Four Wheels, No Breaks
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.
This past season, Taylor was ejected from a playoff game for spitting on Michael Pittman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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.
With some money siphoned from a contract that pays him a minimum of $18 million, Taylor bought himself a pair of all-terrain vehicles. Four-wheel ATVs are popular in West Perrine. They can be seen on weekends buzzing down side streets and traversing the lawns fronting housing projects.
"Everybody just got one because they are fun to ride," says Julius Gardner, a resident of West Perrine and one of the people Taylor is accused of assaulting. "Everybody just likes riding them."
On the last day of May 2005, after cruising the area with a friend, Taylor parked his new ATVs at McFarlane's house. Taylor left the vehicles overnight, though he did not stay at the house himself, according to Carhart.
The house is a compact ranch on a street where rims are stolen off cars in broad daylight. Michael Bowen, the current owner, bought the house nine months ago. Bowen says McFarlane left plenty behind when he moved out.
"I found at least 200 pairs of Timberlands, all brand-new, never been worn," says Bowen, referring to expensive and trendy hiking boots. "He left closets full of new clothes, fashionable stuff that didn't fit me, unfortunately. There were hundreds of photographs of people with machine guns and naked women sitting on their laps, boxes of photographs that I finally threw away a couple months ago."
In a laundry room near an in-ground pool, Bowen pulls down a box, which he opens to reveal shiny rows of ammunition.
"There were buckets of bullets when I moved in here," he says. "Buckets! Shotgun shells, handgun shells, machine gun, everything. Bullets in the shed, in every bedroom, everywhere, thousands of bullets."
In a maroon storage shed located in the back yard, Bowen says he unearthed cases of hard liquor. He points at a red Igloo cooler splattered with mud.
"That's where I found the marijuana, at least a pound of it," he says. "This was a party crib, for sure."
When McFarlane woke up June 1, he discovered the ATVs were missing. He and a friend drove around the neighborhood looking for the vehicles, according to Carhart. They did not call the police.
"Any citizen knows that the police would not treat stolen ATVs as exactly a top priority," Carhart says. "And the bikes were brand-new, so [Taylor] didn't have titles yet. He didn't have VIN numbers, either, because the paperwork was still in transit."
McFarlane hadn't found the ATVs by the time he finally called Taylor. But he had developed a suspect: Ryan Hill.
Hill spent the afternoon of June 1 hanging outside the house where he lived at the time. The house tan in color, a dirt yard, a satellite dish stuck to a flat roof was a place for guys with street names like Cheese, Roach, and Fat Boy to gather and play videogames.
Taylor's blue Yukon Denali cruised by the house multiple times. After several more drive-bys, the SUV stopped on the street. Hill approached the vehicle to ask Taylor what he wanted.
"He started talking nasty and stuff, talking about how öThe police can't touch me. I own this town. Where's my shit?'" said Hill in a deposition.
According to Hill and other witnesses, Taylor exited his truck, pulled a gun out of his waistband, and pointed it at several people. Taylor has consistently denied there were any guns present at the altercation.
"When [Taylor] pulled up, he jumped out of his car," said Gardner. "When he jumped out of his car, [a] black Altima pulled up. That's when the guy, he had a chopper.
"They call it a chopper, but it was an M-16."
"You give Sean back his shit," the man said in a thick Jamaican accent, according to state witnesses. "Give him back his shit or we are going to kill you."
Hill, Gardner, and the others claimed to not have the ATVs.
"So [Taylor] was like, 'I'm going to come back and I'm going to kill all you niggers,'" said Nashea Herlong, one of the state's witnesses.
Ten minutes after his initial quarrel with Ryan Hill, Sean Taylor did come back, as promised. He brought with him what has been labeled "a posse" of men in other cars. Witnesses claim he remained armed. He again confronted Hill and his friends.
"[Taylor was] just jumping up, like in a football game. He was just jumping up, like hyped!" Hill said. "Then he just swung at me when he got across the street. I fought him back. Real good too."
As Taylor and Hill tussled, Charles Caughman, a nineteen-year-old from Baltimore who was visiting McFarlane, attacked one of Hill's friends with a black aluminum baseball bat, prosecutors claim.
Members of both parties scattered. Hill, in flip-flops, ran from Taylor. Taylor and his posse returned to their cars and drove back to McFarlane's house, several blocks north. Taylor's Yukon and the black Nissan Altima were parked in front of the house.
According to police, Caughman said he was sitting in the living room. McFarlane, standing next to Caughman, was talking on the phone and looking out the front window. A silver car pulled up. Caughman saw hands poke out of the car's windows. McFarlane noticed guns and dove to the floor. Taylor's Yukon, the black Altima, and a third car in front of the house were sprayed with bullets.
The Yukon was struck at least fifteen times. Police recovered 27 bullet cases, 19 of which were from 7.62-caliber bullets, the type used by an AK-47. The other bullets were .40 caliber, the kind used in a semiautomatic handgun. One of the bullets matched another used in a robbery that occurred a half-mile away.
Taylor was not at the house when police arrived.
"It was something about not waiting around to be shot," says Carhart. Also not there was the Jamaican man whom Hill and others said assaulted them with an M-16. McFarlane and his friends refused to allow police to search the house.
