An argument echoed through the tidy home perched on a rise in the Windsor Hills neighborhood a half-dozen miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Shouted threats gave way to screams. Then the thud of blows.
De’von Hall stood over his mother’s blood-covered body on that April evening this year. One of the home’s residents, Brandeis Eubanks, dialed 911.
“He hit her. He stomped her out,” he told the dispatcher. “They got in a tussling match and next thing you know she was on the ground and he was stomping her out.”
Alecia Benson lay on her back, unconscious and spitting blood. Her face was swollen, lips sliced open, head battered, nose broken and cut.
“Her son is still here and I don’t want him to attack me,” Eubanks said. “If you guys get here, you can apprehend him.”
In recent months, Benson had taken in her only child. She didn’t see another way to help him.
More than five years had passed since Hall’s final day on an NFL roster. He wasn’t a star, instead one of the anonymous hopefuls who fill out practice squads and 90-man training-camp rosters. But he managed to achieve what few do and forged a career in professional football.
Inside the two-story home, Hall, 29, dressed and loaded up his backpack.
“Help her,” Eubanks told the dispatcher. “Help her. Please.”
“You’ve got to get a clean dry cloth or towel,” the dispatcher said, “and apply pressure to where the blood ...”
“No, no, no,” he said. “OK. Please come. Please come now.”
As Eubanks pleaded with the dispatcher, Hall walked out of the home and down the middle of Secrest Drive.
Another man screamed and shouted in the background.
“Get off the phone and get an ambulance here!” he said.
The line went dead.
He had this killer instinct in his eyes. He loved to hit. He loved to play football. That was his passion.
— Stan Coleman
Hall had a gift. Craig Cieslik witnessed it every day. The football coach at Cleveland High in Reseda rotated Hall between six positions as a senior in 2004. He had an unusual blend of size, speed and strength. He prided himself on toughness — once refusing to exit a game after slicing his hand open — and delivering wince-inducing hits. His grandfather played football at Wiley College, an NAIA school in Texas, and the Buffalo Bills drafted an uncle from Baylor in 1976. Hall wanted to follow their path.
“He had this killer instinct in his eyes,” said Stan Coleman, one of Benson’s brothers. “He loved to hit. He loved to play football. That was his passion.”
The future seemed straightforward: Hall would pursue an NFL career, then coach football. After all, he already acted like a coach on the field. Benson once told Cieslik to let her know if her son ever stepped out of line. The coach didn’t need to because Hall was the sort of rule-follower who answered questions “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” and meant it.
When Jeff Copp, then safeties coach at Utah State, recruited Hall in 2005, he asked the youngster whom he would lean on to decide where to play. Hall didn’t hesitate: his mother. Benson’s daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome when Hall was a toddler. It cemented the tight-knit relationship between the mother and son.
“She was his rock,” Copp said.
At Utah State, Hall started the season opener at linebacker as a true freshman. He built a reputation as a quick learner and one of the team’s most punishing tacklers. Off the field he kept to himself, usually holed up in his room playing Madden NFL video games or talking to his mother on the phone. Gaining his trust wasn’t easy, but when you did, he revealed a quick wit and an obsession with maintaining a clean-cut appearance to go along with a burgeoning confidence in his ability to play in the NFL.
“He was a freak when it came to what he could do on the field with how strong he was and how fast he was,” said James Brindley, a former Utah State defensive back.
Entering Hall’s senior year in 2008, Copp noticed he took longer to focus. Hall’s mind wandered. He eventually stopped going to class to train for the NFL draft.
One NFL team’s scouting report hinted at the concerns, saying his physical ability and understanding of the game “does not register” on the field.
When members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers filed into darkened meeting rooms after practice, they flipped on lights and closed doors. They often discovered Hall standing behind a door, staring at the wall without a word. No one knew what to make of it.
Like so many other players clinging to the fringe of the NFL, Hall’s name made regular appearances in the league’s transaction reports. He signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in April 2009. He was late to meetings and regarded as immature. After being cut five months later, he joined the Indianapolis Colts, had the team’s horseshoe logo tattooed on his chest and played four regular-season games before being waived the day after Christmas. The Buccaneers picked him up two days later, intrigued by his athleticism.
From the first day, Hall’s odd behavior left teammates uneasy, sometimes afraid. He stood by himself on the practice field. Teammates tried to get him to join them for movies or dinner. He declined.
When Joshua Taylor, one of his Utah State roommates, asked what the NFL was like, Hall replied that all he did was smoke weed, practice, then smoke more weed.
Hall repeatedly told a strange story about a car accident in Tampa where he hit his head and had to be put in a straitjacket, then injected with an unknown substance to calm down. Friends pressed for more details. He couldn’t provide them.
