Most nights, Jean Taliaferro winds up sitting in a chair on the porch, waiting for her grandson to come home. Probably still at the high-school weight room, or out playing basketball, maybe hanging out at the mall. Any minute he'll bound through the front door with his giant smile and broad shoulders — probably on the verge of starvation — and inject life into her modest one-story home off Cartersville Road.
A standout linebacker for Powhatan High School, Tahliek Taliaferro had a monstrous appetite. He loved venison, bacon and eggs, applesauce, macaroni and cheese. And don't even think about fixing him a sandwich. He wanted “the full meal,” says Jean, the grandmother with whom he'd lived since he was a toddler. Just watch. When he comes home, you'd think he hadn't eaten for days.
Once he threw open the door and found his grandmother crying in her bedroom. Knock it off, he told her. “He said, ‘You stop crying because I can’t eat them tears,'” Jean recalls. Surely if he came through the front door today, Tahliek would demand she wipe her tear-soaked cheeks and fix him something. “That boy loved to eat.”
Tahliek, of course, isn't coming home. His life ended June 24 inside a friend's car on Dorset Road, near Flat Rock, after a bullet struck him in the back of the head. There was a brief manhunt for his killers, Ethan and Joey Parrish, and an old-fashioned beef behind the shooting. Ethan, 25, and Joey, 18, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter last week. Ethan faces 11 years in prison; because Joey was a juvenile at the time of the murder, his sentence will be determined by the judge next month.
Ethan pulled the trigger, but Joey is the one who had run-ins with Tahliek. The lawyers for the Parrishes say a girl was involved, alleging that Tahliek assaulted a girlfriend of Joey's; Tahliek's friends say they just didn't like each other.
It would be easy to assume there was racial tension between them — Tahliek was black, Joey's white — especially in a rural county where churches and communities are still divided by skin color. But it was never about race, says Tahliek's family and friends.
“Some people make smart comments, saying [Tahliek] got what he deserved,” says Christen Johnson, a 17-year-old junior at the high school. But she insists it isn't black and white. “Some people are saying it's a racist thing. It's not a racial issue at all.”
Bob Carden, principal of Powhatan High School, says Tahliek's death hasn't led to any problems at the school. No racial division or fights. In contrast, he says, the students have dealt with the killing and the ensuing trial better than anyone expected. “Our kids have handled it extremely well, beyond what you would expect of high-school students,” Carden says. “We've had no issues to my knowledge.”
Things changed in the county with last week's verdict — the jury downgraded the first-degree murder charges to involuntary manslaughter, swayed by the defense's contention that the Parrish boys were scared and intended only to fire warning shots. But the jury was made up of five women and seven men, only one of whom was black. The Taliaferro family is outraged, and spent much of last week protesting on the courthouse lawn. Involuntary manslaughter for two boys who armed themselves with three guns, one of which was an assault rifle, and then invited Tahliek and his friends to follow them?
“That's Powhatan for you,” says Kaa Caputo, Tahliek's mother, who lives in the city. “You think I would get involuntary manslaughter? Of course not.” Caputo's been in touch with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sent its state director, King Salim Khalfani, to the courthouse March 23 to denounce the verdict as racially motivated. Tahliek's murder may not have been racially motivated, but the jury seemed to have no problem buying the Parrish boys' contention that they were afraid of a strapping, young, black man who many people treated as a local celebrity. He was as friendly as they come, his friends say. He even once received a certificate for smiling in elementary school for his trademark grin.
His room in Grandma Jean's house off Cartersville Road contains a small shrine of sorts, the walls covered with certificates and awards and photos, his dresser stacked with trophies and football memorabilia. When visiting his mother in the city, Tahliek often complained that he couldn't sleep, and seemed disturbed by the corner boys he saw near his mother's house in the North Side. He'd go for the weekend, and be back by Saturday morning.
“He was scared to sleep down here,” his mother says. “The furthest he would probably go is Chesterfield Towne Center. He didn't like to go to the clubs.”
Jean is still waiting for him. It's been nine months since her grandson's come through the front door, smiling, asking for something to eat. She sleeps with his picture in her bed at night, and still gets letters from colleges trying to recruit him — Boston College, Florida State University, University of Miami. A U.S. Navy recruiter even called the house a few weeks back. He apologized profusely. He didn't know. “Everytime I get one,” Jean says of the letters and phone calls. “I cry.”
Jean visits the cemetery whenever she needs to speak to Tahliek. It's about five miles down the road, and she usually goes three or four times a week. For the longest time it was every day, often at night, when the pain was too much and she couldn't sleep. She'd grab a flashlight and head down to the graveyard. She keeps busy by working three or four days a week for a maid service. But it's the most difficult in the kitchen, fixing dinner. Standing over the stove, she can only think only of him.
“I say, Lord, where is Tahliek?” S