Johnson said he, too, doesn't care about money, but feels for his mother's plight. "She's the mother," he said. "That's her son. I feel she should be compensated in some kind of way."

As for himself? "When [Sean Taylor] was around, he gave me money, but I'm not looking for anything," he said. "I ain't in no financial [trouble]. I'm still young."

Junor said she doesn't want to be forced out of the home she owns. She doesn't want to move, and doesn't want to sell it. "Where would I go?" she said. She said she would be satisfied with merely "catching me up" on her bills, but she doesn't know where she will find the cash.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought at [49], I would be worrying about these types of things."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to his report.

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