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Reche Caldwell shooting death mystery: Friend recalls FaceTime chat moments before slaying and family seeks justice

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Tamarick Vanover and Reche Caldwell first met in 2002 as San Diego Chargers teammates, each at different ends of their careers. Vanover was getting his final chance after two years out of the NFL, and Caldwell was a second-round draft pick that spring, a rookie with his entire career in front of him.

The two were an unlikely pair on the surface, having attended rival schools — Vanover at Florida State, Caldwell at Florida. That never got between their friendship, one that would last for the next 18 years.

“Me and Reche, before this happened, we were talking on the phone like 10 times a day,” Vanover told Yahoo Sports. “At least 10 times a day.”

This, Vanover is referencing, was the night the 41-year-old Caldwell was shot and killed in Tampa on June 6, just before he was about to go out with his girlfriend.

Vanover and Caldwell weren’t just talking on the phone when the shooting happened — they were actually FaceTiming. Vanover, several hours away in Tallahassee, Florida, was one of the last people to see Caldwell alive. The others: the woman Caldwell was dating (Jennifer Graciano) in whose front yard Caldwell was shot; the person (or people) who shot Caldwell; and the paramedics who couldn’t save his life on the way to the hospital.

Reche Caldwell started his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers back in 2002. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Reche Caldwell started his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers in 2002. His six seasons in the NFL included stops in New England and Washington. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

On that FaceTime call, Vanover said Caldwell was showing him his new office at the home owned by Graciano in Tampa’s Live Oaks Square neighborhood.

After walking outside, Caldwell also showed off his new jewelry and what he and Vanover used to call “honey buns” — their term for hundred-dollar bills.

“I said, ‘Bro, I know you got some honey buns on you!’ When I said that, he showed me like $20,000 in cash. I said, ‘Man!’” Vanover said.

That’s when everything changed in an instant.

“Then in the next few seconds, that’s when I heard the gunshots,” Vanover said. “I didn’t know what was going on at first. I was just standing there, calling [Caldwell’s name].

“His phone was on the ground. But he wasn’t saying anything.”

Police said Caldwell was shot in the chest and leg and that the incident didn’t “appear to be a random act.” According to a TMZ report, Caldwell was “ambushed” by a “couple of people” who jumped out of bushes near the house, attempting to rob him.

Deborah Caldwell, Reche’s mother, said that her son’s last words were: “Tell everybody I love them.”

Yet no one seems to know who did it, or exactly why or how it happened.

2 months later, no break in Caldwell shooting death case

“Reche got along with everybody. He was just a good guy,” Deborah said. “Of course, he’s my son and I am going to say that. But everyone said that, too.”

Vanover said, “It makes no sense. Reche was always trying to keep people uplifted. ... None of us are angels. But in the long run, nobody deserved to die in such a traumatic way.”

It has been two months since Caldwell’s death, and there is no resolution in the case. The investigation, spearheaded by Tampa Police Detective Michael Kelley, remains open and ongoing, police say. They have not publicly named suspects or persons of interest. No arrests have been made.

Kelley didn’t respond to multiple calls for comment on the case.

“Unfortunately, there is no current update that can be released,” Tampa Police Department spokesperson Eddy Durkin told Yahoo Sports in a statement. “Detectives continue to actively work to develop leads in this case and encourage anyone who may have information in relation to his homicide to contact Crimestoppers of Tampa Bay at 800-873-TIPS.”

Deborah Caldwell can’t understand why nothing has been found. Recently, investigators seemed to indicate to her they were close to finding who did the shooting. Last week, she said she felt there was nothing to suggest the case was any closer to being solved.

“I am looking for any answers I can find,” Deborah said by phone. “This whole thing has been a shock to me.

“I tell [police] that I am just antsy. I want to let them do their job. It’s never fast enough, and it’s not going to be good enough.”

More strange details of what happened that night

Jennifer Graciano described herself as Reche Caldwell’s “on-and-off girlfriend,” meeting first in 2006 when Caldwell was with the New England Patriots. They had been in an “on” period of dating for the past year, she told Yahoo Sports, and he had moved into the residence that she had purchased three years earlier.

“We were in a great place,” she said.

Graciano described Reche as “very outgoing, very happy,” attracted to his kind heart and fun-loving demeanor, one that she never wavered over the time she knew him despite the road blocks Caldwell faced.

It was Reche Caldwell's fun-loving spirit that endeared him to friends and family. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
It was Reche Caldwell's fun-loving spirit that endeared him to friends and family. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“Anything that went wrong or unexpected, he would find another way,” Graciano said. “He always turned a negative into a positive. He liked to joke around; he was a jokester. He liked to play pranks on people.”

Caldwell was helping manage a local performer named Roboy, along with his younger brother Andre — who also played in the NFL — as part of their new record label, DuWell Entertainment. (Andre did not respond to interview requests.)

Graciano and Caldwell had made plans for the night of June 6, one day after bars and clubs reopened at 50 percent capacity in Florida following COVID-19 restrictions. They were going to attend Roboy’s performance at a Carrollwood club, Whiskey North, and then spend the night at a hotel they had booked in Clearwater.

According to Graciano, they took their bags out to the car just before 11 p.m. when it started drizzling. As Graciano ran back inside to grab her jacket, Caldwell and Vanover were chatting via FaceTime.

“As I walked back in my house, all I heard was gunshots,” Graciano said, “and I dropped everything and ran outside. That’s when he was on the ground.”

