Join Date: Jun 2000
Death of a Prospect... recent Dernell Stenson article (long)
I recently found this long, informative article on the murder and subsequent investigation of same. It's the most in-depth report I've seen. I couldn't find the date of the article but assume it's recent as I receive a daily Google search list of all articles mentioning the Cincinnati Reds.
This article is shocking, graphic, and includes some bad language. I hope I haven't broken any rules in presenting it here, but thought others would be as interested in the account as I am.
I loved Dernell and thought he had a huge upside. Every time I think of his tragic death it brings tears to my eyes and a huge sense of loss to my heart.
DEATH OF A PROSPECT
Understanding a young ballplayer's perplexing murder.
by TAYLOR BRUCE / Oxford American
Dernell Stenson, a six-one, 225-pound lefty from west Georgia previously lauded by the Boston Red Sox as Mo Vaughn’s replacement, joined a hundred and eighty players in the prestigious Arizona Fall League in October 2003. For about seven weeks, he and other prospects competed in front of suits and scouts who studied them like buyers at a yearling auction. By the time Stenson arrived in Arizona, he’d spent six weeks in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds, and was now one of five prospects representing the Reds in the Fall League. (The arrangement was last-minute: Another prospect, Wily Mo Peña, had backed out of the assignment.) While in Cincinnati, Stenson spent a few weeks impressing some, but his long-term role with the team was still questionable. So Arizona was a good test for a player trying to make next season’s club.
He hit a groove early, power balanced with patience. After eighteen games in Arizona, Stenson was batting .394, third-best among all players, on track to contend for MVP honors. People again took notice of a talent once rated above Lance Berkman and David Ortiz. Things were finally coming together.
And that was it.
His murder was described as “execution-style” in several newspapers, television reports, and Internet postings. ESPN ran a thirty-second piece on SportsCenter delivered by one of the show’s usually ironic sportscasters who was now somber and uninflected.
I’d known the victim from a distance, when he was the seventeen-year-old baseball star in our hometown of LaGrange, Georgia. (He dated one of my sister’s friends, and his father drove my schoolbus.) Stenson held prominence in our small town as an athlete of national caliber. He already seemed fabled. I’d stood at second base a few times—thrust into varsity batting practice or soft-toss scrimmages as an eighth-grader—while he laced top-spinning grounders that flicked up brickdust and handcuffed me, leaving thread marks in the pale of my forearms. All the juniors and seniors were better than me—quicker hands, more powerful bats, slightly wiser—but Stenson was scary good.
He was the kid Dixie Youth coaches flipped coins to draft, year after year.
In high school, rather than allow Stenson to hit, competing teams would walk him, even as the game’s lead-off batter, a deliberate break from common baseball sense. Pro scouts followed him in throngs throughout the state, showing up in Griffin, Peachtree City, and Jonesboro. When he signed with Boston, he shot through the minor-league system, and was ranked by Baseball America as a top Red Sox up-and-comer. No one flinched.
Execution-style. The hyphenated modifier, usually in the lead of printed reports, overpowered a reader.
The sportswriter Joseph Reaves of The Arizona Republic began to map out the events surrounding the killing for weeks after the murder. Soon two very different stories stood side-by-side: One was a simple carjacking gone horribly wrong; the other was a conspiratorial narrative, involving an obsessive ex-girlfriend and thugs for hire. Both were tragedies, but juxtaposed they fueled a confusion about who Stenson was compared to how and—the stubborn refrain at the end of his life—why he died the way he did. For weeks, the headlines provided a string of conjectures—PROTECTED WITNESS IS SUSPECT...STENSON SOUGHT POLICE PROTECTION BEFORE MURDER...STENSON'S FORMER GIRLFRIEND QUESTIONED—and stirred doubt in those close to Stenson who struggled to accept the possible randomness of his death. Every attempt—by family, teammates, newswriters, even detectives—to straighten out the logic behind his murder wound back into a narrative that was anything but straight. Sure, the headlines were technically true, lead Arizona prosecutor Cathy Hughes said, but the temptation was to force the pieces together. “It’s hard to believe that a promising life can be snuffed out like that,” Hughes said. “If you can make it a murder-for-hire, it’s easier to hate.”