The Buccaneers released Hall in August 2010 a few days before the team’s rookies were scheduled to perform their annual skits. Most of them poked fun at Hall being in places where he wasn’t expected. The team’s uneasiness had become a running joke. Executives worried about Hall’s reaction to the skits if he remained on the roster.
On Facebook, Hall mentioned injuring his hamstring during training camp with the Buccaneers. But he told Taylor that coaches wouldn’t give him an opportunity to play because they believed he was unbalanced.
Around 5 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2010, 911 operators in Luna County, N.M., received seven calls reporting a reckless driver on westbound Interstate 10.
The green Pontiac Grand Am, driven by Hall on his way home from Florida, sped to 60 mph, then slowed to 35 mph. He refused to let other cars pass.
The eighth 911 call was from a woman who said the car tried to run her off the road. A tractor-trailer helped box in Hall until two Luna County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived. Wearing a black hooded sweatshirt pulled over his head, Hall denied any wrongdoing. He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor with probation and fines.
Hall became difficult for his Temecula-based agent, Derrick Fox, to reach. If they connected, Hall answered “yes” or “no” to questions without elaboration.
After Hall’s grandfather, Leslie Benson, died in June 2011, Hall waved his arms in the air at the funeral. He yelled as if he was riding a roller coaster.
The Carolina Panthers signed Hall a few weeks later. He didn’t last long. A prominent Panthers player and team chaplain called Fox, concerned about his client’s unusual behavior and soiled clothes. The team cut ties.
Hall landed auditions with two Canadian Football League teams. Neither worked out.
During a CFL combine in Santa Monica, Hall arrived in a wrinkled gray suit, full beard and tousled hair. Other players wore workout clothes. He fished a resume out of his backpack. Extra clothes flew everywhere. Hall eventually changed out of the suit and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 or 4.9 seconds, almost a half-second slower than his usual time in college.
His words became garbled. He wore headphones to drown out the voices in his head. He refused to hug Tony Benson, a close uncle. He laughed for no reason. He shouted violent song lyrics. Each Facebook post sounded stranger than the one before.
“religion single seat single engine F-16 fighting falcon fighter jet.”
“Natural ability has allowed.... Natures ability has caused doubt I am thankful for my choice.”
“I’m not scared of washer machines. I’m nice. I don’t agree with communism. Im nice.”
If he caught the dog, you didn’t know if he was going to pet it or kill it. I wouldn’t want to be in a room one-on-one with him.
— Caleb Taylor
One day a Utah State teammate, Daryl Fields, drove Hall to an apartment in Salt Lake City where Taylor was visiting his twin brother, Caleb. Before arriving, Fields warned the brothers on the phone that this wasn’t the same Hall they knew in college. He wore old Utah State sweats. His eyes were bloodshot and vacant. His teeth weren’t brushed. He smelled bad. He hadn’t shaved or cut his hair recently. And he didn’t seem to recognize his friends.
Caleb Taylor asked how Hall was doing. He sputtered about “chilling busting caps.”
Hall fixated on Joshua Taylor’s black chihuahua named Shadow. No one could distract Hall. He dived on the carpet and tried to catch the dog. He faced the animal on all fours, as if he was going to attack it. The brothers hustled the dog to another room.
“If he caught the dog, you didn’t know if he was going to pet it or kill it,” Caleb Taylor said. “I wouldn’t want to be in a room one-on-one with him. He showed a lot of signs of aggression.”
Each time Hall joined the brothers, something strange happened. Like the night they watched a Lakers game on television and Hall, for no apparent reason, sprinted back and forth across the room while staring at the ceiling.
The last time the Taylor brothers spoke to Hall on the phone, he let them know he was on the way to Caleb Taylor’s apartment in Salt Lake City.
“I’m walking from California to Utah,” Hall said.
He told the brothers he was in Barstow. He plugged in the route on his iPhone and estimated he’d reach them in a couple of weeks. He didn’t find this unusual. After staying in L.A. with his father, Cary Hall, he wanted to become a professional boxer.
Alecia Benson told family members her son would call when he got tired. She eventually drove to Barstow and brought him back.
Hall became a fixture in and around Martin Luther King Jr. Park, a mile and a half west of the Coliseum. His grandfather’s old duplex was on the other side of the park.
Hall’s mother tried to convince him to move into a furnished apartment. He refused. Instead, he paced up and down Western Avenue next to the park. He slept there. He smoked discarded cigarette butts. He stood on bleachers surrounding the baseball field. He looked dazed, but didn’t bother anyone. Sometimes he did football drills. He seemed to exist in a world of his own.
“That’s where he felt most safe,” Coleman said.
One day Hall darted back and forth across Western Avenue. He appeared to be playing chicken with cars. A bus clipped him. Benson found her son at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. He avoided serious injury.
