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Waiting for justice in slaying of Redskins Sean Taylor

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2012

A burgundy football jersey with gold trim hangs in Richard Sharpstein's law office on Brickell Avenue, one block from Miami's waterfront. A black marker's scrawl winds across the jersey's No. 21: "Thank you for everything." The wavy lines of an autograph sit below.

Sean Taylor.

While the sporting world counts down the hours until the start of Sunday's Super Bowl, family and friends of the onetime Washington Redskins superstar face a much longer wait for justice to be done.

Four years, two months and five days have drifted past since intruders awakened Taylor at 1:40 a.m. in his four-bedroom Palmetto Bay, Fla., home. The intruders kicked in the door of the master bedroom. Jackie Garcia, Taylor's girlfriend, clutched their 18-month-old daughter under the bed. Taylor grabbed a machete. One intruder fired twice. A bullet pierced Taylor's right thigh and femoral artery, then exited through a tiny hole and stopped in his lower left thigh. Twenty-seven hours later, the 24-year-old safety died.

The autopsy report later noted, among a dozen tattoos, two verses of Psalm 23 inked on Taylor's left shoulder:

"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me."

Five young men were charged with first-degree murder, but their trials have been delayed continuously. Since the first one was scheduled for April of 2008, the trial has been postponed 14 times. Defense attorneys shuffled. A gag order from 11th Judicial Circuit Judge Dennis J. Murphy banned attorneys, law enforcement and others connected to the case from discussing it with the media.

The latest try is April 16. Eric Rivera, 17 years old during the murder, is scheduled for trial then. The trials of three other defendants — Timmy Lee Brown, Jason Scott Mitchell and Charles Wardlow — will follow. The fifth man, Venjah Hunte, accepted a plea bargain but attempted to back out. His sentencing is scheduled for April 5.

Reminders of a life

As legal gridlock continues, the lives of those close to Taylor are littered with reminders of the hole left by the bullet. They talk about Taylor as if he is still alive.

Each day, Mr. Sharpstein looks at the jersey. Taylor gave it to him in 2006 after the lawyer and longtime family friend helped get an aggravated assault charge dropped as part of a negotiated plea bargain. Mr. Sharpstein remembers Taylor's habit of saying "Mr. and Mrs. Sharpstein" and a shyness that mixed with distaste for speaking about himself.

The stab of disbelief from a 5 a.m. phone call to Mr. Sharpstein from Pedro Taylor, Sean's father, that his son had been shot lingers, too.

Pedro Taylor, the police chief in Florida City, Fla., didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. Donna Junor, Sean's mother, declined to comment.

Sometimes Mr. Sharpstein pulls out a photo of a smiling Taylor he keeps in a desk drawer. The photo and jersey remind him of life's fragility and unpredictability. He thinks nothing can fill the hole Taylor's death left in so many lives, and he thinks about the "lifelong torture" Pedro Taylor faces. Those thoughts often turn to Mr. Sharpstein's family.

"Sometimes [Taylor] talks to me," Mr. Sharpstein said, "and tells me it's time to go home, to get out."

The gag order prevents Mr. Sharpstein from speaking about the trial.

Years ago, Ralph Ortega asked Mr. Sharpstein to represent Taylor. Mr. Ortega, a mortgage broker, was an assistant football coach and mentor to Taylor at Gulliver Preparatory School.

"He was not quite like a son," Mr. Ortega said, "but something close."

Taylor and Mr. Ortega's son, Buck, both started at Gulliver Preparatory midway through their sophomore years. They were about the same height and weight. Both were quiet. They loved fishing. A fast friendship developed.

The first sailfish Buck Ortega caught came with Taylor off Key Largo, Fla., when they were sophomores. A few days ago, Buck Ortega pulled out a photo of the 80-pound sailfish. Taylor smiled back at him from the photo.

"Look how little we were," Buck Ortega told his wife, Emily.

He laughed.

'Scary how good'

Today, Buck Ortega runs a chain of health clubs near Fayetteville, Ark., after stints with four NFL teams at tight end. He doesn't follow the legal gymnastics in Miami much, but Taylor comes to mind often. Big hits or big returns in football games on television spur those memories.

"Watching him play was like artwork," Buck Ortega said. "Sean had a one-upper for everything [on the field]. It was the truth. He was that good. It was scary how good he was."

Buck Ortega tries not to think about the murder. But that day lurks, like a photo he can't erase.

Each April 1, Buck Ortega calls Pedro Taylor for Sean's birthday.

"I'm thinking about you," Buck Ortega tells him.

Those thoughts are difficult for Ralph Ortega to escape. Every two weeks, he eats lunch at Walter's Coffee Shop in Palmetto Bay. Taylor's jersey and picture hang on the wall. So does the jersey of Derrick Thomas, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker from Miami who died after a car accident in 2000.

Taylor's old house sits six miles away, an 11-minute drive if traffic is right.

Visions of Taylor on the football field return first. Like his first spring game at Gulliver Preparatory. Ralph Ortega, an All-America linebacker at the University of Florida before playing six seasons in the NFL, doubted Taylor was the team's best player but then experienced an epiphany.

After the game, Ralph Ortega pulled Taylor aside and told the youngster he could be special. Beyond high school special.

"There's something with the way you move," Ralph Ortega said.

Taylor's face lit up.

Steve Howey was at that game. Then Gulliver Preparatory's head coach, he moved across Florida to St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples as the school's football coach and athletic director.

Every once in a while, Mr. Howey thinks of calling Taylor. Reality intercedes a second or two later. Taylor is gone. Mr. Howey finally had to delete Taylor's number from his cellphone.

Each class of freshman football players, particularly the youngsters with uncanny size or wingspans, brings Taylor to mind. Maybe, Mr. Howey thinks, this one is the next Sean Taylor.

Whenever Mr. Howey visits a new town, he stops by sports memorabilia shops to see if they have items connected to Taylor. Mr. Howey has already hit every shop around Naples. Twenty-five dollars bought Taylor's rookie card. Mr. Howey hasn't discovered any of Taylor's game-worn jerseys from the Redskins or the University of Miami yet. Anything Taylor is prized.

That's who Mr. Howey thinks of when he drives east toward Miami. The five men charged in the murder allegedly drove the same way. Mr. Howey figures they have regrets, sitting in Miami-Dade County jail cells as the legal process creeps forward.

"They took a real special person from this world," Mr. Howey said. "It hurts to think about his loss, dying the way he did. I love talking about him. I really loved the kid. I think the world of him."

Mr. Howey's memorabilia collection includes pictures from Taylor's days at Gulliver Preparatory and the University of Miami. There's the picture Taylor autographed after signing with the University of Miami that reads, "Good call, coach." Another is an enlarged shot that ran in the Naples Daily News.

In a double-overtime game for Gulliver Preparatory against Immokalee, Mr. Howey decided to go for the two-point conversion and win. The ball, of course, went to Taylor. The picture shows Taylor diving toward the end zone, maybe five feet in the air, his arms and legs straight out, the football leading the way.

Taylor looks as if he's flying.

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