The Life and Death of Adrian Ellis
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.
Their mother, Ella Bernice Armstrong Ellis, tried to keep the boys out of trouble. "[We were] trying to get him away from where we live at," she once said, "away from the guys and things, to try to keep him on the straight line." She sent them to the Boys' Club in Coconut Grove, where a bald, paunchy basketball coach named Jerry Rein took notice of the Ellises. Rein had a wife and child of his own but made it his mission to take care of troubled kids. When he transferred to a park in South Miami, he became a regular installment in the Ellis boys' lives.
Jeffrey, Corey, Sammie, and Adrian sometimes slept at Rein's house on weekends; Rein took the family out for pizza after games. He bonded most with Adrian.
"My brother lived like a very poor man," recalls Rein's sister Ellen. "But he gave to those kids." She remembers Ellis as a bright boy with a constant smile, unfailingly polite and kind. "We adored Adrian, and Adrian adored my brother," she says. He joined the Reins for assorted Jewish holidays. Rein sometimes called Ellis's school to make sure the boy was in class. If he wasn't, Rein gave him an earful.
In 1985, Ellis played point guard on Rein's basketball dream team, the Gray Ghosts. Ellis was a team-leading scorer; the Ghosts won 18 straight games that year and played in a national conference in Orlando.
Ellis also excelled on the Gray Ghost baseball team. But he was obsessed with football. He rarely — if ever — missed a practice for South Miami's Pop Warner league. And he was good. Too good for South Miami, Rein believed.
Rein took Adrian into his home. The boy left the Gray Ghosts and began playing for Dave Westberry's Tamiami Colts. A federal corrections officer, Westberry was known as the best coach in the Pop Warner league. "He was a stud," Westberry recalls of Ellis. "He used to do a little rap song before each game. He got along with everybody — always had a smile on his face." The Colts won every game that year. Westberry remembers the kid as a team leader.
For ninth grade, Rein took Ellis to Christopher Columbus High School, a private Catholic boys' academy on SW 87th Avenue. The tuition was cheap by private standards (only $6800 per year today), and best of all, Columbus competed, seriously, with all the big public schools. The school offered no scholarships, but Rein persuaded a wealthy benefactor to fund Ellis's high school education.
The school's lofty baby-blue arches and white monk statues must have struck Ellis as odd. Odder still must have been the school's population of mostly goofy white boys clunking around the grounds in brown leather shoes, shirts, and ties. Soon Ellis, too, was clunking onto campus, leaving his dusty footprints on the school crest — the Santa Maria sailing through rough waters above the word adelante (forward!).
Ellis soared. He played in the school concert band and on the baseball team. He studied hard and pulled a 3.15 GPA.
And he proved his football genius as a versatile defensive back. Dave Reilly, head of the athletics department, remembers Ellis as someone who could play both sides of the ball. "He was a great player," recalls former Columbus coach Dennis Lavelle. "He was smart — really smart. And tougher than an old boot.... You couldn't find a single person at that school that would say anything bad about him."
The Herald put Ellis on its all-decade fantasy team, named him fourth-best prospect in the county, and ranked him 15th-best player in the state.
South Florida sports blogger Jay Rao recalls Ellis as a kid dynamo who dominated the field during the Eighties. "It seems just like yesterday he was playing quarterback, receiver, defensive back, and sometimes lining up at running back," Rao wrote recently. "He literally seemed like a one-man team."
Though offers poured in from nearly every program in the South, Ellis chose to stay close to home. "I can remember being excited as a Canes fan when I learned Ellis announced he would attend the University of Miami," Rao blogged shortly after Ellis's death. "He seemed destined for stardom. More than 17 years later, I have never heard from him again — until now."
Adrian Ellis's funeral was held Friday, September 14, at St. John's African Methodist Church, in the heart of the area he had hoped to turn into a towering commercial mecca for the black community.
Police closed off the street as the somber crowd of hundreds trickled out and onto the sidewalk. At the center of the grieving mass, Ellis lay entombed in a bright white coffin covered in crimson roses. Above his body, a black Christ shimmered through stained glass.
His family took up the first two pews while a throng of friends and well-wishers stretched into a multipurpose area at the rear of the church. The whole room seemed to shake when the lone, shrieking voice of a little girl cried out, "I want my daddy." Even the double row of uniformed preadolescent football players shivered with understanding. The City of South Miami and Miami-Dade County both presented resolutions commending Ellis as a great community activist.
A chorus of "When I See Jesus" rose up, its fantastic exultation loosening the lugubrious spiritual muck in the room. The sweet gospel machinery made everyone, including the off-duty cop meant to keep order, bow their heads.
More than 10 speakers took the podium. Dr. Jane McQueen, director of the county's Head Start program, oozed affection for Ellis, who had addressed the county commission on behalf of their agency while dressed, from head to toe, in white. Ellis looked like an angel, McQueen recalled. "Our angel," she said.
As the proceedings drew to a close, the Gray Ghosts began to fidget, and St. John's Rev. Gregory V. Gay asked a question.
