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Family Came First for Slain Sibling

Tennis stars' half sister was devoted to her children, friends say

September 25, 2003|David Pierson and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

Rolland Wormley said Yetunde Price loved him despite his criminal record. She loved him even though she lived in a half-million-dollar house, and he lived in a tiny Long Beach apartment. She loved him even though he was a parolee working temporary jobs, and she was the half sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

In an phone interview Wednesday -- three days after his release from Los Angeles County Jail on suspicion of a parole violation -- Wormley described what happened Sept. 14, the day he lost Price. She was fatally shot in the passenger seat of her sport utility vehicle as Wormley drove the couple down a Compton street.

The gunshots, he said, came out of nowhere.

"These guys just started opening fire," said Wormley, 28. "We were just innocent passersby. Believe me, if anything, I would go through that myself twice before I let that happen to my girl."

Investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department initially said Price was shot after an argument with people standing outside a house on East Greenleaf Boulevard. But more recently, Sheriff's Capt. Frank Merriman said the car might not have stopped at the house.

Wormley said there was no argument. "We were just driving," he said. "Just driving, man."

"Tunde," as Price was called by friends, grew up in Compton. Last year, she bought a new home in Corona, but despite her successes, the 31-year-old nurse and businesswoman kept close to the black, working-class communities of south Los Angeles County.

Wormley said it was easy for her to travel from the grass courts of Wimbledon to the neighborhoods where she grew up. "She was more down to earth than anything," he said.

Price was one of three daughters born to Oracene Price and Yusef A.K. Rasheed. Oracene later married Richard Williams, and the couple had Venus and Serena. All five sisters considered themselves full-fledged siblings. When they were young, Richard instructed them all in tennis.

The way he tells it -- a story that's now sports legend -- he was hoping to mold at least one daughter into an international tennis star so he could move the family out of Compton.

Although the lessons paid off for Venus and Serena, Price never developed a passion for tennis. But she showed her own ambitions early. At Lynwood High School, she enrolled in honors classes and hung out with high achievers and student government officers, according to Isadore Hall, a Compton City Council member who graduated with her in 1990, and other friends. Soon after high school graduation, Price earned a vocational nursing license.

A year later, as the Williams sisters' tennis talents bloomed, all of the family but Price left Compton for Florida. Venus and Serena began training there under Rick Macci, who had guided the early career of Jennifer Capriati.

Price forged her own path, working as a nurse for nine years at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. She had a son, Jeffrey, with boyfriend Jeffrey Johnson. In 1996, she married developer and contractor Byron Bobbitt. The couple had two children, Justus and Jair, and moved to Moreno Valley. They divorced in 2000, court records show.

Price's children became central to her life, and Barbara Beshears, young Jeffrey's grandmother, said Price was determined to keep her family close. Price, she said, often dropped all three children off at Beshears' house in Compton for baby-sitting. Price stayed good friends with Beshears' daughter, Kolynda Johnson, Beshears said.

With her work and her children, Price had a full life. There was football practice for Jeffrey, 11, cheerleading for Justus, 9, and dancing and acting lessons for Jair, 5, an aspiring rapper.

Price opened a hair salon in Lakewood with her best friend from high school. She also enrolled in a series of college courses, most recently in an effort to become a registered nurse. Beshears and others said Price would often doze off during visits when she sat down on the sofa.

"Venus and Serena's success, that was a phenomenon, but all of that paled in comparison to the love in her children," Bobbitt said.

Price eventually began working part time for Venus and Serena as they became more famous, and their lives became more complicated. Price joined the family at many of the sisters' tournaments, accompanying them to the 1997 U.S. Open as well as Wimbledon.

Friends and family said Price helped untangle the sisters' personal and business affairs, sending out faxes, e-mails and calls from her home. Although Venus and Serena eclipsed her in some ways, friends said, Price still saw them as her little sisters.

The Williams' fortunes trickled down to Price -- a trip to Europe, a Louis Vuitton handbag -- but she maintained an independent life. Many of Price's friends said they were surprised to learn that she had famous sisters. Kamesha Keesee, Price's friend and neighbor in Corona, didn't know of the relationships until she saw Serena Williams sitting next to Price on a TV broadcast.

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