"They became extremely sarcastic, every single one of them. They were extremely uncooperative, okay?" said Ofcr. Anne Robinson in a deposition.
Three days after the shooting, Taylor surrendered at a police substation near West Perrine. He posted a $16,500 bond and was released from custody. He subsequently pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
Mike Grieco was the assistant state attorney who initially tried to convict Taylor. In the four years since he'd graduated from the University of Miami School of Law, Grieco had established himself as The NFL Guy at the State Attorney's Office. In addition to prosecuting Taylor, Grieco had assumed the prosecution of former Oakland Raider Barret Robbins, who has bipolar disorder and was shot by Miami Beach Police last year after he broke into the building that houses the nightclub Mansion.
Grieco was angling for a sports-related job in New York, a state where he had also passed the Bar. As defense attorneys would eventually discover, Grieco also liked to skinny-dip. And he liked women with "brains and an ass." To a small group of people perhaps Midwestern tourists who don't know their way around South Beach Grieco displayed an alter ego. On Saturday nights at Automatic Slim's on Washington Avenue, Grieco was known as DJ ESQ.
He could be seen by the front door, in the DJ booth. He was the one in the black T-shirt worn over a white long-sleeve undershirt. The one with the stud in his ear, the chain dangling from his jeans, the sideburns crawling down his cheeks.
He was the guy spinning a playlist cribbed from a frat party circa 1988. Old U2. Old INXS. Nothing more current than an unfortunate mashup of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and Nena's "99 Red Balloons." The tourists dug it, though. So did Taylor's defense team.
When Taylor first surrendered to the police in West Perrine, he had a lawyer named Fred Moldovan. As if he were switching sports agents, Taylor quickly changed representation to Carhart. His new lawyer prepared to defend Taylor against the one count of felony assault with a firearm and one misdemeanor count of battery. But a full seven months after the initial arrest, Grieco amplified the charges against Taylor to three counts of felony assault and the one count of battery.
"The state has had this case since June and now they're filing these added charges? It's bizarre," Carhart said.
With more charges to defend, Taylor bulked up his legal team. In addition to Carhart, he hired attorneys Larry Handfield, Richard Sharpstein, and Sharpstein's wife, Janice Burton Sharpstein. The new team, turning its attention to Grieco, stumbled onto DJ ESQ's MySpace Webpage.
The specific Webpage notes that the personality traits Grieco looks for in the opposite sex are "brains and an ass." And has he been skinny-dipping? "Yep."
What bothered the defense the most, or at least what gave the attorneys the most ammunition, was the way the MySpace page linked to stories about Grieco's prosecution of Sean Taylor, which they deemed a conflict of interest.
"The Website is clear: 'Links to my [press] coverage,'" Richard Sharpstein said. "You click on it it's all about the Sean Taylor case. It's not about some burglary prosecuted in Overtown."
Even though Grieco quickly removed himself from the case, and subsequently resigned from the State Attorney's Office altogether, Taylor's legal team asked for a dismissal of the charges against its client.
"An uninterested, unbiased prosecutor would never prosecute this case. If Sean Taylor wasn't the defendant, this case would have been out the window six months ago," Sharpstein has said.
Be that as it may, Taylor's defense team was not able to get the case dismissed because of DJ ESQ. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle criticized the defense attorneys and vowed to proceed with the case without Grieco.
"The desire to smear a prosecutor and affect a potential jury pool is a reprehensible trial tactic," Rundle's office relayed in a statement, adding that nothing on Grieco's Website "compromised the integrity of the Sean Taylor case."
The case, which has been delayed several times, is currently scheduled to be tried in July.
Strip away all pretrial gamesmanship and what's left is Ryan Hill. Everything hinges on Hill.
Talking outside his mother's apartment, Hill says he's changed his cell phone number because he's been receiving calls from strangers asking him to drop the case.
"I really didn't want to go through this," he says of his role in the upcoming trial. "I don't like this public stuff. It's, like, scary, 'cause that dude, he knows people that can do stuff to me. And I don't want to get hurt."
Hill says lawyers are encouraging him to sue Taylor in civil court, an option he hasn't ruled out. In the same breath, he says he doesn't want money, and he feels sympathy for Taylor, up to a point.
"When you look at it, he looks like the victim," Hill says. "His house got sprayed and then the ATVs got took. But if your ATVs got took, you don't go trying to shoot other people for something that somebody ain't do. That's wrong, man."
In a deposition, Hill's friend Maurice "Fat Boy" Williams denies he or Hill were involved in the theft of Taylor's ATVs.
"Honestly, on my daddy, we did not steal that stuff from him," said Williams, a high school dropout who describes himself as retarded.
Hill, talking outside his mother's apartment, insists he is not a criminal. He claims to have no idea who shot Taylor's Yukon. He says he's never stolen an ATV.
Police disagreed on that last claim, at least briefly.
On Saturday, March 4, of this year, at 3:10 in the morning, two Miami-Dade Police officers pulled over a 2002 Chevy pickup occupied by two black men. In the bed of the truck sat an ATV with the ignition ripped out. A check of its seventeen-digit vehicle identification number revealed the ATV had been stolen the day before.
The passenger was Maurice "Fat Boy" Williams. The driver was Ryan Hill. The pair was arrested for grand theft, but those charges were dropped a month later.
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