Two weeks after the murder, another headline in The Arizona Republic—PROBE INTO MURDER OF REDS’ PLAYER TAKING BIZARRE PATH—suggested even further that this was a story that would defy a simple unfolding.
Sugar Daddy’s is a bar in Scottsdale where AFL players unwind after practice, gathering at sundown in small clusters either on the garden patio or in the maze of flamboyant lounges and barrooms inside. The night of Stenson’s murder, two men stood outside the bar—David Griffith, a Pima Indian from the reservation in the Valley, and a wiry nineteen year old named Reginald “Rio” Riddle. They surveyed the cars pulling up, looking for one that would fetch a good price on the black market. Considering the salaries and tastes of some of the AFL’s prospects, Sugar Daddy’s was as good a spot as any.
A week prior, Rio had arrived in Arizona from Chicago, delivering a blue compact Daewoo belonging to a cousin named Robert “Famous” Maye, a former member of the Gangster Disciples, Chicago’s largest street gang.
Famous had convinced both Rio and Rio’s older half-brother, Kevin Riddle, to drive the car to Phoenix, where Famous was living incognito in the Federal Witness Protection Program after testifying against members of the Disciples.
Rio was more than willing to leave a dishwashing gig at Denny’s for the promise that, as he said, “Famous had good jobs for us.” Investigators suspect these jobs centered on drugs.
The only problem was that Rio and Riddle had delivered the blue Daewoo without the eleven thousand dollars that had been hidden in its trunk. The money had been confiscated after a DEA agent, patrolling the highway, pulled Rio over in St. Louis and searched the car. (Under federal law, an amount that large can be confiscated by authorities until proven to be legitimate.)
For Rio, replacing the eleven thousand dollars had become a desperate situation.
Famous introduced his cousins to Griffith, who was recently out of prison, shortly after they arrived in town.
When they showed up together at Sugar Daddy’s that Tuesday night to collaborate on a crime that would change their lives, and end another, Rio and Griffith had known each other for only a few days.
That Tuesday night, sometime after 10 p.m., Stenson pulled up in a onyx-black Isuzu Rodeo with bright chrome rims.
“That’s the one,” Griffith said.
Stenson parked in a shadowy corner of the back lot and walked into the bar. He stayed less than an hour, buying a round of shots for several teammates and talking to a local girl he knew. He left alone and walked back to his car. Griffith waited nearby.
When Stenson was near the driver’s side of the Rodeo, Griffith approached him. Rio, standing at a street corner, said he heard something like a firecracker. When Rio got to the car, Stenson was shoved into the back, his wrists bound with plastic cable ties. Blood bubbled up on his temple.
Griffith drove; Rio got in the back with Stenson. They headed west. Loud music boomed out of the two ten-inch speakers in the Rodeo’s wayback.
Griffith ranted, demanding money. Periodically, he looked back and waved a black and gray .357 at Stenson. Rio, armed with his own pistol, watched. At one point, Stenson argued with Griffith, denying that he had a cellphone on him.
They drove along streets whose names made the desert seem pleasant—Sunset, Rio Verde, and Happy Valley—and passed through, or near, municipalities like Sun Lakes, Queen Creek, Surprise, and Carefree.
Rio would later tell police that the plan had been to take Stenson to an ATM (they’d found only $80 in his wallet), then to Stenson’s apartment to grab his television and other valuables. But Stenson informed them, falsely, that he lived with several roommates. So Griffith kept on driving, but without a clear strategy.
After forty-five minutes, Griffith stopped the Rodeo on a dirt road. He slung open the door, went to the other side, and jerked Stenson out of the back. He told Rio to unlace one of Stenson’s shoes and tie it around his wrists, pointing the gun in Stenson’s face all the while. “I’m gonna kill this mother****er,” he said.
Then he made Stenson sit up front.
