Early Christmas morning – a couple of hours before sunrise – Tavares Sledge is scheduled to be released from the Greene County Adult Detention Center.
Wright State basketball coach Billy Donlon will pick him up and drop him off at his car – the 12-year-old Mercury Grand Prix that had the passenger window smashed out by a Fairborn police officer a few months back – and Sledge will make the three-hour drive to Marietta, Ohio to be with his 9-month-old son, Amari, his girlfriend, former WSU volleyball player Alaina McAuley, and her family.
This is the same girlfriend with whom he got into a heated argument Sept. 28 and – in a scenario that looks like it was mishandled on a lot of ends – the confrontation resulted in him ending up arrested and charged with four misdemeanors. In the process, Alaina initially was portrayed by some – and wrongly she now claims – as a victim of domestic violence.
“We’re crossing our fingers for good weather when Tavares drives here on Christmas,” Alaina said. “He got Amari a lot of presents beforehand and he wants to be here to watch him open them. This is our son’s first Christmas and all of us want to share it. My whole family does.”
This is the same family that had Sledge there for dinner on Thanksgiving – just eight days before he reported to the Xenia jail to begin serving the surprising 19-day sentence handed down by Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Root.
“My dad loves Tavares and wanted him here,” Alaina said. “He knows he raised me right and that I’m smart enough to know right from wrong. That fact that I’m still with Tavares – and see him for who he really is – says a lot to my dad.
“On Thanksgiving we went to my grandparents’ house and after dinner we went bowling. We always go bowling.”
Sledge is the most visually impactful player on the Wright State team.
The 6-foot-9, 225-pound junior forward has long, braided hair that he pulls into a thick thatch of a pony tail and his shoulders and arms are covered with a mosaic of tattoos. One needle-and-ink work runs down the back of his right forearm. In large, flowery script, it simply says:
And if life truly imitates art – as Oscar Wilde opined more than a century ago – then that’s what is happening in this saga.
“A lot of people who don’t know Tavares get the wrong impression,” Alaina said. “But his look is completely opposite to the heart inside. That’s the problem here. Looks can sometimes be real deceiving.”
She was talking about that September incident that occurred after she and Amari had driven up from Marietta to spend the weekend with Tavares.
She said they watched the Raiders practice and then stopped by the Nutter Center box office to buy tickets to the circus. Tavares was driving and she said she grabbed his iPod and began going through it because, as she later told police, she thought he was in contact with other girls.
Tavares got upset and wanted the iPod back, but she wouldn’t give it to him.
“I was super (ticked,) so I poked him,” she wrote in her police report.
In the ensuing tussle for the iPod, she now says Tavares grabbed it away from her and his hand caught the left side of her eye and opened a small cut that bled.
Although an on-scene police report claims Alaina said she thought she was intentionally hit, she said that’s not the case:
“It wasn’t an intentional hit. We were fighting over an iPod and I went to take it from him and he held his other hand out. And, well, he’s huge and I got hit in the face and had a little cut.”
In her police report she wrote: “Tavares jumped out of the (parked) car and ran to my side. We both panicked with the blood because I didn’t see right. He then got back in the car and drove me to the WSU Physicians Building and told me I had to get help.”
Instead, she insisted on going to the Fairborn apartment they share and there the argument continued.
She wanted to go back to Marietta with Amari. She said Tavares was in tears and begged her not to leave and, as their voices escalated, a neighbor walking passed the partially open door heard some of the conversation and called police with what she said was a domestic violence situation.
In her 9-1-1- call, the neighbor said the baby was now with Tavares in his parked car and that’s the information that was sent out by police dispatch
When four Fairborn police officers – and soon a WSU officer, too – responded, Tavares was inside his locked vehicle with Amari on his lap. He then sat the baby down on the passenger seat.
According to reports, at least three officers drew their weapons and demanded Tavares step out of the car.
“To be honest, I remember the whole thing and kind of don’t,” Tavares said Saturday from jail. “As soon as the police came to the car I guess they felt frightened so they all drew their guns. I never had four guns pointed at me before. I was a little scared and I kind of blacked out.”
