Timothy Da’Shaun Taylor’s lawyers say their client doesn’t know what happened to Brittanee Drexel, a teen who went missing on a spring break trip to Myrtle Beach in 2009. But federal prosecutors say they suspect Taylor knows more than he’s said.
A polygraph in the last 30 days affirmed their belief, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday.
Taylor’s name has come up “time and time again” in their investigation into Drexel’s disappearance, Holliday said. And federal investigators seem to be hoping Taylor will say more under the pressure of federal prison time for a 2011 crime the state convicted him of four years ago.
Hearings for that case — an armed robbery of a Mount Pleasant McDonald’s — played out like a game of chess in a U.S. District courtroom in Charleston on Wednesday, each side apparently aiming to call the other’s bluff with cracking the Drexel case as the ultimate checkmate.
Taylor’s attorney, Mark Peper, said that federal prosecutors offered them a deal: tell us where Drexel is and we’ll drop the charges in the robbery case.
But Peper says Taylor had “no involvement” in Drexel’s disappearance. Taylor, who was 17 when Drexel disappeared, “was in a third period class at Lincoln High School” at the time informants told police they saw him at the “stash house” where they believe Drexel, who was 17, was being held against her will, sexually assaulted and killed, Peper said.
He added that he and his client have met with federal prosecutors and investigators three times, helping where they could in the Drexel case.
But prosecutors, who say they had no intention of dropping charges in the robbery case, seem sure that Taylor knows more than he’s said about Drexel.
Holliday says two plea deals were on the table for Taylor in the robbery case, pending the outcome of a polygraph exam.
Taylor failed the polygraph, leaving him with an offer on the worst of the two deals, Holliday said, adding that most of the questions Taylor failed to tell the truth on were related to Drexel and the Drexel case.
Deal or no deal?
The plea agreement offered to Taylor hinged on him pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit a robbery defined under the federal Hobbs Act. In exchange, he would be sentenced to no less than a decade and no more than 20 years in federal prison, escaping a lengthier sentence if he was convicted by a jury on all of the counts against him.
A caveat in the deal offers Taylor one way out of at least 10 years in prison: provide a full and truthful account of all past criminal activities, pass a polygraph to prove it and federal attorneys will argue for Taylor to receive a lesser sentence.
Holliday says that get-out-of-jail (eventually) card could apply before or after the start of Taylor’s sentence. While Taylor’s defense team had fingers crossed for a dismissal Wednesday, prosecutors seemed to be listening closely for that long-awaited break in the Drexel case Holliday says they’ve hoped for.
Prosecutors leaned forward in their seats as Taylor took a podium to formally accept or deny the plea agreement.
Taylor took the deal, pausing at times to consult with his attorneys as the judge asked him a string of questions to confirm he knew the terms of the agreement. Before changing his plea, Peper argued a motion for the case to be dismissed under the grounds of double jeopardy, saying prosecutors were angling to punish Taylor a second time for the same crime he was punished for in state court.
Judge David Norton took the motion “under advisement,” agreeing to rule on it on a later date, weighing the facts after the formality of the change of plea hearing.
If the judge rules in favor of the motion to dismiss, the case against Taylor and the plea he entered Wednesday will be dropped, Peper said.
If he denies it, Taylor could be going to federal prison.
Calling a bluff
Calling a bluff
Calling a bluff
“There are no winners here,” Peper said, in the sense that Drexel still has not been found and his client was going to prison because of it. Peper said that Tuesday night as he made last-minute preparations for what he added has been a difficult case. If they went through with a trial, Taylor could face up to life in prison for the armed robbery he was convicted of in a state court in 2013. Taylor served two years of probation under the Youthful Offender’s Act in that case — a better deal than his two co-conspirators got when they pleaded guilty.
One conspirator received 25 years in prison. The other served 10 months.
That was one of the reasons, federal attorneys say, Taylor should be punished under federal law, but admitted they only found the discrepancy in justice after Taylor was fingered as a suspect in Drexel’s disappearance by multiple sources.
“The United States learned of the defendant’s participation in the McDonald’s robbery, as well as his subsequent punishment, in the course of investigating a separate crime —the abduction and murder of a teen-aged girl in the Myrtle Beach and McClellanville areas. The defendant is a subject in that investigation,” U.S. Attorney Beth Drake noted in the government’s response to Peper’s motion to dismiss Tuesday.
Local, state and federal authorities have been trying to find out what happened to Drexel ever since her disappearance from a Myrtle Beach hotel on April 26, 2009.
FBI agents say they suspect the Rochester, N.Y., teen was held against her will for several days before she was killed in the McClellanville area.
The last signal from Drexel’s cellphone pinged just north of the town in an area known as South Santee, where Taylor lives.
Taylor was arrested last July on federal charges stemming from the McDonald’s robbery in which he drove the getaway car. An FBI agent admitted at a bond hearing for Taylor the following month that they sought the charges, in part, because they suspect Taylor was involved in the Drexel case.
Jailhouse informants told police Drexel was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, trafficked, killed and dumped in an alligator pit in McClellanville. One of the informants, now serving more than 25 years for manslaughter, told authorities he saw Taylor and others sexually assaulting Drexel at a “stash house.” The informant said Drexel tried to escape while he was there, but she was dragged back into the house and killed.
Investigators held a news conference last June in McClellanville, dropping the bombshell that Drexel was no longer considered “missing,” but was suspected to have been killed in the area. They asked for anyone with any information to come forward. But Holliday says they haven’t had much luck with people willing to say what happened in the area.
The FBI is offering a $25,000 reward in the case for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Myrtle Beach Police Department at 843-918-1382, the CUE Center for Missing Persons’ 24-hour tip line at 910-232-1687 or the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI.