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Family Came First for Slain Sibling

Times Staff Writers

Rolland Wormley said Yetunde Price loved him despite his criminal record. She loved him even though she lived in a half-million-dollar house, and he lived in a tiny Long Beach apartment. She loved him even though he was a parolee working temporary jobs, and she was the half sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

In an phone interview Wednesday -- three days after his release from Los Angeles County Jail on suspicion of a parole violation -- Wormley described what happened Sept. 14, the day he lost Price. She was fatally shot in the passenger seat of her sport utility vehicle as Wormley drove the couple down a Compton street.

The gunshots, he said, came out of nowhere.

“These guys just started opening fire,” said Wormley, 28. “We were just innocent passersby. Believe me, if anything, I would go through that myself twice before I let that happen to my girl.”

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Investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department initially said Price was shot after an argument with people standing outside a house on East Greenleaf Boulevard. But more recently, Sheriff’s Capt. Frank Merriman said the car might not have stopped at the house.

Wormley said there was no argument. “We were just driving,” he said. “Just driving, man.”

“Tunde,” as Price was called by friends, grew up in Compton. Last year, she bought a new home in Corona, but despite her successes, the 31-year-old nurse and businesswoman kept close to the black, working-class communities of south Los Angeles County.

Wormley said it was easy for her to travel from the grass courts of Wimbledon to the neighborhoods where she grew up. “She was more down to earth than anything,” he said.

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Price was one of three daughters born to Oracene Price and Yusef A.K. Rasheed. Oracene later married Richard Williams, and the couple had Venus and Serena. All five sisters considered themselves full-fledged siblings. When they were young, Richard instructed them all in tennis.

The way he tells it -- a story that’s now sports legend -- he was hoping to mold at least one daughter into an international tennis star so he could move the family out of Compton.

Although the lessons paid off for Venus and Serena, Price never developed a passion for tennis. But she showed her own ambitions early. At Lynwood High School, she enrolled in honors classes and hung out with high achievers and student government officers, according to Isadore Hall, a Compton City Council member who graduated with her in 1990, and other friends. Soon after high school graduation, Price earned a vocational nursing license.

A year later, as the Williams sisters’ tennis talents bloomed, all of the family but Price left Compton for Florida. Venus and Serena began training there under Rick Macci, who had guided the early career of Jennifer Capriati.

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Price forged her own path, working as a nurse for nine years at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. She had a son, Jeffrey, with boyfriend Jeffrey Johnson. In 1996, she married developer and contractor Byron Bobbitt. The couple had two children, Justus and Jair, and moved to Moreno Valley. They divorced in 2000, court records show.

Price’s children became central to her life, and Barbara Beshears, young Jeffrey’s grandmother, said Price was determined to keep her family close. Price, she said, often dropped all three children off at Beshears’ house in Compton for baby-sitting. Price stayed good friends with Beshears’ daughter, Kolynda Johnson, Beshears said.

With her work and her children, Price had a full life. There was football practice for Jeffrey, 11, cheerleading for Justus, 9, and dancing and acting lessons for Jair, 5, an aspiring rapper.

Price opened a hair salon in Lakewood with her best friend from high school. She also enrolled in a series of college courses, most recently in an effort to become a registered nurse. Beshears and others said Price would often doze off during visits when she sat down on the sofa.

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“Venus and Serena’s success, that was a phenomenon, but all of that paled in comparison to the love in her children,” Bobbitt said.

Price eventually began working part time for Venus and Serena as they became more famous, and their lives became more complicated. Price joined the family at many of the sisters’ tournaments, accompanying them to the 1997 U.S. Open as well as Wimbledon.

Friends and family said Price helped untangle the sisters’ personal and business affairs, sending out faxes, e-mails and calls from her home. Although Venus and Serena eclipsed her in some ways, friends said, Price still saw them as her little sisters.

The Williams’ fortunes trickled down to Price -- a trip to Europe, a Louis Vuitton handbag -- but she maintained an independent life. Many of Price’s friends said they were surprised to learn that she had famous sisters. Kamesha Keesee, Price’s friend and neighbor in Corona, didn’t know of the relationships until she saw Serena Williams sitting next to Price on a TV broadcast.

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“I called two days later and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ ” Keesee said. “She said, ‘I wanted to make friends for who I am.’ ”

Price met Wormley when a mutual friend invited her to a birthday party in April. She was impressed by Wormley’s dancing, he said, and they ended up talking until sunrise. He said he was frank with her about the time he’d spent behind bars for petty theft, having unlawful firearms and selling marijuana. He told her he was trying to pull his life together, he said, and she believed him.

Soon they were seeing each other almost every day. Price was proud of the spacious home she purchased in the Corona foothills after her divorce. Wormley said he stayed there as often as his parole allowed.

In the hours before the shooting, Wormley said, he was in west Compton at a picnic with friends. Price, he said, was at his mother’s house in north Long Beach. They had plans for the evening, but Wormley said he lost track of the time. Sometime before midnight, he said, she drove to Compton to pick him up.

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He got behind the wheel of Price’s white GMC Yukon Denali and drove the couple down East Greenleaf Boulevard. Price was irritated that he’d stayed out so late, Wormley recalled. He said he put on some quiet music in the car.

“Greenleaf was dark that night -- super dark,” he said. “Next thing you know, I see flashes to my side. I don’t know if it’s from the front or the side.... I don’t know how many shots were fired. I don’t even know what race or creed [the attackers] were.”

Wormley said he got scared and hit the gas. “I didn’t look once at my lady,” he said. “I’m trying to get through this. I’m trying to get away, I’m trying to get her to safety. Once I get to Long Beach Boulevard” -- a few blocks away -- “I see the back window is shattered. I look to the right and said, ‘Baby, are you all right?’ I look at Tunde and there was blood everywhere.”

Wormley said he drove to his mother’s apartment and she called 911. To his surprise, the authorities who arrived arrested him on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. Instead of charging him, however, they held him for allegedly violating the terms of his parole. While Price’s family buried her in the Hollywood Hills on Friday, he was in jail.

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During interrogations, authorities told him that other witnesses said he had fought with people at the Compton house. Authorities accused him of being a gang member, which he denied.

On Sunday, authorities released Wormley. They had arrested an alleged gang member, Aaron Hammer, in the shooting. Hammer was charged Sept. 16 with murder.

Police said they are looking for as many as four other suspects in the slaying.

On Wednesday, Wormley was back home, angry at the police and mourning his loss.

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“That’s half my life right there,” he said. “I don’t even know how to feel right now. I’m not going to ask God why he didn’t take both of us.”


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