There is an image of Sonji Danese Taylor summoned by the official accounts of her death that her family cannot countenance. Not today, two months after Los Angeles police shot her nine times, and perhaps not for as long as they live.
The two officers who fired at Taylor on the roof of St. Vincent Medical Center just before Christmas called her behavior bizarre. They said she was threatening her 3-year-old son with a butcher knife. They said she was threatening them, lunging and talking crazy.
They said they killed her, after rescuing her son, in justified fear for their lives.
Taylor’s family and friends wonder through their anger and grief how such an image could ever compare to the Sonji they loved. To them, she was a devoted mother with a quick and radiant smile, a Christian who gathered strength from the Bible, a former homecoming queen and cheerleader, a girl who sang in the church choir and a woman determined to get ahead.
Through their tears, many people still describe her as their best friend. She dreamed of becoming an actress, maybe even a star.
Now the strange death of Sonji Taylor is reviving memories of the LAPD’s most controversial shooting, the 1979 killing of Eulia Love. Like Taylor, Love was a black woman holding a knife, and the officers who shot both women were white. Love was hit eight times.
For a while, the Taylor shooting seemed destined to slip into obscurity. But then came startling news from the Los Angeles County coroner: Seven of the bullets that ripped into Taylor hit her from behind.
The shooting has grabbed the attention of the highest ranking officials in Los Angeles law enforcement, pitting the LAPD against the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The FBI has opened a preliminary civil rights probe.
Yet despite the efforts of all those agencies, no one knows for sure why Taylor was on the roof of St. Vincent that night. And those who knew her best wonder why she had to die.
“A young woman with a baby and a knife,” said Taylor’s mother, Geri Dixon, almost meditating on the words, her eyes moist.
“I don’t care what she was doing. You cannot justify shooting somebody like that.”
On the night she was killed, Taylor, 27, had been on the verge of becoming a state corrections officer, having passed her entrance exam with a score of 91%. A single mother who worked temporary jobs, she had recently moved into her own apartment in El Monte with her son. And Christmas of ’93 was going to be especially sweet.
Taylor and the rest of her large extended family were heading to the Bay Area home of her 29-year-old uncle, Tim McDonald, who plays safety for the San Francisco 49ers. She had told her mother that she planned on buying presents that week. Her family says nothing foreshadowed her horrific death.
The only note her mother found when she went through her belongings was one Taylor had written to herself: directions to the doctor’s office where she would take the physical examination for her state corrections job.
It was about 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16, when a janitor at the professional office building at St. Vincent Medical Center heard a child crying in the stairwell leading to the roof. The janitor called hospital security, and guards found Sonji Taylor and her son on the roof’s helipad. They called the police.
Within 30 minutes, seven Los Angeles police officers, including three sergeants, were on the helipad. Two hospital security guards and at least one hospital administrator were there too.
What happened next is under investigation, and interpretation, and may never be definitively resolved. A video camera mounted on the hospital’s roof was not turned on that night. Police and other investigators offer this account:
They say they found Taylor holding her son in her right arm and a large butcher knife in her left hand. She appeared, they said, to be threatening him, and yelled “For the blood of Jesus!” They said they asked her to drop the child, but she refused.
Sgt. Michael Long, an 18-year LAPD veteran and the ranking officer, took charge. He ordered Officer Craig Liedahl, who has 15 years with the department, to act as the “designated shooter” who would fire if it should come to that. Long decided to first douse Taylor with pepper spray, a relatively new weapon in the LAPD arsenal intended to disable someone without causing serious injury.
The spray was only partially effective. Although Taylor released her son--allowing police officers to grab the boy--she remained on her feet.
Then, police say, she lunged at Long with the knife.
“She wasn’t just threatening,” said one officer at the scene. “She was attacking.”
Long pulled out his gun and fired twice, possibly hitting Taylor in the lower abdomen and the left arm. Almost in the same instant, police say, Liedahl fired seven rounds from his 9-millimeter pistol.
Five shots struck Taylor in the back of her left shoulder, which police sources say spun her away from Liedahl. Two more bullets hit Taylor in the lower back. A total of seven bullets tore into Taylor’s back from Liedahl’s gun.
As she lay bleeding on the ground, the officers shackled her wrists--standard operating procedure for officer safety.
A paramedic pronounced Taylor dead at 8:40 p.m. Toxicological tests showed that she had not consumed either alcohol or drugs.
Her son, Jeremy Jamal--J.J. to his mom--looked on.
Johnnie Cochran Jr., a lawyer hired by Taylor’s family to explore the possibility of filing a lawsuit, says the police version of Taylor’s killing is simply “not going to fly.” He said LAPD has used its “whirling dervish theory” to explain police bullets in a victim’s back before.