As they sped off, Rio, still in the back, found a cellphone on the floorboard. “Thought you didn’t have no cellphone,” Griffith said. “Who’d you call? Who’d you ****in’ call? Whose number is this?”
“No one answered,” Stenson told him. “No one, I swear.”
Rio smelled the sharp tang of urine. Stenson grew quiet and still for the rest of the drive.
Empty baseball fields lit the dark route through the Valley. They ended up in Chandler, just north of the Gila River Indian Community.
Griffith pulled up behind a Blazer parked in front of a modest one-story home.
Apparently lost and growing agitated, he unthinkingly placed the .357 on the console between himself and Stenson. As Griffith began to make a U-turn, Stenson, who’d barely moved for the last hour, lunged for the gun with his bound hands. But Griffith snatched it first.
One shot was fired, then another two in rapid sequence. Stenson pushed open his door and attempted to dive from the speeding Rodeo, but his right leg got tangled in the seatbelt.
Griffith floored the accelerator, firing more shots as he dragged Stenson, facedown, a football-field’s length along the asphalt.
Griffith then slammed on the brakes and, with Rio, unhinged Stenson’s leg from the belt. They jumped back into the SUV and sped away, leaving Stenson on the street.
People had seen some of the horror unfold: Mario Corona, who’d been tucked in the back of the parked Blazer with his girlfriend; and a neighbor, Teri Zamora, who called the police. When the initial responders arrived, they found Stenson wheezing, his skin torn from his arms and hands. He died shortly after the EMT pulled onto West Boston Street.
Except for the coaches, LaGrange High was deserted one Sunday in January 2007. Three cars and three trucks were parked behind the gray stucco main building. A dull sky hung above and the air felt absent of winter. This was perhaps the loneliest time for coaches at the Class AAA football and baseball powerhouse. For the state football champions (more often than any other Georgia school these past ten years), the end to autumn meant a long few weeks of waiting for baseball, the second most popular sport.
Other than supervising off-season weight-lifting, designing throwing programs for pitchers, and deliberating about possible recruits, these vigorous and highly successful men existed as coaches in a sort of hibernation. Storytelling was caloric. They talked, in detail if necessary, about the most recent season, other coaches, prospects for next year, and the standby, a few dozen memorable yarns about those athletes who had excelled enough to play beyond their blue-and-silver halls.
The mention of Dernell Stenson, whose #24 jersey hung in a glass case just down the center hall, brought a flow of narrative, improvised and loose and easily retrieved.
“I remember going to Griffin his senior year,” Donnie Branch said, leaning forward. He spit brown into a small Styrofoam cup and he had a cocky, likable assurance. He was head baseball coach at LHS. “And about fifteen scouts waiting on us.”
“Twenty,” Jon Powell said. Powell was his longtime assistant. He didn’t seem comfortable being watched or talking out loud, seemed like he’d be more at ease in a deer stand or throwing batting practice.
“They wouldn’t pitch to him, didn’t give him anything, and we still won 15–0 in five,” Branch said. “Ellis Something—what was his name?—a Toronto scout, he walks up to me and he says, ‘We want to see your boy swing. Can you stay back and let him take some BP?’ And I say, ‘This is their field. And we just waxed ’em. If you want it, you ask.’”
Branch’s eyes guided the story, widening in the right spots, darting from person to person. “So we did. And their coach threw to Dernell and had his guys shag.” He gently squeezed the white cup and spit a string of dark juice into it. The pause communicated some awe.
“He was embarrassed about it,” Powell said.
Steve Pardue spoke without leaning forward in his cushioned rocker armchair. He was head football coach at LHS, and wore an egg-sized state title ring on his finger. “The thing I remember,” Pardue said, his voice lit with incredulity, “were his pop-ups, the pop-ups, the ones he’d just miss, and how high they’d go. I mean major-league pop-ups. That and his box jumps.” The others mmm-hmmed. “He was so smooth in Ironman”—the football team’s end-of-summer agility and strength gauntlet—“if you turned around during his thirty-seconds, you couldn’t hear a thing. I mean, it was the craziest thing. Crazy.” He stretched out the vowel sound of crazy like it was an accordion. “I’ve got his Ironman stuff somewhere.”
