On the night of Nov. 25, 2007, police believe the group — all teen-agers at the time — drove in a rented SUV to Miami. At about 1:40 a.m. the next morning, they broke into the home looking for a stash of cash, according to police reports.
Rivera, according to police reports, kicked in the master bedroom door where Taylor and his girlfriend were sleeping alongside their infant daughter. Taylor grabbed a machete he kept near the bed and charged. Rivera, police believe, shot Taylor in the groin before escaping. The football player was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he died the following day.
A tip led Miami-Dade homicide detectives to Fort Myers. Rivera and three others all confessed to their roles in the shootings and were charged with murder, according to Miami-Dade police. In Florida, someone who commits certain felonies — in this case, armed burglary — that result in a death can be charged with murder.
Investigators traced Mitchell and Wardlow’s cellphone signals traveling from Fort Myers to Miami the night of the doomed burglary, according to police reports. The two phones were also traced communicating with each other near Taylor’s Palmetto Bay house.
Rivera’s phone was tracked in use along the stretch of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley returning from Miami to Fort Myers that morning. The gun is believed to have been tossed in the swamp along the interstate.
Toll records also placed the group crossing Alligator Alley in a sports utility vehicle rented for them by a Fort Myers woman. Another young woman told police that the group all showed up at her house after the break-in, leaving behind “burglary tools,” according to an arrest warrant.
Police also found an imprint of a Nike Shox sneakers on the kicked-in bedroom door; Rivera later admitted to owning the same-style shoes, according to snippets of his heavily redacted sworn statement.
During his interview, he grew increasingly nervous but was given pizza and Coca-Cola by detectives. Detectives pressed Rivera to come clean. His eyes watered, according to one police report.
Miami-Dade Detective Larry Belyeu, according to the police report, discussed how “the death of Sean Taylor, a National Football League player, was horrific. Mr. Taylor was not a drug dealer and that he was a hero to the youth all over America,” according to the police report.
Rivera confessed after that, but the details of his statement to police have never been revealed in public. By state law, most evidence in criminal cases is public record, but not anything deemed the “substance” of a confession.
Judge Murphy, early in the case, instituted the gag order and reviewed evidence before it was released to the media. He has consistently said he wanted to protect the rights of the accused and avoid having to move the trial to another county because of a jury pool tainted by publicity.
Over objections from media outlets, Murphy also closed the courtroom during key pre-trial hearings dealing with what evidence will be presented to jurors.
Venjah Hunte, the man police say drove the band of burglars from Fort Myers to Miami, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in May 2010. He will serve 29 years in prison and has agreed to cooperate against the others, although it is unknown if prosecutors will call him to testify against Rivera.