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For Bucs' Aqib Talib, past has been impossible to escape

GARLAND, Texas — The laughter of children and the steady hum of a distant lawn mower were the only sounds last week punctuating the silence and serenity of Charleston Commons, a neighborhood of large, two-story brick homes dotted with satellite dishes.

George Ward, 72, who spent 25 years on the Boston police force before retiring as a sergeant, moved to this suburb northeast of Dallas eight years ago to spend time with his granddaughters, work in his garden and keep tabs of his beloved New England Patriots in the upstairs loft he converted into his man cave.

"I came down here to retire and live a good life," Ward said.

But on March 21, the quiet of this upper-middle-class neighborhood was broken by a burst of gunfire and a wail of sirens rivaling anything Ward had witnessed during his career in law enforcement.

"It really is a miracle nobody was killed," said Garland police spokesman Joe Harn.

Left in the trail of terror were frightened residents, spent shell casings and the fragmented football career of Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib.

But this is not just a matter of a pro athlete struggling to break free of the hangers-on friends and bad influences he grew up with. In fact, Talib's history of responding violently to conflict may have been passed to him through the umbilical cord.

After all, what lessons do you learn as a 10-year-old when your mom settles a dispute over $50 with a steak knife?

"It's just that breaking away is hard for him, but I would agree it would not be bad for him," said Jim Ledford, who coached Talib and his brother Yaqub, 27, at Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas. "I don't want to ever take family members away, but sometimes … "

A fight, then the shots

Police say about 7:30 p.m. on that Monday, Talib, 25, brandished a 9mm handgun and attempted to pistol-whip Shannon Billings, the live-in boyfriend of his sister, Saran Talib, 43.

Earlier in the day, Billings, 40, had scratched Saran's head with his hand and fingernails during a domestic disturbance, according to an arrest warrant. Talib's gun slipped out of his hand in a struggle and jammed when it struck a fence, police say. That's when Billings picked it up and began running down the 900 block of Green Pond Drive, they say.

Talib's mother, Okolo Talib, 58, arrived on the scene, stepped out of her vehicle, aimed her handgun at Billings and fired several shots, witnesses told police. Talib then grabbed the handgun from his mother and fired a couple of rounds at Billings, according to an arrest warrant. None of the shots struck Billings.

Ward said that among the uninjured on the street that day were two children, including Talib's 3-year-old daughter, Kiara.

"(Talib) was down there with two kids, his little girl and boy. I was right there in the window," said Ward, who has lived next door to Saran and Billings for five years. Ward said he didn't see Aqib Talib with a gun.

One of Aqib Talib's attorneys, Frank Perez, said none of the 19 people his legal team interviewed about the incident indicated children were present during the shooting.

"There's been a lot of inaccuracies in the reporting of this incident, and we look forward to the truth coming out," Perez said.

In a conversation after the shooting, Talib told Bowen, the former University of Kansas defensive coordinator, that his mother was the only one who pulled the trigger.

Linda Jones, a teacher at Garland Elementary who lives behind Saran on Citadel Drive, said she and her children had just returned home when the shooting started.

"My kids and I had just come back from riding our bikes," Jones said. "My kids wanted to go on Green Pond and I said, 'No, let's just stay on this side.' I'm thankful we did, or I would've been right there in the middle of it."

Aqib Talib and his mother took off in separate vehicles before police arrived. Last week they surrendered to authorities on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 25 years in prison.

Talib, who was released Wednesday after posting $25,000 bail, has "vigorously denied" all charges through a statement from his attorneys. And in a conversation with a former college coach, Talib also implicated his mother as the only person who fired the gun.

Meanwhile, Okolo received an additional charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm and was released Tuesday after posting a total of $30,000 bail.

Talib was suspended one game by the NFL last season for punching a St. Petersburg cabdriver and vowed to coaches and teammates that he would stay out of trouble.

Start in Cleveland

To understand Talib's troubles, you have to go back to the beginning in Cleveland, before his mother, then named Donna Henry, converted to Islam and gave her four children Muslim names (although they've said they don't practice the religion).

It was before his father, Theodore Henry, left his wife to live in New Jersey, where the boys eventually followed. And it was long before the boys were reunited with their mom in Texas when Aqib started middle school, presumably for a chance at a better future.