When Sledge didn’t immediately comply one officer hit the driver’s window three times with his flashlight but the glass didn’t break. Another officer said Sledge yelled something through the closed windows about his baby and soon after thata third officer – also with his gun drawn – shattered the passenger window with his baton.
“After they started hitting the window I kind of snapped back to reality and that’s when it hit me to open the door,” Sledge said. “But they broke the window on my son at the same time. I kept trying to reach for Amari when they were trying to pull me out and that’s how everything got out of hand.”
Pieces of glass showered down on the baby who suffered a small cut on the top of his head. The officer said he popped the lock and Tavares – agitated and non-complaint according to the police report – was dragged from the car, pulled to the ground and, with some effort, handcuffed while he lay on his stomach.
Alaina said when police saw she was cut and had blood on her shirt, they assumed the worst:
“My neighbor who called in – her statement was false – and that got the whole thing going. Yeah, we were arguing and there was drama, but there was no domestic violence.
“When the cops showed up, they responded to one scenario, but that’s not how the events had happened. They weren’t completely informed and everything kind of spun out of control. I know Tavares didn’t do some things like he should have. But he reacted the way any father would when he sees guns pointed at the car and someone breaks the window next to your baby’s face.”
Sledge was arrested and charged with four misdemeanor counts: domestic violence, child endangering, resisting arrest and obstructing official business.
“Once at the jail I noted (Tavares’) overall demeanor was very polite and respectful,” Fairborn officer Douglas Collie wrote in his report. “I asked why he was acting so aggressive and non-compliant at the scene. He started, ‘I thought you were going to take my child away from me.’”
Immediately after the incident, Donlon suspended Sledge from the team. But as more and more details have emerged, a story that appeared one way now looks a little different.
“Look, I don’t want to downgrade what happened and yes, Tavares could have handled some things differently, but this was not a man standing in front of a woman beating her up,” Donlon said. “In my mind this was a guy who was having a very bad day. But in no way was this what it initially seemed to be to some people.”
A new start at WSU
That’s the way it’s often been for Tavares Sledge.
Early on – as he was growing up in Bay Minette, Alabama – he seemed destined for bad times. And yet he found good, though not at first.
He didn’t know his real father and then when he was in the seventh grade, his stepdad, Mingo, was shot dead after a drug deal. A friend Ray Ray was murdered in a dispute over a girl, as well.
Those casualties and others are commemorated on his arm, where he has a tattoo of the grim reaper and a trail of tears.
As an eighth grader, Tavares was getting in trouble on the streets and in school, so his mother and grandmother sent him to a great aunt who lived four hours away near Tuscaloosa and was married to Thad Fitzpatrick, a former college assistant who was now the head basketball coach at Brookwood High.
Tavares turned his life around there and played well enough that he was recruited by the likes of Duquesne, East Carolina, Missouri State and WSU.
“From the time he got here, I’ve seen him grow in a very positive way,” said WSU athletics director Bob Grant. “I really like the kid and I think everyone in our department feels the same way. That’s why I’m as sick and troubled about this situation as I’ve ever been about one of our student athletes.”
Not only has Sledge improved as a ball player since coming to WSU, but Donlon said he has close to a 3.0 grade point average.
“The thing that stands out most, though, is his heart,” Donlon said. “He’s just a giving kid.”
That’s part of what attracted Alaina – who had been a three-sport star at Warren High in Marietta – and was a senior on the WSU volleyball team when Tavares came to school.
“He came from such a hard background and he was so appreciative of everything he got in college,” Alaina said. “He‘s determined to make something of this opportunity and he set high goals and worked hard toward them.”
The two fell in love. Alaina eventually became pregnant and early this year Amari was born. Although she had moved back to Marietta for the start of this school year – and will return to WSU in January to finish her degree – Alaina often has visited campus with their son.
“Whatever disagreements we did have, I can never speak ill of Tavares’ time with Amari,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better dad and neither could Amari. Oh my gosh, he loves his little boy.”
