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Sean Taylor’s sister: Suspect saw big cash gift from brother

MIAMI — The half-sister of slain Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor testified Tuesday that she knew the alleged shooter and that another suspect in the case saw Taylor give her a $10,000 cash birthday present weeks before the November 2007 slaying.

Sasha Johnson, 27, said Eric Rivera Jr., 23, once played for a little league football team in Fort Myers coached by her father. Johnson also testified that at the time of Taylor’s killing, she was dating the brother of another man charged in the killing. Altogether, five men were charged in the case.

On Oct. 1, 2007, Johnson said Taylor threw her a birthday party at his Miami-area home attended by her boyfriend, Devon Wardlow, and Jason Mitchell. Mitchell is accused in Taylor’s killing, along Wardlow’s brother Charles Wardlow. Prosecutors say the killing happened during a botched burglary attempt.

At the party, Johnson said Taylor gave her a purse stuffed with the cash and that Mitchell clearly saw it.

“Everything was in the purse. When I pulled it out, he was right there and he saw it,” Johnson testified.

Prosecutors say Rivera and the others drove across the state to Miami intending to burglarize Taylor’s home, believing he kept large amounts of cash there. But, prosecutors say, the group didn’t realize Taylor was home with an injury instead of at a Redskins game that Thanksgiving weekend, and he was shot during a confrontation after they broke in.

Rivera, Mitchell, Charles Wardlow and Timothy Brown have all pleaded not guilty. The fifth suspect, Venjah Hunte, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary and may testify against the others. Rivera, the first to go to trial, faces a potential life prison sentence if convicted.

Also Tuesday, another acquaintance of Rivera’s testified that she saw Rivera and Charles Wardlow drive away from a car rental facility in a rented black Toyota Highlander that investigators say was used in the crime. Alexia Anderson said the mother of a mutual friend rented them the vehicle because they were underage. Rivera was only 17 when Taylor was killed.

“They drove away in it,” Anderson testified.

“Who was actually driving?” asked Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin.

“Eric Rivera,” she replied.

Another witness, Miami-Dade Police Department forensics expert John Mancini, said footwear impressions at various places in Taylor’s home matched specific types of Reebok and Nike sneakers. Prosecutors say Rivera was wearing Nike Shox sneakers that night and Mitchell had on the Reeboks, which were seized from his home.

Mancini also said two identical 9mm bullet casings were found inside the home, one outside Taylor’s bedroom and one on a sofa near a rear sliding glass door downstairs. Investigators say Rivera shot out the sliding glass door so the group could escape. But the gun itself, they say, was thrown into the Everglades and has never been recovered.

Taylor, 24 when he died, was a Pro Bowl safety for the Redskins who had previously been a popular, locally grown star at the University of Miami. The Redskins drafted Taylor with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft and he signed an $18 million contract.