Vanover remained on FaceTime while the shooting occurred and stayed on the line to try to figure out what happened. He said a little time elapsed between the shots and when Graciano reemerged from the house.

“I hear his girlfriend walk up probably a couple minutes later,” he said. “She was like, ‘Uh, 911? I need paramedics. My boyfriend has just been shot.’ That’s when I hung up.

“I tried to call her. I wanted to see what was actually going on. And I couldn’t get her on the phone, so …”

Graciano said she didn’t see anyone come or go — it happened that fast. Neither did Vanover. All that either of them saw or heard, they said, were gunshots. Vanover recalled four gunshots; Graciano wasn’t sure how many she heard.

Graciano also isn’t sure how many people were involved in the shooting. Deborah Caldwell believes it was “two or more.” Other family members were reticent to speculate, citing the open investigation.

“The information I gave police — they said my statement was pretty key to their investigation,” Vanover said. “It was more what I didn’t hear. Like, I told them I didn’t hear a car speeding off. None of that. I didn’t hear any shuffling feet, no one running up or anything like that. No one said, ‘Get down’ or ‘Give me your money.’ None of that.”

And all that cash and jewelry Caldwell was flashing in his front yard? Vanover said most, if not all, was still in Caldwell’s pocket when he died. No other family members could confirm that fact, and police have not verified it, either.

Was Caldwell’s killer someone he knew? Graciano isn’t sure — and she feels lucky she also wasn’t a victim.

“I am all over the place with that,” she said. “I don’t trust anyone. At the end of the day, I would have been walking — if I had not walked to my vehicle, I would have been right there with him when it happened.

“So I really don’t know, but whoever did it definitely knew the area. … The person or whoever just disappeared. It could be anyone.”

Graciano admits that “it’s not a great neighborhood” and reveals that she and Caldwell had planned to move in July.

“And all of that went down the drain,” she said.

Why have two months passed without a resolution? Graciano worries that not enough people outside of her and Caldwell’s close circle have put enough time into seeking justice.

“Whoever did this left people that truly cared for him,” she said. “And a lot of people that were supposedly his friends, they were sad for a few days and then it was like … whatever. But the people who lived with him every day are broken.

“We’re just trying to pick up the pieces. I hope someone comes forward with information. We want to find an end to all of this.”

Caldwell had recently reconnected with his family

Donald “Reche” Caldwell’s life was a series of ups and downs, some challenges unexpectedly thrown at him and others he brought on himself.

After his NFL career ended in 2008, Caldwell returned to Tampa, where he was a high school sports legend in football, baseball and basketball, followed by a high-profile stint with the University of Florida up the road in Gainesville.

Caldwell fell into trouble as he tried to find his way through his post-NFL life. The man who once was Tom Brady’s go-to target in 2006 was first busted for helping organize an underground gambling ring and later was arrested for ordering what he thought was legal MDMA, the bizarre details of which were unfurled in a 2016 ESPN.com feature.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, once had Reche Caldwell as his go-to receiver in 2006. (REUTERS/Eric Miller)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, once had Reche Caldwell as his go-to receiver in 2006. (REUTERS/Eric Miller)

Since leaving prison after a 27-month sentence, Caldwell was a changed man, friends and family said. A month before his killing he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit health care fraud in a case involving several former NFL players, including Vanover. But Caldwell was said to be in a better place than he had been in a long time. He had responsibilities, including his new record label, and was reengaging with old friends and family with his prison sentence behind him.

Following their divorce in 2016, Sherron Caldwell, Reche’s ex-wife, said she and Reche had tried to mend their relationship in the year prior to his death. The high school sweethearts had been through so much together prior to getting married, through nine years of marriage and through the birth of their two children.

“We had been together for so long,” she said, “that love is always going to be there.”

They were different people, Sherron said. She was the tough parent, and Reche the easygoing one, but she learned to appreciate those differences recently, even if the marriage couldn’t be salvaged.

“Not too many things bothered him,” she said. “There would be some things that I would worry about, but that was one of the things I admired so much about him. A lot of times we carry so much weight every single day. But he could laugh off the worst of the worst and just kind of make it seem so easy.”

They were committed to improving their relationship even though the marriage had ended, doing so for the sake of their children. It only helped them appreciate one another more in the last year of Reche’s life, even as both moved on and were seeing other people.

“For about the last eight months or so, we had been in constant communication,” Sherron said. “We’d have family texts — me, him, my son, my daughter.

“He would FaceTime me almost every day. If we hadn’t heard from each other for a couple of days, it was, ‘What do you have going on? I haven’t heard from you.’”

Sherron hasn’t spoken to anyone publicly about Reche’s death until now, and it remains a raw and open wound — one that she and their children are still figuring out how to heal. The last time she and Reche spoke was earlier in the day on June 6, also by FaceTime.

“It was kind of a short conversation,” she said. “He said he was going to call me back. And that was actually the last time we spoke.”

There have been times since then when Sherron has picked up her phone with the subconscious instinct of keeping their family text chains alive, “waiting for a response back.”

Now all her energies are put into protecting her children and finding a resolution. Since the moment Deborah Caldwell called Sherron late on June 6 with the tragic news, she has been in steady communication with police and with Caldwell’s other family and friends, trying to seek the same answers.

“This is very near and dear to my heart, and I want to see justice served,” Sherron said. “What I can say is that [police] have let us know that they are actively searching and looking for his killers and that they hope they can help serve justice.

“That’s what all of us are hoping and praying for each and every day. But nothing can really give us total closure at this point.”

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