Five years ago, someone shot and killed Sandy Modell’s 32-year old son, Ryan, claiming self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Ryan, a graduate of Winter Park High School and UCF, had been drinking that night down in Fort Myers where he lived. He was drunk, confused and tried to get into the wrong apartment in a look-alike complex.
At that point, it’s easy to understand why the resident inside would defend himself. In fact, if James Steven Taylor shot Ryan Modell while he was trying to break in, even Ryan’s father admits the killing would’ve been justified.
But that’s not what happened.
After a confrontation at the door of the unit, Ryan left.
Taylor decided to pursue him with a 10mm Glock 29 in hand.
Taylor found Ryan, and ultimately shot him dead in the driveway of another unit.
Sandy Modell says that’s what makes this murder. And one of the state’s most prominent defense attorneys — and now even the homicide detective on the case — agree.
Lee County prosecutors, however do not. State Attorney Amira Fox — a conservative Republican who ran her last campaign for office touting support from the NRA and another gun group that lobbied for expanding Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law — and her predecessor decided not to file charges.
Fox’s office says Taylor told them it was self-defense. Yes, he left his apartment with a gun to go looking for Ryan Modell. But Taylor told authorities that when he found Ryan, the 32-year-old charged at him. And a neighbor said he heard Ryan make threats.
So Fox’s office ruled it was self-defense, noting they couldn’t get a conviction under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which makes it tougher to convict anyone who claims self-defense than in some states.
But one of Florida’s best-known defense attorneys — Mark O’Mara, who successfully defended George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin — says the prosecutors got it wrong.
O’Mara says Taylor “was safe in his home and Ryan was not attempting re-entry” when Taylor “left the sanctity of his home and confronted him and shot him without any justifiable reason at that point.”
O’Mara, representing Modell, sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, asking him to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the case. Sandy Modell says they governor never responded. DeSantis’ office ignored multiple requests for comment for this column.
But five years later, there’s a new development.
The detective who investigated is now speaking up.
“I believe he murdered this person,” Lee County Sheriff’s Lt. David Lebid said in a sworn deposition last month for a civil case Modell has filed. “Mr. Taylor left the safety of his house, left his wife behind and told her to lock the door, and then went out looking for Ryan, which I don’t understand.”
A memo from the prosecutor’s office described Taylor as a Gulf War veteran who “routinely carries a firearm and six spare magazines.”
Lebid said Taylor’s story never added up, saying “if he was afraid, he wouldn’t have left his residence. Scared people usually don’t leave their residence and leave their loved one behind.”
Lebid said he’s never seen a shooting death like this conclude without criminal charges. “I think that kind of needs to be reviewed by more than just me and a handful of people,” he said.
So we now have a homicide detective saying he’s convinced a homicide took place. That seems like enough to warrant a fresh set of eyes on the case.
Taylor and his attorney, Matthew Toll, disagree. “My client was the real victim here in every conceivable way,” Toll said Monday. “It is easy to second guess Mr. Taylor in the light of day for his split-second decision made that fateful night.”
The dispute has turned intense and personal. Taylor and his attorney found someone who roomed with Ryan Modell a decade before he was killed (when he was 22 years old), who described Ryan as creepy and intimidating. Sandy Modell says Taylor has sent vile and profane messages to him, saying he his son’s life was a waste with Taylor taunting Modell to come over to his apartment as well.
Frankly, I’m not sure anything that happened before or after that night really matters.
The only things that do are the circumstances that led up to Taylor ending Ryan Modell’s life with a single shot to the chest.
And if we now have a homicide detective saying a homicide took place, it’s hard to think of a good reason why Gov. DeSantis wouldn’t want to take a fresh look with fresh eyes.
That’s all Sandy Modell says he wants. If a truly independent source — someone Modell doesn’t believe is indebted to the gun groups that have championed repeated expansions of the “Stand Your Ground” law — finds no crime was committed, Modell says he’ll live with the findings.
“I am not delusional enough to think that once this gets done, my son comes back,” he said. But right now, Modell — a self-described “lifelong, conservative Republican and fervent Second Amendment supporter” — is convinced the decision not to charge his son’s killer with a crime “has to do with politics; not the merits of the case.”