Moreover, Cochran and other critics say the shooting calls into question tactics of the LAPD, including its decision to resort to deadly force.
After the pepper spray apparently failed to stop Taylor--and Jeremy was in the hands of police--the officers did not use batons, or tackle Taylor to the ground, or back off and give her space.
“Why do they have to kill her under these circumstances? I just can’t believe that she’s much of a risk to anyone,” Cochran said. “There’s this kind of macho image: ‘We’re going to resolve this now.’ ”
Added McDonald, Taylor’s uncle: “I don’t understand how you shoot a woman. How come you can’t disarm a woman who you say had a knife and a baby. No matter what the case is, I can’t understand how a woman with a knife has to be shot 10 times.”
Other questions have arisen as more details of the investigations have emerged. For example, Taylor was right-handed and police say she lunged at Long with the knife in her left, presumably weaker, hand.
Additionally, investigators said one, or perhaps two, bullets fired from the rear “mushroomed” inside Taylor’s body, a phenomenon that could indicate she was shot while lying down. A bullet generally mushrooms, or flattens out, when it hits a hard object.
But law enforcement officials and pathologists note this also could have happened if the bullets struck bones, most likely in Taylor’s shoulder or rib cage.
Although Taylor tested negative for all drugs and alcohol, officers said they believed she was under the influence of drugs or suffering a mental breakdown as she yelled, “For the blood of Jesus!”
Dixon said she would be surprised if her daughter had said anything else. Although the officers did not know it, Dixon said Taylor had been taught to say this for protection since she was a child.
“When you are afraid, you stand still and say ‘the blood of Jesus,’ ” Dixon said. “That’s what protects you. That is what is all around you. When you know you are surrounded by evil, when you have a personal relationship with Jesus, his spirit lives inside you.”
Within minutes of yelling those words, Taylor was dead. Officers maintain that the action unfolded too fast to allow them to stop Taylor with anything but their guns.
No matter how many times they have asked themselves the question, the people who knew Sonji Taylor best cannot understand what she was doing on the medical center roof that fateful evening with her son.
The manager of the El Monte apartment complex where she lived said she saw Taylor leave home that morning, in a hurry, but thought nothing unusual of that.
“I didn’t want to approach her because I thought maybe she didn’t have the money for her rent,” said Virginia Aguilar, who became friends with Taylor because their sons, both 3, enjoyed playing football and riding their bikes together.
“She was really in a hurry. She was pulling her son, saying, ‘Come on, J.J.’ ”
Later that same day, Taylor left her car parked in the St. Vincent parking lot, perhaps, her mother speculates, because she was doing some shopping nearby. In the purse she carried with her, police would later find $250 in cash, and her shopping bag held a knife sharpener and two other knives.
Police have listed the knives as evidence; her family believes they may simply have been Christmas gifts. They reject the police account that she could have been threatening anybody, especially her son, with a knife. They say it was simply not in her to do such a thing.
“She was centered around her son,” said sister-in-law Leslie Taylor, a first-year medical student at Howard University in Washington. “She took Jeremy everywhere. They were at the park most every day. They’d go to Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald’s. She really enjoyed motherhood.”
Taylor was also dazzled by the stars. She would get tickets to watch the “Arsenio Hall Show” being taped, or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Then she would gush to her mother about everybody she saw. Dixon said Taylor had a cameo in the movie “House Party” and auditioned, unsuccessfully, for a role in “Sister Act.”
Just before she moved from Fresno to Los Angeles with her mother three years ago, Taylor took an acting class from Richard Biggs, who now stars in the television series “Babylon Five.”
“She wanted to be an actress, work in commercials, TV. She wanted to sing and basically, I got the feeling that she wanted to be a star in Los Angeles,” Biggs said. “She wanted it all. She was going to go out and get it.”
Acting, however, remained merely a dream in Taylor’s life. Yvette Moore, a corrections officer at Soledad state prison, said she and Taylor were excited about Taylor’s future getting on more solid ground. Taylor was nearly set to enter the academy to become a corrections officer and, later, perhaps a counselor.
Moore had persuaded her friend to consider the corrections department because of the opportunities it offered black women such as themselves. “She finally wanted to do something for herself,” Moore said from her home in Salinas. “After nine months, you can transfer, so we were talking about transferring together so that we could live in the same place.”
Still, Moore said she had noticed her friend becoming less candid, as though she was holding something back, perhaps some emotional pain.
Moore said Jeremy’s father, who never played a role in his son’s life, had been causing her best friend endless grief. Taylor wanted her son to have a father and she wanted to become a wife.
“She was so in love with him, and he just kept rejecting her,” Moore said. “I blame him partly (for her death). There was so much stress in her life. She didn’t want to depend on him.”