"Can I keep it real, right quick?" Gay asked, cocking his body at the hip as if waiting for an answer. A thin gold crucifix dangled at his navel from a long chain.
The crowd bellowed. Yes, he could.
Ellis, Gay boomed, was a real man. He didn't run from adversity. He stood, feet forward, and took it. "He stayed right here in this community," Gay hollered. "And he took it."
When Gay saw Ellis at KFC last week, the reverend continued, he wasn't buying one bucket of chicken for his 15 kids. He was buying 15 individual boxes. "Adrian loved his family," he said. "He treated every child as an individual."
"We all have a past," Reverend Gay asserted as the crowd said amen and hallelujah. "Some of us still got it."
Before accepting his scholarship to UM, before leaving the well-ordered halls of Columbus High School, Ellis began to slip.
Time spent in his old neighborhood didn't do much for his plans. Dope dealing and dice games were rampant in the Lee Park Apartments; Ellis developed bad habits. Grant Miller, one of Ellis's many coaches, recalls seeing deals go down outside the apartments all day long. Ellis gambled, racking up as much as $400 in debt at a time.
At age 15, Ellis got into a serious relationship with his neighbor, Leanna Sowells. In 1989, in the middle of Ellis's 11th-grade year, Sowells gave birth to Adrian Jr. Little Adriana soon followed.
By late 1990, Ellis got picked up in gambling raids. His mother wished he would get away from it all. "Adrian really wanted to get out and make something of himself," she told a Herald reporter.
Recruitment letters offered hope. Adrian and his mother papered the living room walls with them; they framed the letter from UM offering a full ride. Ellis painted his bedroom orange and — after saving money from his job as a Little League umpire — laid down emerald carpeting. A friend even brushed school mascot Sebastian the Ibis onto his wall.
During Ellis's freshman year, Sowells sued him for child support and won $50 monthly. To make matters worse, he injured himself during his first football scrimmage and underwent knee surgery the following day. He spent the semester on crutches but recovered in time for spring training.
After completing summer classes, with his sophomore year ready to kick off, Ellis was busted for stealing a TV set and VCR from a dormitory. He said he pawned the items to pay child support. He pleaded down the charges and paid a fine, but the stunt got his scholarship temporarily revoked and cost him his spot on the Canes' 1991 championship team. Ellis's almost-teammates Leon Searcy, Jessie Armstead, and Michael Colvin Barrow, to name just a few, all went on to the NFL.
When contacted for comment, former Canes coach Dennis Erickson said he didn't remember Ellis at all.
While the Canes marched across gridirons without losing a game all season, Ellis took out a small loan and soldiered on at his studies. His scholarship would be renewed if he straightened up and flew right. So he knuckled down. He moved his clothes and some high school trophies into Sowells's bedroom. Adrian Jr. slept in a crib at the foot of their bed. Ellis divided his time between her room and his mother's place.
But cut off from football, he got sucked into mischief. In October 1991, he showed up at a buddy's house with a trio of thugs — friends, he would later say, of his brother. The group ransacked the home of an absent pot dealer, kicked the dealer's roommate in the head, and threatened to rape his girlfriend. They stole a stereo, a camera, a jar of change, and an SKS assault rifle. In a statement to police, Ellis said he hadn't gone to the house with the intention of robbing anyone.
That much got him out of jail. But it wouldn't keep him out.
Three months later, 70-year-old Fait Cutler accused Ellis of breaking into his bedroom, throwing him to the floor, and tying him up with an extension cord — all for $480 in poker winnings (and all while wearing his UM jacket, no less).
Ellis got out of jail again, only to be nabbed for cracking a man (who ultimately didn't cooperate with authorities) in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. Ellis spent most of the next two years behind bars awaiting trial for the crimes.
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.
But Ellis kept on. In 2002 he made a run for a city commission seat as Adrian "Casanova" Ellis. A devastating Community Newspaper article detailed his arrest record and a recent warrant for nonpayment of support to a one-year-old daughter in Jacksonville. Ellis lost, coming in third of four candidates, with 419 votes.
By 2004, the owners of the same newspaper contributed $500 to his second bid for a commission seat. Ellis was determined to bring developers to his neighborhood. In the weeks leading up to the February election, he campaigned vigorously.
On the evening of January 28, Ellis called police to his home. Three men had beaten him to a pulp, he said. In the hospital, through a wired jaw and swollen lips, he told reporters the attack had been politically motivated. His opponent, an attorney named Craig Z. Scherar, seemed an unlikely suspect for such a violent plot. (He had flubbed his last run for city commission by campaigning in a Zorro costume.) Scherar walked off with 66 percent of the vote.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found two sources who alleged Ellis was jumped for outstanding gambling debts. Another told investigators that Ellis's assault had been orchestrated by the boyfriend of one of his children's mothers. When confronted with the allegations, Ellis declined to take a polygraph test, and ended up asking the agents to "kill this investigation right now," according to official documents.