And right now it’s the thing that buoys Sledge the most, he said:
“My little boy, that’s my world there. I just want to see him.”
Surprised by the sentence
“That day we got into that argument, everything ended up blown out of proportion by people who didn’t have all the facts,” Alaina said. “And when I tried to explain what happened, nobody seemed to want to hear it.
“After that I felt pretty betrayed and since then I’ve refused to talk to anybody about it – until now.”
Michael Brush, Tavares’ attorney, presented Alaina’s assertions to the prosecutor and eventually a plea agreement was reached. The domestic violence and child endangering charges – which didn’t reflect what happened, he said – were replaced by two counts of disorderly conduct.
Sledge did plead guilty to resisting arrest and obstructing official business and Brush said he was under the assumption that his client would be put on probation and required to take education classes.
But then came the bombshell at the Nov. 19th sentencing. Judge Root – as was her discretion – handed Sledge the 19-day jail sentence.
“We were 100 percent surprised,” Brush said. “At no point did anyone of is think jail was an option. There’s not a person I talked to, whether it’s an attorney, a judge or otherwise, that hasn’t said the same thing. It’s pretty much complete an utter shock.”
Sledge summed it up best:
“I made a mistake that day and I admitted that to the judge. But I feel we all made mistakes that day, not just me. I feel like I got overwhelmed by everything and then it just all came down on me.”
Prosecutor Betsy A. Deeds did not return a phone call to weigh in on the matter and Judge Root is now on medical leave and was unable to respond.
Twice, Brush filed motions to have Root reconsider her sentence.
The first time his request was accompanied by a letter signed by 21 campus and community leaders, including WSU president David Hopkins.
“At the end of the day it was hard for us to understand the reasoning putting a first-time misdemeanor offender in jail for 19 days and taking him out of the WSU community and the positive structure it provides him,” Grant said. “I just seemed counter-productive”
Root denied that request, as she did a latter effort that included responses from the Greene County jailers who noted Sledge’s good behavior and efforts to assist other inmates.
Alaina said before Tavares went to jail, he went to all his professors and finished his classwork and took his tests: “Then he went and bought all his presents for Amari. He asked the judge if he could please get this over with so he could be there for his son’s first Christmas. That’s all he wanted.
“But when he went to turn himself in a day early so he’d be home for Christmas Eve, he was told the judge specifically said he had to go in on Friday Dec. 6. That prevented him from getting out on Christmas Eve. But you know what? I’ve been proud of him. From what I can tell, he’s handling himself well in there.”
She said Tavares hasn’t let her or their son visit – he doesn’t want them to see him in jail – but they talk by phone every day.
Sledge gets three visitors a week and Donlon has been a regular, as have Wright State players.
“Coach Donlon has been great,” he said. “And Matt Vest wrote me a letter two days ago. I got it yesterday and it really touched me.”
Whether Sledge rejoins the team on the court this season – or takes a redshirt year and sits out the rest of the games – is still being decided.
“As of now I really don’t know,” he said. “I’m going to sit down and talk with the team and Coach Donlon when I get out and we’ll figure it out as a family. I really want to play because I love the game, but I don’ know if it’s the smartest thing to do right now.”
In the meantime, he’s making the most of his situation, Brush said:
“To be honest, I didn’t expect Tavares to be the kind of kid he’s turned out to be. Every time I go there, one of the deputies says something like ‘he’s a hard worker…A good kid…What’s he doing in here?’”
Alaina has an answer for many of the questions:
“A lot of people had their minds made up on this before they knew what happened. They already had written the ending to Tavares’ story. But that’s not who he is and he’s going to write his story the way it should be.”
He hopes to start doing that early Christmas morning – before dawn – when he gets into his old car and drives to Marietta for his first Christmas with Alaina, her family and his son.
“I’ve been counting the days,” he said softly. “I got my little boy a lot of toys and some clothes and I got him a little basketball hoop, too. I know he can’t use it yet, but one day he will.”
The same can be said for him.