“Agile,” Powell said. “The Diamondbacks had him swing with a bunch of triggers one day at practice.”
Branch continued. “They had him hold his knee in mid-air, like a pitcher, and wait for the pitch. Had him try all sorts of triggers. Slide step, hands back, leg kick. Had him open up. It didn’t matter. None of it. Wood didn’t make a difference, either.”
“Strong, too,” Powell said.
“He benched two hundred and eighty pounds the summer before his senior year,” Pardue said, holding up a piece of paper. “Squatted five hundred and we clocked him at 4.55 in the forty.” He scanned down a spread of lines and numbers. “Ah. Twenty-eight box jumps. Not bad for a down lineman.”
Now they really got going, the anecdotes like kindling.
“What about Ware County?” a young coach said. His name was Jason, and he’d brought two bulky scrapbooks, no doubt assembled by his mother, with Daily News clippings, photographs, wrinkled game notes, anything from the three varsity seasons he played with Dernell. Jason was the shortstop. His father, a local attorney who always chewed a cigar, bought Dernell steak dinners for every home run he hit. “This picture is from Ware County.”
“Those idiots chanted for him. We want two-four! We want two-four! Shook the fence.”
“You know, that was the first BP I threw,” Branch said.
“After the concussion?” Pardue asked.
“Yeah,” Powell said.
“I’d gotten KO’ed by a line drive throwing to one of the Westmorelands two months before. Out cold. Right on the temple. And Ware County—what was that second round?—I decided to throw again. And I look up, and guess who’s hitting first?” He spit. “The first swing, first pitch I threw, Dernell drilled a shot right into the L-screen.” Branch flashed a stained grin behind his thin beard.
Jason quickly flipped to some photographs from Dernell’s junior year.
Stenson received the linebacker-high, late-season number of sixty-three when Cincinnati called him up in August 2003, and his jersey hung in an otherwise empty oak locker the size of two phone booths. His locker, toward the back of the spacious clubhouse, had a full view of the spread of men’s toiletries on the long row of sinks in the red and black bathroom. The veterans’ lockers were at the front part of the room. Ken Griffey, Jr., was standing nearby.
“Hey, six-three,” the Reds star said. “You’re in the wrong stadium. I think the Bengals are expecting you next door.”
Stenson shyly introduced himself.
Little ceremony went into Stenson’s call-up from Triple-A Louisville. The Reds simply needed a hot bat, and in mid-August Stenson was it, just another rookie getting his shot. He was in the starting lineup three days after he arrived, lacing a contested home run in his second at-bat, and accounting for three of the Reds’ five hits that day. In his six weeks with the Reds, he started twenty of thirty-seven games.
Griffey, who, because of a leg injury, never shared the outfield with Stenson, said the prospect asked a ton of questions. “In the clubhouse, in the cages, in the dugout,” Griffey said. “He came early, left late.”
“He opened a lot of eyes here,” Griffey said later. “The game up here is different. The game is quicker. But I told him, ‘You’ve made it now. All you need to do is play.’”
Within days of the murder, Riddle got busted driving the Rodeo hours after Stenson’s body was found; Riddle led police to Famous, who in turn led them to Rio; Griffith, after a citywide search, turned himself in two days later, weeping to his mother as police cuffed him on the Pima reservation. All four gave testimonies that revealed the breadth of the story, their connections to one another, the nights leading up to Sugar Daddy’s, the specifics of who did the shooting, and what happened afterwards.
The real question for prosecutor Cathy Hughes and the team of investigators was whether Famous had planned the evening’s crime, and whether he had dropped Griffith and Rio off at Sugar Daddy’s the night of the murder.
But that same week, while detectives were still interviewing these suspects, calls came in about Stenson’s ex-girlfriend, a twenty-four-year-old Indianapolis woman named Jennifer Gaddis.
Thomas Stenson, Dernell’s older brother, called first. He informed them that Gaddis had accessed Dernell’s voicemail and e-mail, and that she’d phoned Dernell’s relatives to complain about him.
