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He insisted on his innocence and refused plea offers. When the poker robbery went to trial in May 1993, the victim couldn't remember if his attacker had a gun or wore a mask. Ellis scored an easy win.
From behind bars, Ellis engineered an ingenious defense against the home invasion charges. The trio he was implicated with vouched for him in court, saying he had been a mere pawn. When he took the stand, Ellis said he cooperated because "[he] didn't want [his] son to grow up without a father." The jury acquitted him two days after he testified. The other defendants went to prison.
After his acquittal in 1993, Ellis and his mother decided it would be best for him to get out of South Miami. He left Sowells and their two children and enrolled at the University of Central Florida in Orlando the following fall, joining the football team as a defensive back.
"He seemed like he'd had a rough life growing up," says Ellis's former coach, Doug McCrone. "I saw him as a kid trying to overcome all that."
Another girlfriend, Tranika Latoy, attended his games pregnant with his third child. The boy was born that January. It was a good time for Ellis. Then disaster struck.
His National College Athletic Association funding expired in the middle of his second year at UCF, where he had planned to earn a degree in criminal justice and then parlay it into a legal career. The same month, his mentor and caretaker, Jerry Rein, was accused by three child witnesses of raping a boy inside a utility shed in South Miami's Palmer Park.
Ellis and Latoy married that same chaotic May. He finished his winter semester on his own dime. The marriage ended seven months later, along with Ellis's education and prospects of a football career.
Once again, with football out of his life, Ellis seemed to float through South Miami like a boat cut adrift. Rein went to trial in December 1996, amid the child-molestation hysteria of the mid-Nineties. Despite letters and testimony from many of the kids Rein had helped — including Ellis himself — Judge Robert Scola handed the 51-year-old man two life sentences. (Rein is still serving them at a Miami-Dade facility.)
Ellis survived on temporary construction work in Hialeah. While he struggled to make ends meet, he fell into more trouble with the law. None of his alleged victims would ever cooperate in robbery and battery cases, though, and he always got off with public defenders.
In civil lawsuits, Ellis listed himself as self-employed — everything from "laborer" to "fruit and conch salad salesman." According to court documents, he never made more than $2200 a month. Regardless, his brood continued to grow. "He was a good father," Latoy insists.
Ellis ultimately had six children with Sowells and nine others with more than four different women. By August 1997, he was behind $9664 in child support.
Few people who knew Ellis well agreed to speak with New Times. Those who did called him a model parent. Even as Ellis's progeny reached double digits, he always kept them around the community center, where he could keep an eye on them, residents recall. Latoy joked that Ellis wanted "to be the coach of everyone."
At some point, many believe, Ellis cleaned up his act. Sandra Lovett, a neighbor who raised her children in the Lee Park Apartments, recalls seeing Ellis stand up in church one day and repent. Soon he was presiding over youth rap sessions every Sunday. He and his brother Sammie ran a seafood business out of a concessions truck. Ellis found God and football. "He became very, very dedicated to South Miami," Lovett says.
During practices, he began talking politics with a friend and coach named Rodney Williams. Ellis started speaking at city commission meetings, where he always preceded discussion of youth football programs with the words "a matter very near and dear to my heart."
Ellis's foray into politics, Williams says, came from a desire to bring justice to his community. Ellis began to describe himself as being a "street attorney." Local men were "charged with crimes without knowing their rights," Williams recalls. "[Ellis] told them: 'You can fight.'"
At city hall, Ellis rapped and riffed his way through otherwise dull and divisive meetings, impressing many of the white gadflys who would eventually oppose him. "He was so charming," recalls anti-development activist Beth Schwartz, who knew nothing of his arrest record. "I just think that he thought [politics] would legitimize him."
Ellis was appointed to the county's Community Action Agency board in 2001 — the agency handles assistance for low-income families — and joined the policy council for Head Start, which offers education and childcare to poor preschoolers.
He began to achieve his dream of a large family — which soon surpassed a dozen children — one that he raised publicly among friends on the grass of the very parks he played in as a boy. But things were never easy for his expanding clan. Ellis and a half-dozen of his children would be evicted from South Miami properties in 2003 and again in 2006, forcing them to move in with their grandmother.