Longform

THE TRAGEDY OF ERIC TAYLOR

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In January 1992, he followed Williford and other former Grand Canyon basketball players and took a job as a mental-health technician at the Bunkhouse, a shelter run by Arizona Baptist Children's Services. The shelter is a halfway house for boys ages 8 to 18, who for one reason or another--truancy, abuse, juvenile delinquency--have become wards of the state.

Arizona Baptist Children's Services was aware of Taylor's criminal record. "We hired a young man who had a very limited police record as a juvenile," says ABCS president C. Truett Baker. "We knew he had a short fuse, but he never laid a hand on the children." And he had been recommended by Williford and other friends who were good employees of unquestionable character. One can tell volumes about a man by looking at his friends, and Taylor's friends are as clean-cut and straightforward as they get. Taylor had not had a blowup in five years; he seemed on the road to emotional maturity. Still, more than one friend has described Taylor as a time bomb or a powder keg. Perhaps the detonator depended on a precise sequence of stressors, namely work and women.

@rule:
@body:Eric Taylor married Sonji Rhymes on June 26, 1992. Pastor Edward Carter officiated. They already had a six-month-old daughter.

No one seems to be able to describe Sonji in any more detail than that she was attractive and very, very quiet. Darryl Williford thinks Taylor met her in a club--but once he started going to church with her, he stopped going to clubs. She had a young son by another man, and among Eric's friends, her claim to fame was that she once dated former Phoenix Suns player Tim Perry.

As the wedding date approached, Taylor was beside himself with joy. Early on the morning he was to be married, Taylor was working the late shift at the Bunkhouse and, according to an incident report filled out by Arizona Baptist Children's Services, awoke from a nap and became offended by the content of a movie that another staff member was watching on TV.

The incident report says that Taylor "began shouting praises to God, jumping up and down and clapping his hands." By the time the staff member went to call a supervisor, Taylor had awakened several children and had them advancing on the staff member while chanting, "I rebuke you, Satan."

Doug Shouse, another Bunkhouse employee, did not witness the incident, but remembers that Taylor was "happy like a kid" during the encounter, not threatening. "When people first get saved, they have this uncontrollable zeal," he says.

Taylor was subsequently hospitalized under the care of a psychiatrist; the psychiatrist has been asked not to comment by Taylor's family. After Taylor's death, the Department of Economic Security, which licenses facilities like the Bunkhouse, sent a letter to C. Truett Baker at Arizona Baptist Children's Services, asking why it had not been informed of the earlier explosion. "The findings indicate that the agency has no documentation to verify that a previous serious incident involving this staff person on June 26, 1992, was reported either to the licensing unit or the placing agencies of the children involved," the letter said.

Baker denies allegations that the blowup went unreported to DES.
In January 1993, police were called to the Taylors' apartment to settle a family fight. Eric was leaving and taking his daughter, who was then a few weeks shy of her first birthday. Taylor and Sonji engaged in a tug of war with the child in the parking lot of the apartment complex. Sonji and the baby fell, and the baby struck her head; Taylor was initially charged with aggravated assault, and Sonji was charged with the same when police reviewed the file. In March the charges were dropped.

Taylor's friends were struck by how devoted he was to both children. When he was off duty, he always seemed to have Sonji's boy with him--at games, sometimes at work--so much so that Taylor's friends thought Sonji was taking advantage of him. When the child came down with chicken pox, Taylor stayed home from work to care for him. They envied the joy he seemed to get from the children, and how easily he seemed to get along with them.

He could not get along with his wife. The marriage lasted little more than a year. On July 19, 1993, Eric Taylor blew up during an argument with Sonji, and she called the police, who hauled him off to jail.

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Michael Kiefer