Brandy Lincoln, Stenson’s high-school sweetheart, divulged even more: troubling e-mails sent to her by Gaddis, including one that read, “I hope he is fearful for his life, cause if I see him, I will end it!!!”
A man from Seattle named DaShawn Patrick, who previously worked with Gaddis, also called the police after seeing the story on ESPN. He told police that he believed that Gaddis had posed as Stenson’s wife to access Stenson’s bank information. It worried him, too, that upon calling Gaddis to console her, she sounded oddly unemotional. “She said she was going shopping with her mother,” he told police.
“Whenever you have a high-profile case,” Hughes said, “the phones ring off the hook.” Investigators follow these leads, she said, which usually prove fruitless. “Callers assume they have something pretty valuable.”
“It was clear that they [Griffith and Rio] were the two,” Hughes said. “It was not clear whether Jennifer Gaddis was involved.”
Although the calls might not have been enough to make Jennifer Gaddis a legitimate suspect, investigators discovered that Stenson had filed a restraining order against her after a series of threats. They were suddenly primed for a much more complicated investigation. With Griffith and others still in custody, two investigators flew to Indianapolis to find Jennifer Gaddis.
Stenson’s on-again-off-again relationship with Gaddis began in 2000, when his PawSox team, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, played a series against the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. During their relationship, Stenson dated other women, and had girlfriends in Atlanta and Syracuse. Things with Gaddis began to unravel in 2002, Stenson’s sixth minor-league season and by far his worst. That May, six months into her pregnancy with Stenson’s child, Gaddis told him that she’d had a miscarriage. Stenson sent Gaddis several checks to cover costs for the pregnancy.
In June of that same year, Gaddis learned that Stenson had fathered a child with a Syracuse woman. Gaddis mailed a note to him in Rhode Island, where he was with the PawSox, saying she was seriously going to kill herself. On receiving the letter, Stenson disappeared, bunkering down in a cheap motel for two days drinking whiskey and, by his brother Thomas’s account, contemplating his own suicide.
PawSox teammate Michael Coleman finally found Stenson and told him that Gaddis’s suicide threat had been a ruse. “When they found him,” Stenson’s agent, Stanley King, said, “he was dazed and disheveled, not in a good state of mind. Gaddis called me the first night he went missing, wanting to get Dernell a message. I thought, ‘Who would play these games?’ It was totally out-of-hand.”
Later that summer, Gaddis tapped into Stenson’s e-mail account and retrieved the e-address of Brandy Lincoln, Stenson’s high-school sweetheart. Using an alias, Gaddis began corresponding with Brandy Lincoln. She forwarded angry e-mail exchanges she’d had with the Syracuse woman and listed fictitious women she said Stenson had been seeing. Lincoln, who’d kept an open relationship with Stenson during her university years at Spelman, said she let Gaddis “vent,” considering her emotionally unsteady but not necessarily dangerous.
Stenson eventually discovered what Gaddis had been doing but, for some reason, didn’t break up with her.
In late 2002, a year before his murder, Stenson signed a minor-league contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Reds affiliate. That winter, Gaddis told him that she’d become pregnant again. Stenson assured her that once the baby was born, he would place the child on his insurance policy. In the meantime, he wrote her several large checks, ranging from $500 to $2,000, for everything from doctor visits to apartment expenses.
About nine months later, after Stenson’s stint with the Reds and his arrival in the Arizona Fall League, Gaddis mailed him a photo and birth announcement of their baby son, Dekari. Stenson set the photo next to one of Kobe, his son with the Syracuse woman. At the same time, perhaps because of his involvement with other women, Gaddis began
sending him violent, threatening text messages.
The final text to Stenson stated bluntly, U BETTER PRAY I NEVER SEE YOU U AGAIN. I SWEAR DERNELL U R WORTH A MURDER CHARGE 4 & THAT IS ALL U R WORTH. It was enough of a threat to generate a restraining order.