Before finally losing touch with Hall, Copp and Benson talked about how to get him help. But he didn’t think he had a problem. The player Copp remembered as one of the sweetest kids he had ever coached had become a stranger who barely recalled playing for Utah State.
When Utah State played USC at the Coliseum in September 2013, Hall approached a group of teammates in front of the stadium. He dragged a black garbage bag. When he tried to speak, only gibberish came out. He jogged away after about 30 seconds.
Sometimes Marquis Butler saw his former Utah State teammate pushing a shopping cart along the street. Each time Butler called his name, Hall disappeared into the park.
Each morning, Eric Griffin, director at the adjacent Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, asked Hall how he was doing. It took almost a year before he responded: “Good day. How are you?” Until recently, Griffin knew nothing about Hall’s NFL career.
Trecia Summerville, an assistant at the center, noticed a middle-aged woman speaking to Hall on the street. She asked the woman if Hall was bothering her.
“This is my son,” Benson said.
We’re a proud family and we take on our responsibilities, period. She didn’t want anyone else to be burdened with what he was going through.
— Tony Benson
Before the final encounter between the mother and son in the home on Secrest Drive, Benson told Eubanks to leave the room and not to get involved. She didn’t want Hall to lash out at another person. Her son was her concern.
“We’re a proud family and we take on our responsibilities, period,” Tony Benson said. “She didn’t want anyone else to be burdened with what he was going through. ... She took it all on herself, even that night.”
Alecia Benson, 48, worked in the office of a local doctor. She laughed easily and had the gift to make whoever she talked to feel special. She became a confidant for a sprawling collection of twentysomething nieces and nephews, always available to listen or offer advice.
Alecia Benson argued with Hall in the days leading up to the final confrontation. Though he was about 30 pounds lighter than his playing weight of 215 pounds, he remained an intimidating figure. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department responded to multiple calls for service at the address in past years for domestic disturbances. Hall wasn’t arrested. The department refused to provide further details.
This time, the mother confronted him about hygiene. Each time he entered the home, it reeked of someone who had abandoned showering.
As Benson lay unconscious, deputies caught Hall near the home shortly after the 911 call at 10:44 p.m. Family members said deputies speeding to the scene almost hit Hall in the middle of Secrest Drive and they used a Taser to subdue him.
Benson died almost four days later at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on April 28. Her face was so swollen and bruised as to be almost unrecognizable.
The scrawl of a doctor’s handwriting on a sheet attached to the autopsy report reduced the final days of her life to a few words: “facial and traumatic brain injury w/ facial fracture and brain contusion with severe brain edema.”
Another form added eight words.
“Her son is the suspect in this homicide.”
The NFL, in my opinion, should’ve done a better job in making sure they took care of this kid.
— Tony Benson
Some family members don’t think Hall understands his mother is dead. He pleaded not guilty to murder and is jailed at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A. on $1-million bail. Cary Hall and Coleman tried to visit. De’von Hall refused.
In recent years, Utah State teammates felt Hall would snap. They figured a random person would be the victim. But his mother? He didn’t love anyone more. The friends are scared by the thought of what might happen next.
“If he’s in jail with the regular population, he’s going to end up getting killed or killing someone else,” said Dionte Holloway, who played at Utah State with Hall. “De’von mentally is gone. That’s not the De’von I know, that’s not the De’von I went to school with, that’s not my friend, that’s somebody who was out of their mind.”
They search for answers. Family members believe Hall suffered a head injury with the Colts in 2009 that changed his personality. A team spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“The NFL, in my opinion, should’ve done a better job in making sure they took care of this kid,” Tony Benson said.
At Utah State, former defensive coordinator Mark Johnson, Copp and several teammates didn’t recall Hall sustaining a concussion. But one of the teammates, Gregg Clark, cautioned that “a lot of things go under the table” when head injuries are involved.
A separate theory circulated among some teammates had Hall attending a party in Miami while he played for the Buccaneers and smoking weed laced with cocaine, heroin or another hard drug. They believe the episode triggered an addiction.
No evidence has been made public to support any of these theories or further explain his behavior.
In a brief court hearing June 28, Hall’s public defender, Ashley Morgan Price, told L.A. County Superior Court Judge Yvette Verastegui that she doesn’t believe her client is competent. The judge suspended criminal proceedings and ordered a mental evaluation.
Hall and Price didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“In the final analysis, it’s about De’von, but, in reality, it’s about Alecia and what she did for her family,” Tony Benson said. “She’s an angel and we lost her.”
That’s not the only loss. Coaches, teammates, family members, friends all speak about Hall as if he’s dead.
That’s not my nephew. He’s not a regular person. This was someone who possessed De’von’s body. His mother didn’t have a chance.
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this story.
Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno