By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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An aging Chevy Suburban rumbled into Homestead well after dark on a moonless September evening. Adrian "Casanova" Ellis sat at the wheel. He had just finished hauling two of his 15 children home to their mothers when he pulled into the parking lot of the Riverwalk Apartments and headed for Building 316.
Ellis had a way of making his medium build seem bigger. He looked young for 35 and had the habit of speaking sweet words. They came to a listener through broad lips, framed by a close beard that crept neatly along his jawline and over his head.
Clean-cut. Hulking. Handsome.
Beneath his tidy skull — a battering ram on the football field — Ellis's mind always raced. He could hardly contain his desires and spoke often of his plans.
He wanted all of his children to go to college. He wanted his Pee Wee football team to trounce every 90-pound squad in the state. He wanted to help develop his South Miami neighborhood, six stories into the sky. He wanted black people to spend their dollars in their own communities and not fear city hall. He wanted to be mayor.
But more than anything, on the night of September 10, 2007, he wanted to talk to a 23-year-old ex-girlfriend named Tameka Jackson.
She didn't want to talk to him. Their visits didn't always end well, according to complaints Jackson filed with local police.
Ellis made his way up the orange walkway and slipped a key into the lime green front door of Apartment 104. It was almost midnight. Inside stood 24-year-old Tavares Rosell, who aimed to keep Ellis away from Jackson.
Not long after, police swarmed the area looking for a shooter. Later that night, Rosell stumbled into the Homestead Police station, battered and bruised. He surrendered himself and a 9mm Smith & Wesson, the weapon he had used to put Ellis down.
Rosell told police Ellis entered Jackson's apartment with a key he was never supposed to have. An argument ensued. Ellis charged Rosell and overpowered him. Jackson fled as Ellis wrapped his hands around the neck of the young man she hoped would protect her. Rosell, "[perceiving] great bodily harm or death," reached for his gun and began firing.
Bleeding from mortal wounds, Ellis staggered to his SUV, where he died behind the wheel.
Rosell was not arrested, and the matter remains under investigation by Miami-Dade Police.
On a recent Saturday, Building 316 of the Riverwalk Apartments is thick with the quiet gloom of a cemetery. The sky hangs hot and gray over the dull development. A tuft of pines obscures the empty field out back, where long white birds nest in tall grass.
Riverwalk residents peer cautiously from behind crooked vertical blinds. Three neighbors claim they didn't sleep at their apartments the night of the shooting. Those who admit to being home don't recall hearing any gunshots. The girl in 203 says she slept through the whole mess.
Not much is known about Jackson, except that she had a kid or two of her own and that she split immediately after the incident. The muddy lawn beyond her apartment contains just a few signs of a hasty retreat — a purple lighter half-swallowed by the earth, and a lacy thong.
A loop of crime scene tape flaps from a nearby tree branch like a grim checkered flag. The end.
Adrian Ellis was born the youngest of five kids in a blighted black section of South Miami, a quarter mile west of the University of Miami's posh campus. The town consists of mostly upper-middle-class white and Hispanic families that boast of the small-town atmosphere: South Miami, "The City of Pleasant Living."
It wasn't always so for Ellis.
He grew up in a pink housing project called the Lee Park Apartments, on SW 68th Street, just a few blocks north of South Dixie Highway. Residents recall being hopeful when the complex was built in the Seventies. But times changed in the Eighties, and the area became a hot spot for dope dealing.
Ellis grappled on and off with poverty, and all the nasty things it can bring, the whole of his life. His arrests began when he was 18 years old, around the same time he was achieving sainthood on the gridiron. The arrests continued; handcuffs snapped shut every time Ellis neared greatness.
The cycle slowed only when he jumped into politics; he made three consecutive drives for a South Miami City Commission seat and got himself appointed to everything from the County Community Action Agency to the South Miami Community Redevelopment Association. Ellis tried to save himself a thousand times in his short life. And, of late, he sought his salvation in leadership.
He leaves a complex legacy: Some regard Ellis's end as the natural conclusion to a life spent flirting with violence. Others see it as a senseless tragedy — as if fate had stuck its foot out to trip a man who'd finally found his way home.
Ellis, who once described his father to the Herald as an alcoholic who left home when the boy was in grade school, was the youngest in a troubled brood. His brothers — Sammie, Corey, and Jeffrey — began getting arrested when he was eight years old. Besides Adrian, only his older sister Michelle finished high school. She soon saddled herself with a drug problem, and died earlier this year. So did Ellis's brother Jeffrey, who passed away in prison, where he was serving time for robbery, aggravated battery, drug posession, and battery of a corrections officer.