Scottsdale police phoned Gaddis about the hysterical texts she’d been sending, and left her a voicemail. After speaking to police, Gaddis e-mailed Lincoln:
So I am thinking (hoping actually) something bad has happened to him. So I call the officer and he starts asking me questions about my threats to the bastard and how he is scared for his life??? Mother ****er, you are a ***** if you were scared before, but I’ll tell your ass what now, you better be scared!! I swear Brandy, please pray for me, Lord give me strength not to commit murder. I keep saying thou shall not kill, but damn it there is an exception for everything.
Detectives received a copy of this and other e-mails after Stenson’s murder. When they flew from Arizona to Indianapolis to meet and question Gaddis, they filled several cardboard boxes with items found in her home that pertained to him: photocopied checks, printed-out minor-league statistics from Pawtucket and Chattanooga, spiral notebooks of poems she’d written, e-mails sent and received, a green folder crammed with papers from an Indianapolis Family Law firm, official medical documents, and copies of online news columns about the case.
Perhaps the most troubling item was the photograph of Dekari found in her bedroom, a copy of the same one she’d sent to Stenson. Pressing her about the suspicious absence of the child, Gaddis, after mild refusal, admitted that it was, in fact, a picture of a friend’s child. She said she’d been furious over Stenson’s relationship with the Syracuse woman; pretending that the child was theirs was an attempt to draw him back in. She had even sent him another photo, five weeks after the first, to show how Dekari had grown. She sent photos to Stenson’s mother as well.
Evidence seemed to pile up against Jennifer Gaddis. Former male acquaintances were interviewed about similar deceptions they’d experienced with her.
Throughout the cross-country investigation, prosecutor Cathy Hughes never fully believed in the murder-for-hire scenario. She saw in the evidence two sets of overlapping, sinister circumstances, but only one of which resulted in murder. “Nothing fits absolutely perfectly,” she said. “You learn that there are coincidences.”
For Hughes and investigators, Jennifer Gaddis would fall into this category. They questioned her over and over again, and finally concluded that she had no part in the crime.
“Every case has unanswered questions,” Hughes said. “My conclusion was that he [Famous] set the crime in motion—to steal a car or maybe rob somebody to get the money back—but I don’t think he expected a murder. I don’t think he ever wanted somebody dead. But there are always unanswered questions.”
Rio was spared a death sentence after a psychological evaluation revealed a mental disorder. He received a life sentence instead, as did Griffith, who insisted all the while that Rio was the shooter. Kevin Riddle received eight years in prison; Famous was released after six months in federal custody.
Cathy Hughes spent extended time in what they call a “free talk” with Rio trying to piece together the murder. “He was not a sophisticated criminal,” she said. “He didn’t have the negativity that Griffith had. I wondered if circumstances had been different for him, if he hadn’t had that brother Kevin and that shirttail relative Maye [Famous], if he hadn’t ever left Illinois, maybe he never would have become a criminal.”
For those surrounding the case—teammates, friends, family, even outsiders—the conclusion of Stenson’s murder as a random act of violence committed by strangers didn’t suffice. When the case arose in talks, these people had a snag, some detail that poked and prodded and prevented easy acceptance.
Thomas Stenson said, “The dudes had $10,000 cash on them. What’s that money for?” Brandy Lincoln struggled over the frequency of Gaddis’s e-mails, her aliases, and her insistence on knowing the details of Stenson’s death. DaShawn Patrick felt unsettled that Gaddis went shopping the day the murder came out on the news. Stenson’s agent Stanley King thought of his client’s imposing physical stature. “He’s the vulnerable one? They pick him?”
Perhaps the conspiracy provides a strange comfort; otherwise, as a random act, Dernell Stenson’s murder reveals too many detours, too many simple choices and twists of fate that could have saved him, and which now plague the mind: If he’d simply left the bar twenty minutes later; if he hadn’t parked in the shadows; if Wily Mo had accepted his assignment; if he’d stuck with football.
A thousand ifs unrealized and gone.
"Enjoy this Reds fans, you are watching a legend grow up before your very eyes" ... DoogMinAmo on Adam Dunn