Clues Sought in Brutal Murder of Tennis Pro : Investigation: Though charismatic, Stephen William Aniston had a darker side, a former UCI coach says. Father says his son 'had a lot of bad luck.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephen William Aniston appeared to have had the ideal life. The handsome, 27-year-old former UC Irvine student-turned-tennis pro had been ranked among the world's top 200 players. He recently won a prestigious tournament, worked at a ritzy country club and had a lot of friends.

But the Corona man apparently had a darker side, which attracted trouble, according to his former coach. He had been kicked off his college tennis team for using cocaine, and he had been involved in a freeway shooting.

On Friday, he was brutally stabbed to death in Huntington Beach. Nearly a week after his death, police, family and friends are trying to figure out who killed him and why.

On the night he was murdered, Aniston was found by police behind the wheel of his car drifting across Yorktown Avenue east of Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach.

Officers, thinking he was a drunk driver, were about to motion him to pull over when his silver Mitsubishi crossed the center divider and crashed onto an embankment.

When officers reached Aniston, they found him severly wounded. He died before paramedics arrived.

Police, who have not revealed much about their investigation, have issued a plea for any witnesses to come forward.

"We really don't have much suspect information," Huntington Beach Police Lt. Ed McErlain said. He added that no motive has been established in the killing.

On Wednesday, a memorial service was held for Aniston in Corona.

"Everyone loved this guy," his father, Stephen A. Aniston, said. "He had a very winning way that made him a popular fellow. I just don't understand what or why it happened.

"I saw his body (at the morgue), and he was pretty beat up," his father said. "It looked like he was in a hell of a fight. He was pretty strong and could take care of himself, so it must have been a couple of guys.

"This whole thing has been very sad. It's sad how he wound up. . . . He had a lot life ahead of him."

Aniston's tennis career had been one of tremendous achievements and bitter disappointments.

According to his father, Aniston showed "great talent" as a youngster and later developed into a skilled player who became the top man on UCI's tennis team.

UCI tennis coach Greg Patton remembered Aniston as a "pretty complex young man" and an "unbelievable talent."

Aniston, who played at UCI from 1983 through 1985, had been ranked among the top 20 college players in the nation. "He had the ability to be a world-class player," Patton said. "He was pretty charismatic. He loved playing in front of a crowd when he was younger. He really was a person of extremes. When things were going good, he was sensitive and passionate."

When things were not so good, "he made the wrong decisions at times, and he had to live up to those wrong decisions," Patton said.

Patton said he had to kick Aniston off the team because of a cocaine habit.

Patton said Aniston had been arrested for possession of cocaine in college, but the charges were dropped. "He went into drug rehab. . . . We wanted to help solve the problem," he said.

Aniston's father said he knew his son had been involved with drugs, "but that was a long time ago. He had been clean for quite a while."

After he was thrown off UCI's team, Aniston joined the professional tennis circuit and even played at Wimbledon, his father said.

"He was able to travel all over the world," the elder Aniston said. "Tennis was his life."

At the professional level, however, Aniston experienced leg and shoulder injuries and had to pull out of the circuit.

During the winter months, Aniston would work as a tennis pro at Shadow Mountain Racquet and Tennis Club in Palm Desert. In April, he won the Ojai Tournament.

Several months after the tournament, Aniston was involved in an altercation on a freeway in which he and another driver pulled over to the side of the freeway and argued, his father said. During the argument, the unidentified driver apparently shot at Aniston, he said. Police declined to comment on any previous incidents involving Aniston.

"He had a lot of bad luck," his father said.

Patton, who said he and Aniston remained friends despite his expulsion from the team, said the news of his death shocked him and the tennis players at UCI.

"I always felt he kind of lived life on the edge," Patton said. "He could add brightness to a room. At the same time, he had a darker side. He was a charismatic guy."

Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this report.

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