Meriweather part of shooting probe

Florida police seek to question Patriot about Feb. 28 incident

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By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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Five years ago, Brandon Meriweather was cleared of criminal liability after he fired a handgun during an assault on his University of Miami teammate.

Now, the Patriots Pro Bowl safety is embroiled in another firearms controversy, with a lawyer alleging yesterday that Meriweather shot two men in the head during an early-morning street fight last month.

Detectives have concluded that Meriweather was present at the Feb. 28 shooting in Apopka, Fla., and are trying to arrange through his criminal defense lawyer to question him, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are not prepared at this time to characterize or disclose Mr. Meriweather’s status in this case, though we do seek to interview him,’’ said Captain Angelo Nieves in a prepared statement.

A lawyer for the victims — Quentin Taylor, 24, and Nico Stanley, 23 — waged a Boston radio media blitz, asserting that the two told him Meriweather, 27, fired the bullets that wounded them. Taylor suffered serious facial injuries and initially was hospitalized in critical condition. Another bullet grazed Stanley’s head.

Both victims grew up in Apopka with Meriweather, and all three played for the high school football team.

“That’s who pulled the gun,’’ Florida attorney John Morgan told WEEI yesterday, quoting the victims as accusing Meriweather. “That’s who shot us.’’

A close relative of Meriweather who witnessed the incident said otherwise. The relative, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said Meriweather was unarmed and acting as a peacemaker when a friend of Taylor opened fire, spraying bullets that narrowly missed Meriweather.

The witness said Meriweather had no reason to harm anyone, particularly because the two men trading punches — Taylor and Cedric Payne Jr. — are related to him.

“Brandon wasn’t taking sides in the fight because they’re both his cousins,’’ the relative said.

The controversy began at the Blue Jeans Lounge in Apopka, a popular neighborhood bar Meriweather has frequented. As a melee erupted around closing time, Stanley’s sister became in volved in a physical confrontation with Payne, the witness said.

After the melee, a number of patrons, including Meriweather, rode 2 miles to Payne’s residence in Apopka to continue the party. In the meantime, Nico Stanley went elsewhere to pick up Taylor, then rode to Payne’s house to confront him over the incident with Stanley’s sister, according to the witness.

The fight erupted on an otherwise quiet residential street shortly after 2 a.m.

“When Quentin came full force at Cedric, Brandon jumped in the middle to try to break up the fight,’’ their relative said. “Brandon had no influence on the fight and he didn’t have a gun on him.’’

As Meriweather jostled between his two cousins, one of Taylor’s friends, whom the witness identified at Anton Massey, drew a handgun and fired at Payne, mistakenly striking Taylor and Stanley. The witness said the alleged shooter is not a friend of Meriweather and Meriweather played no other role in the incident but peacemaker.

The bullet entered Taylor’s cheek, dropping him to the pavement.

“It was very scary,’’ Meriweather’s relative said. “Once the gunshots went off, everybody took off running. I was the only person still there because Quentin fell directly at my feet.’’

The witness recalled screaming, “Help him, help him, pick him up.’’

“That’s when another guy came over and threw Quentin in the car and rushed him to the hospital,’’ the witness said.

By then, Meriweather was gone, having headed for home, his relative said.

“Brandon was very shaken up by it,’’ the relative said.

Meriweather’s lawyer, Adam Swickle, said he has discussed the case with the sheriff’s office but declined to say if or when Meriweather would speak with investigators.

“We are conducting our own investigation,’’ Swickle said. “Beyond that, I can’t say anything.’’

Efforts to reach Meriweather were unsuccessful.

The Patriots said, “We are aware of the reported allegation, but do not have any additional information.’’

The sheriff’s statement said police responded to emergency calls at the time of the shooting, “but no activity, suspects or scene could be established or located with any certainty at the time of the calls.’’ An investigation was launched after authorities learned the victims had been transported by friends to Florida Hospital Apopka.

Detectives have since interviewed Taylor and Stanley, but witnesses generally have been reluctant to fully cooperate, according to Morgan and Meriweather’s relative.

Morgan also made clear that Meriweather may indeed have played no role in the shooting. The lawyer acknowledged he has “a lot of doubt’’ about the veracity of his clients’ allegations.

The sheriff, meanwhile, asked for witnesses to come forward and issued a warning to anyone who might impede the investigation.

“I would caution that investigators are following up on any reports of anyone assisting the shooter in this case or is aware of any evidence or firearm,’’ Nieves said.

Law enforcement authorities have not publicly identified a suspect in the shooting.

Massey, 28, has a criminal record, including felony convictions for burglary and attempting to flee from police in a high-speed chase. He could not be reached for comment.

The bartender at the Blue Jeans Lounge, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to speak with the media, said she was familiar with Meriweather from his visits there. She said he was always respectful — “Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am, thank you, ma’am’’ — and once autographed a football for her grandson.

She said she did not recall any unusual behavior by Meriweather or his acquaintances the night of the incident.

“All I’m about on weekend nights like that is pouring Long Island iced teas and gin and juice,’’ the bartender said.

Meriweather’s high school coach, Richard Darlington, said the Pro Bowler gave no indication of any turmoil in his life when he visited the school Tuesday.

“He was his normal, happy, appreciative self,’’ Darlington said. “He wasn’t acting like anything was up.’’

Though both victims played for Apopka High, neither was a teammate of Meriweather when he led the Blue Darters to the Florida Class 6A football title during his senior year in 2001. Taylor was a freshman in the program, but did not play for the varsity, and Stanley was an eighth-grader.

Their paths later diverged. Meriweather starred at Miami and became New England’s top pick (24th in the first round) in 2007, while Taylor cut short his football career at the University of Mississippi by quitting the team after he reportedly was caught smoking marijuana. He later played for Georgia Southern.

Apopka football staffers said they have no knowledge of Stanley playing after high school.

At the time of the shooting, Taylor was free on $30,000 bond after he was charged in January with attempted sexual battery and lewd and lascivious conduct involving a girl younger than 17.

As for Meriweather, his early life was not easy. His mother gave birth to him in her early teens and he was raised first by his grandmother, then by legal guardians. He told reporters during his years at the University of Miami that at least nine of his cousins had gone to prison.

A devastating hitter on the field, Meriweather might have been drafted higher if not for the shooting incident — police determined he fired three rounds in self-defense with a registered handgun — and his role in a brawl between the Miami and Florida International football teams. He was suspended for a game for stomping on opponents while they lay on the ground.

As a Patriot, Meriweather has yet to miss a regular-season game. He played in the 2007 Super Bowl and was named to the last two Pro Bowl teams.

Greg A. Bedard, Shalise Manza Young, and Steve Silva of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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