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Man Charged in Slaying of Athletes' Sister

Police are seeking up to four others in the shooting death of Yetunde Price, sibling of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

September 17, 2003|Richard Fausset and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County prosecutors charged an alleged gang member with murder Tuesday in the slaying of the eldest sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, as investigators continued to search for as many as four other suspects.

Aaron Michael Hammer, 24, appeared briefly in a Compton courtroom Tuesday for his arraignment, which was delayed until Sept. 23, in the killing of 31-year-old Yetunde Price. Watching in silence was Price's stepfather, Richard Williams, whose coaching helped turn Serena and Venus Williams into two of the most dominant tennis players in history.

Williams, who wore a white tennis shirt and kept a cellular phone cord dangling off his cheek, declined to comment to the press.

Hammer, meanwhile, appeared in his blue-and-yellow county jail pajamas. He clearly answered "Yes, I do, your honor," when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John J. Cheroske asked him if he agreed to postpone the arraignment.

Hammer, according to investigators, was outside a suspected drug house in south Compton early Sunday morning when Price, 31, and Rolland Wormley drove by in her white GMC Yukon Denali.

Detectives allege that Hammer and others opened fire after a confrontation between those in the SUV and the people in the yard, Sheriff's Homicide Capt. Frank Merriman said. Detectives believe that at least one other person fired at the SUV.

Sheriff's deputies who responded to gunshots in the neighborhood did not see what happened. But Merriman said detectives have information from witnesses that allowed them to persuade prosecutors to press charges against Hammer, who also was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

"We are still trying to determine what happened before the shooting," Merriman said. "At some point we'll have a better idea what happened; even in court sometimes it cannot be said absolutely what led to a shooting.

"What matters ultimately is who did it and not why," he said.

Investigators believe that an assault weapon recovered from the backyard may be connected to Price's slaying. A law enforcement official familiar with the case said that in addition to Hammer, another gang member was believed to be involved in the shooting.

The fate of Wormley, the driver of the SUV, remained unclear Tuesday. The 28-year-old, who police said is a gang member, remained in custody Tuesday evening on suspicion of violating his parole, based on his actions that night.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, said Wormley would remain in custody pending further investigation into the incident. Sheriff's detectives have requested that Wormley's parole be revoked but have refused to specify what he did to justify such an action.

Since his detention Sunday, Wormley has spoken on the telephone with family members at least twice, said Roni Miller, his half sister.

In those calls, Miller said, Wormley insisted that he and Price never argued with people outside the house. In fact, she said, Wormley said he never stopped the SUV.

"There was never a confrontation," said Miller, 30. "They didn't know anyone in that neighborhood."

Miller said Wormley gave the following account of the fatal evening in his phone calls home:

On Saturday night, he was hanging out at a Compton park near Wilmington Avenue and West Laurel Street with friends. Price, with whom he had gotten engaged in August, was hanging out with his family at the apartment Wormley shares with them.

Price called Wormley and said she was going to pick him up, Miller said. When she arrived at the park, they decided that he would drive because she had consumed alcohol earlier in the evening, Miller said.

The couple began driving back to Wormley's Long Beach apartment, which is about seven miles away. They decided to drive east along West Greenleaf Boulevard because it is a fast surface street. The shooting occurred without warning, according to Miller's account, as they drove by the house on the 1100 block.

"He said they had the music up and they were talking to each other, and the next thing they heard was shots going off," Miller said. "He said it looked like fire through the back window, and it shattered. So he stepped on the gas."

Miller said Wormley didn't realize that Price had been shot until he got to Long Beach Boulevard a few blocks away. He decided to drive her to his apartment. There, Price frantically banged on the door and shouted for relatives, who called 911, Miller said. She was declared dead at the hospital less than a hour later.When Miller returned to the apartment about 3.a.m., she said, police were everywhere. The SUV was parked on the street, with the back window shattered and blood on the passenger door.

Wormley has been in and out of jail since 1996 when he did time for petty theft. In September 1999, he pleaded no contest to unlawful firearms activity and received a year in county jail.

But by August 2001, he was back in court pleading no contest to felony sale of marijuana. He was sentenced to 16 months for a case involving receiving stolen goods.

Wormley was released from state prison in May 2002, but returned in September of that year for violating his parole. He was released again in April and was still on parole at the time of the shooting.

On Tuesday, Miller and other family members said they were convinced that Wormley was an innocent victim. Another sister, Carmelle Wormley, 33, said her brother had "changed his life completely."

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