He was only 10 years old when his mother spent eight months in prison. According to Cleveland police reports, Donna Henry was arrested for attempted felony assault on May 6, 1996, when she stabbed at a neighbor on Wheelock Avenue in Cleveland.

Virginia Flowers came to Henry's house in an attempt to recover the $50 she had loaned her. They were described as friends, and Henry had helped Flowers move into a house down the street.

When Henry didn't pay her back, Flowers threw a brick through her car window, the police report said. That's when Henry stabbed Flowers in the left upper chest with a steak knife. Flowers was hospitalized and treated for a chest wound.

"She claims she didn't want to kill her, only to let her know what she did was wrong," the report said of Henry's statement to police.

On Oct. 18, 1996, she was sentenced to two to 10 years in the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. Eight months later, her sentence was suspended and Henry was placed on two years' probation.

Her legal troubles didn't end there.

On March, 16, 2000, Dallas County records say, Okolo Talib was arrested for selling alcohol to a minor. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay $700 in fines and court costs.

Burglary, pot, fight

Aqib idolized his brother Yaqub, and both starred in football at Berkner High under Ledford. Yaqub played receiver but wound up accepting a science scholarship to Iowa State University. Ledford said Aqib was bright but "lazy" as a student.

"He tries to do that whole street thing, but don't let that fool you," said former University of Kansas co-defensive coordinator Clint Bowen. "He's very smart. I don't think he ever went to a single class, but he still got a 2.7 (GPA) at Kansas."

In 2007, Cortney Jacobs, a University of Kansas sprinter, gave birth to Talib's daughter, Kiara. Talib's current girlfriend, Gypsy Benitez, has a son about the same age from a previous relationship, according to Talib's high school football coach.

On the field, Talib was a late bloomer who caught the eyes of recruiters after his junior year. He eventually signed with Kansas, where he posted 13 career interceptions and was the MVP of the 2008 Orange Bowl.

But just before his high school graduation in April 2004, Talib broke into a home several doors from where Ledford, his coach, lived and was arrested and charged with burglary. He eventually received two years' probation.

"We see a good side," Ledford said. "Of course, maybe it's because we choose to see the good side."

When rumors surfaced at the 2008 NFL scouting combine that Talib had tested positive for marijuana three times at Kansas, his draft stock fell. His troubles in Tampa Bay began as soon as the Bucs selected him with the 20th overall pick.

There was the fight with teammate Cory Boyd at the NFL rookie symposium; his inadvertently striking Bucs cornerback Torrie Cox in the face with a helmet during an argument with left tackle Donald Penn; the battery charge after he allegedly hit St. Petersburg's David Duggan while Talib was a passenger in his cab, leading to Talib's suspension.

"I'd thought that if he got away, things might settle down for him," Ledford said. "That's what I was hoping, what we all were hoping."

But Ward saw changes in Talib whenever he was around Billings, Saran and Okolo.

"You couldn't talk to him, he's hardheaded," Ward said. "They were loud. He was over here having parties in the offseason and cars were everywhere."

Billings, whose relationship with Saran dates back to their days in Cleveland, is a registered sex offender who assaulted a 14-year-old girl in 1998 when he was 27. Ward keeps a file of Billings' arrests.

Billings' relationship with Saran appears to have ended. He remains in Dallas County Jail, unable to find someone to post the relatively meager $2,500 bail. A few days after the incident, Saran tossed all his belongings in the garbage.

"He doesn't have a friend in the world. He can rot in jail as far as they're concerned," Ward said.

Many on his side

What makes Talib's story different than the typical cautionary tale of a pro athlete gone bad is that so many people see a lot of great qualities in him.

He and his brother held a free football camp at Berkner High recently for about 200 kids. He isn't one to spend lavishly on jewelry or cars. Ledford said Talib helped buy homes for his mother and sister. His father retired from his job stocking shelves at a Kmart distribution center and lives with him in Tampa.

Complicating matters for the Bucs is that NFL teams are prohibited from talking to players or making transactions during the current work stoppage, but the league's code of conduct still will be enforced.

"It's sad. I'd give anything if he could separate himself from that kind of atmosphere, if you will," Ledford said. "When he and I talked the last time, we talked about not putting yourself in those situations. But this one was family, and he's very loyal to his mother. I know how close they were, even here. That's one of the things in his demise right now, the closeness to his family."

Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder and Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

For Bucs' Aqib Talib, past has been impossible to escape 04/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2011 11:43am]
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