But Dixon, an office manager for the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement in City of Commerce, discounted any suggestion that Jeremy’s father held much sway over her daughter’s life. She was not depressed, Dixon said, but happy to be starting a new life. She said her daughter had accepted that some men--like her own father--would never nurture their own children as they should.
“We are taught there is a special soul mate for everybody,” Dixon said, referring to her family’s Pentecostal upbringing.
“Yeah, Sonj and I would look through the wedding books and she’d say ‘I want this one and that one.’ I’d tell her God is going to get you your job, and he did. Your soul mate will come next. That’s what they took away from me. I don’t get to see her wedding dress, to see her march down the aisle.”
The job of determining what happened to Sonji Taylor has fallen to three agencies--the FBI, the LAPD and the district attorney’s office.
The investigation has pitted the LAPD against the district attorney’s office, in much the same way it did in the shooting of Eulia Love. Moreover, two key players in the investigation of Taylor’s death were there for the probe of Love’s killing.
Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti was the chief of the district attorney’s special investigations division when it launched the Love investigation. Garcetti’s boss in those days was Cochran, who was hired by Taylor’s family after Sonji’s brother said he prayed to God to find the best.
“It’s been all this time,” Cochran said. “And we’re going through this again.”
Ever since the Love case, the district attorney and the LAPD have conducted ostensibly independent investigations into officer-involved shootings that result in serious injury or death.
So when the call on the Taylor shooting came in on Dec. 16, representatives of the district attorney’s office rolled to the scene, joining the LAPD.
The independent investigations are intended to ensure that police officers do not cover up for one another in cases in which officers could end up as defendants. In practice, however, neither side has ever been satisfied with the arrangement. Prosecutors say the LAPD is often uncooperative, only begrudgingly turning over information.
Police see the district attorney’s office--usually their ally in prosecuting criminals--as a foe to be avoided when police are the subject of a probe.
And the Taylor case in particular quickly flared into a power struggle between prosecutors and police, raising suspicions and passions on both sides. The dispute primarily has centered on the LAPD’s unwillingness to turn over internal documents to the district attorney until the police investigation is complete--the normal procedure in police shootings but one that has long irritated prosecutors.
Faced with that resistance this time, prosecutors convened a grand jury and summoned the five officers who witnessed the shooting.
None of the officers has been asked to return, and neither Long nor Liedahl has been invited to appear before a grand jury--usually a signal that an indictment is being contemplated.
According to colleagues, Liedahl has been badly shaken by the shooting and its aftermath and has taken time off from work. Long remains on duty.
Rufus Taylor, Sonji’s only sibling, who is a year younger than she, is trying desperately to get back to Los Angeles. He and his wife and baby daughter moved to Washington in July so his wife could attend medical school.
He said his mother needs him here, and so does Jeremy, whom he has always loved as his own.
“I miss her,” Taylor said of his sister. “There is nothing I can do to bring her back, but I wish I could . . . What am I going to tell Jeremy? I don’t know yet. I’ve been trying to figure it out. I know that’s why I have to get home, because I want to be there when it’s time, to help him along with the process, to be the best I can.”
Dixon has started legal proceedings to gain guardianship of her grandson, who now calls her Mommy, too.
As Jeremy looks through photographs of his mother, he proudly points her out to a visitor and recalls the party where he ate his birthday cake. Occasionally, Dixon said, he will talk about that night on the roof of St. Vincent Medical Center “when Mommy got hurt.”
Dixon said she will not give in to bitterness, especially for the sake of Jeremy, who says he knows that his mother is not coming home any more.
“If I were bitter, my grandson would know,” Dixon said. “And I don’t want him going out and trying to shoot police officers.”
When Taylor’s family gathered in Fresno to bury her, they took Jeremy along. They wanted him to see his mother at peace.
On Dec. 16, Sonji Danese Taylor was shot and killed by Los Angeles Police officers. She received a total of 10 bullet wounds--the result of nine shots fired by two officers.
1. Why was Sonji Taylor on the hospital roof at night with her child?
2. Why didn’t officers leave Taylor on the roof after taking the child?
3. Why did Liedahl fire so many shots, and why did they strike Taylor in the back?
4. Why did Taylor, who is right-handed, carry the knife in her left hand if she meant to harm the officers?
5. Did any shots strike Taylor after she was knocked down to the ground?
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
The following account comes from official documents and investigators:
1) Taylor was confronted on the roof of the hospital, where she was holding her 3-year-old child in her right hand and a butcher knife in her left hand. Officers first used pepper spray on Taylor and wrested the child away from her.
2) Sgt. Michael Long fired twice.
3) At almost the same instant, Officer Craig Liedahl began firing. His first shots may have struck Taylor in the left shoulder, and he apparently continued firing as she twisted and fell. Liedahl fired a total of seven shots.