The following year, Mayor Horace Feliu appointed Ellis to the Community Redevelopment Agency, where he worked to steer money to parks facilities and black businesses in the town's most blighted corners. He ran for the commission again in 2006 and lost. He lobbied for a massive rezoning project known as Madison Square, a four-story multiuse complex aimed at the center of South Miami's black neighborhood. The proposal incensed white anti-development activists and commissioners. Ellis rose to the fight.
He skewered South Miami this past summer when the city granted a predominantly white tackle football league the use of the Southwest YMCA facility. Ellis demanded to know why a small, predominantly white league was establishing itself in a city with an already thriving, predominantly black program. When he didn't get a satisfactory answer, Ellis left angry.
This past August 7, he marched back, flanked by a delegation of clergy, black citizens, and a dozen members of the 90-pound South Miami Gray Ghosts squad decked out in their blue uniforms. The crowd spoke for an hour, and called for the removal of a white commissioner opposed to the Madison Square project.
Ellis's right earlobe shined with a large stud; his solid frame fit slickly in a large black sport coat. Behind him, an ocean of hands waved in approval — his football team, his friends, his neighbors, his mother. The night's events, organized and fomented in part by Ellis, would make the project a political inevitability in town.
Ellis had finally become what he had wanted to be: the coach of everyone. Days later, he told Mayor Feliu to watch his back. Ellis had plans on running for his job.
It's the afternoon of October 6, 2007. Hot wind blows and dark clouds shift over Palmer Park, the place where Jerry Rein once worked and where Adrian Ellis once ruled.
The South Miami Gray Ghosts have been wiping the field with the Naples Titans for about two hours. The blue and gray home team shows no signs of fatigue, even into the late afternoon. Beneath bulbous helmets and heavy padding, the tiny linemen advance up the field like a clumsy tidal wave.
The clouds part, shooting sunlight onto a gathering that brims with so much energy it feels like a mass religious ceremony. A DJ blasts NFL sound bites during downtime. Parents seated on coolers and folding chairs do their best to wrangle youngsters under the small spectator tents. Cowbells jangle with each advancement.
Adrian Ellis's absence from South Miami is most palpable here.
Had things happened differently in September, he would no doubt be standing, straining against the sideline, in a blue shirt and yellow tie, surrounded by children. He would command the kids and parents like a conductor, calling for cheers and play signals from a tent full of parents.
One such maneuver, "the airplane," involved a drive of four or five wide receivers up one side of the field. When Ellis gave the word — usually in the form of a colored card — every spectator in the bleachers would stand up, stick out their arms, and lean into the wind as though flying.
During practices, Ellis offered to coach the children of coaches in other weight divisions. He customized drills to each individual player and always made sure everyone on the field had eaten something (if only a banana) before game time.
Last year he took the 90-pounders all the way to the playoffs, where the championship eluded them by a mere six points. After the game, he lectured — not scolded — the team, according to one parent. "He would motivate them," Nkenga Payne says from the bleachers. "He taught my son everything he knows about football. My son loved him. He was Coach Adrian — that was [my son's] whole world."
Following the narrow championship loss in 2006, Ellis had considered this coming year "unfinished business."
Ellis's demise was explained to the Gray Ghosts by a social worker whose daughter is on the cheerleading squad. The game played immediately after his death turned out to be a stiff victory for the Ghosts. They took the field with dramatic vigor, pointing fingers heavenward with each touchdown. Stickers bearing Ellis's high school number, 32, adorned each of their helmets.
Williams has taken on the coaching since Ellis's death, but he'll soon pass the team on to someone else. "I have no idea how he managed to do all these things," he says of his former partner.
When the game ends, almost three hours after it began, a deafening cheer of "South Miami!" goes up. The Gray Ghosts begin doffing their armor, revealing themselves to be impossibly small — and still overflowing with energy. Pizza is produced and passed around. Some eat. Most fight, tackle, and play catch — hurling themselves onto a ball roughly the size of their torsos. One or two harangue their proud mothers with the zeal of someone who had not just spent the better part of a day thrashing around under a scorching midday sun.
They won, but no one seems to recall by exactly how much. Twenty-three to zero, says a youngster who pulls at his mother's sleeve in hopes they'll now head to the mall.
Eighteen-year-old Adrian Ellis Jr. wanders out from under a tent, offering a handsome spitting image of his father. He climbs the bleachers and sits silently among a cackling circle of friends. "In Loving Memory" is tattooed on his arm in cursive letters. He wears a blousy blue button-down shirt, just like his father.
Also like his father, Adrian Jr. had a brief run at Columbus High. But academic issues forced him to return to South Miami High, where he plays on both sides of the ball. He says he helped his father coach the Gray Ghosts every day. He wants to play football for UCF, just like his dad. The community has established a scholarship fund for the Ellis kids, but it has raised only a few thousand dollars. Adrian Jr. graduates this spring.
Asked why he plays football, Adrian laughs, as if the question pertains to the color of the sky or the motion of the ocean. "It keeps you out of trouble," he says, and then adds, "It's fun."
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