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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Sean Taylor is a football player. He's a good football player. No, let's get this right: He's a great football player, a star.
Taylor grew up on the dusty gridirons south of Miami. He won a state championship at Gulliver Prep and then a national championship at the University of Miami. He's a defender, a safety so ferocious he's known as Tha Hitman. The Washington Redskins selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft. In his rookie year in Washington, he was named a Pro Bowl alternate. The guy is great, as a football player.
He's also a bit of a head case. In his rookie season, following a game against Cincinnati, he angrily confronted Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Without naming either player, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis later said one of his players had been spit on.
His off-field life has often seemed just as oddball. He cycled through agents and skipped a mandatory rookie symposium. He was arrested on drunken driving charges in Virginia in October 2004, though those charges were dismissed.
According to documents on file at the Richard E. Gerstein courthouse, an off-duty Miami Beach Police officer working South Beach nightclub B.E.D. received a report that Taylor, who was at the club, had asked if his gun was visible beneath his shirt.
"When I went to check his waistband, he slapped my hand, and I said, 'I have to search you,'" said Ofcr. Jesus Barrenchea in a deposition. "Once I reached his waistband, he said, 'No, wait, wait, wait, wait.' That's when he booked. He ran."
Taylor was never apprehended. Barrenchea said he filed an incident report with Miami Beach Police.
"Sean has a big heart and a lot of great qualities," former Hurricanes cornerback Antrel Rolle told the Washington Post. "But his friend selection is not good. I don't think that most of his friends have any positive influence."
Sean Taylor is a football player. He's also a criminal. A felon. At least that's what the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office asserts.
In June 2005, after an altercation with several young men in West Perrine, Taylor's GMC Yukon Denali was sprayed with bullets from both an AK-47 and a semiautomatic pistol. The shooters have never been identified.
When the gunsmoke settled, prosecutors ended up charging Taylor with three counts of felony assault and one count of battery, all stemming from the original altercation. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, Taylor, if convicted of any of the assault charges, would be jailed for at least three years. He could be imprisoned for as many as 46 years.
"It's incredible that this young man would be facing three counts of incredible severity," says Ed Carhart, one of Taylor's defense attorneys. "He has so much to lose it's mind-boggling when you think about it."
A guy named Ryan Hill, the main victim, is the primary witness for the state. Taylor's future rests largely on Hill's credibility.
Hill likes to point out that he, too, is a football player. He roamed the defensive line in high school, earning an honorable mention all-state his senior year. He even played a bit of junior college ball. He does not want to see Sean Taylor go to jail.
"No, man. He gotta play football and stuff," Hill says. "I played football. I understand."
Hill played his football in Miami, on the same dusty fields as Taylor. But whereas Taylor advanced to gridiron glory and riches, Hill never made it out of West Perrine. He lives with his mother, brother, and sister in a public housing project. For cash he helps an uncle mow lawns. In 2002 he was arrested and charged with burglary and third-degree grand theft, both felonies.
Taylor is accused of pointing a gun at Hill, whom Taylor believed stole his two brand-new all-terrain vehicles.
On a recent Saturday morning, Hill sits on the stoop outside his mother's apartment. Relatives stream through the open front screen door. Missionaries canvas the neighborhood, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets.
At age 22, Hill is a half-year younger than Taylor. His face is soft and boyish-looking, but his body is hulking, far larger than the average man's. He stands six feet three inches and weighs 275 pounds. He likes to cover his frame in baggy jeans and oversize white T-shirts known in the neighborhood as Arabs. A wide black scar snakes up his right forearm, a reminder of hot oil that splashed him during a kitchen fire a year and a half ago.
"This was a street fight, basically," says Taylor's attorney Ed Carhart. He insists his client never pulled out a gun during the altercation, as Taylor has been charged. "This is a he-said/he-said case. That's what's so spooky about taking it to court."
When Taylor's rookie season ended in early 2005, he chose to return to Miami rather than stay in Virginia near the Redskins. He sometimes crashed with friends like Michael McFarlane, a Jamaican who lived in West Perrine near Ryan Hill.