Surf family scion sent to prison in murder-for-hire plot against sister-in-law
04/27/2018 4:30 pm PDT
Huntington Beach, California is a Mecca for boating, boarding and surfing. It's where the Taylor family reigns supreme.
"Their reputation is pretty strong in the city and a lot of people know who they are," said Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Mike Szyperski.
The patriarch is John Taylor, a Surfing Walk of Fame inductee and member of the revered surfing club known as the Hole In The Wall Gang. John was also a surfboard maker and repairman.
Sons Joe and Matt were born with sand between their toes, eagerly following in dad's wake, standout surfers themselves.
"When I first met them and was around them, they were all very nice, very welcoming," said "Jane Doe."
This woman, who chooses to be known as Jane Doe to protect her identity, married Matt Taylor 12 years ago and gave birth to their baby girl.
"I grew up very poor and had a bad family background and have worked since I was 14, and they portrayed themselves as amazing family," said "Jane."
After a life of nothing but hardship, Jane embraced the love of a seemingly good family who lived a local celebrity lifestyle onboard a four-bedroom yacht in Huntington Beach. They knew every superstar in the surf world and commanded respect.
But the Cinderella story would last only a short time, and turn out nothing like the fairy tale. Jane complained that she lived under a ruthless patriarchy, where John Taylor wielded total power over the entire family. Jane says Matt turned from loving husband to raging monster.
Prosecutors tell Crime Watch Daily that Matt was arrested in 2005 for violence upon a domestic partner, and child endangerment. He pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace. A restraining order was put in place then, protecting Jane and her child.
Cops also say in 2007, Joe Taylor was convicted of making criminal threats to Jane.
Jane says the family was nothing like their public persona.
"They are just like monsters with masks on. They portray themselves as these good people," said Jane. "They don't see when the doors are closed, John is constantly screaming and yelling at the sons."
Jane's brother-in-law Joe had drug abuse issues and scrapes with the law. And then there was Travis Sprague, a close family friend who lived with the Taylors and had his own criminal record, including burglary and grand theft.
"I was never nice to him," said Jane. "I didn't like him around my daughter."
Jane wanted out. But with no money of her own, she secretly got a job as a waitress.
"I just was saving my money so that I could move out, and he found out I was working and came into my work and actually tried ripping me out of there, and my manager actually saved me," said Jane.
That was the last straw for Jane Doe.
"When I left him, I left with two trash bags of stuff and my daughter. That was it. I left everything behind," said Jane.
Jane filed for divorce, but Matt Taylor was having none of it.
"He was like, 'That's not an option,'" said Jane.
This was war. Jane says the Taylors used the power of their deep pockets and tight connections to wear her down.
"We were in custody court and it's like, I was struggling to put a roof over my head and they were just draining me," said Jane.
But Jane wouldn't give up. When they hit, she hit back with everything she had, becoming a problem for the Taylors.
"There was concern that she would drag it out in court so long and just accruing more and more legal fees, ultimately causing the family to lose money," said Sgt. Mike Szyperski.
Did it ever cross your mind that no matter what these people had done in the past, they could actually plan to have you murdered?
"Yeah, I was terrified," said Jane Doe. "Everything, every threat they made, I just stayed quiet and just did what they said."
"His dad thinks he's like the King of Huntington Beach," said "Jane Doe." "They think they can get away with anything and the money they have will just buy them out of anything."
But the truth is, Matt Taylor's legal fees were soaking up a significant amount of his family's assets.
"I do believe that he did not want his ex-wife to drain the family of money," said Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Mike Szyperski.
Cops say a family member was ready to stop the bleeding -- permanently. Enter son Joe and close family friend Travis Sprague. They've both had their troubles with the law, mostly non-violent.
"Joe sat him down on the couch, showed him a picture of Jane Doe, put $5,000 cash in his lap and told Mr. Sprague '[----] that [----], get rid of her,'" said San Diego County Assistant District Attorney Jess Rodriguez.
Travis Sprague's job was to find a willing and able hitman.
"Travis took the money, he left the Taylor residence, and a few days went by where nobody knew exactly what would happen next," said Rodriguez.
It turns out Sprague didn't quite have the stomach to arrange Jane Doe's murder, even though she admits she always disliked him and treated him badly.
"This crosses his line. It crosses his moral imperative. And he's offended by it and does what he can to stop it," said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Sprague's conscience guides him to the Huntington Beach Police Department.
"Once law enforcement became involved, they needed to come up with a plan to prevent anything bad from happening to Jane Doe," said Jess Rodriguez.
And once again it was Travis Sprague who put himself square in the middle of a dangerous proposition.
In footage obtained by Crime Watch Daily, Sprague arranges a meeting between Joe Taylor and two undercover detectives armed with guns and recording devices posing as Mexican Mafia hitmen.
After brief introductions, Sprague high-tails it out, and the detectives begin a skillful and convincing performance.
"There are things that we as investigators need to do carefully so as not to spook a person or appear too overeager, and there was never an indication that he was spooked or may not want to deal with our undercover officers," said Sgt. Mike Szyperski.
"Joe Taylor would be fine with having her murdered, but he hadn't explicitly said that yet," said Jess Rodriguez.
"We need a little bit more than that. We need him to say he wants to have her killed," said Tony Rackauckas.
Detectives have to be cautious.
"In the investigation you don't want them to be leading him and possibly create an entrapment situation," said Rackauckas,
The faux hitmen move on to the subject of money. Joe thinks they already have the $5,000 he originally gave to Sprague.
"They chose to continue playing the role and actually scoffed at the offer by Joe Taylor, said that wasn't nearly enough money," said Jess Rodriguez. "There's a little bit of risk, in that nobody knew exactly how much Joe Taylor was willing to pay, or how much he could get his hands on."
Detectives don't want to scare off Joe. They tell him to come back another day with more cash. And sure enough when cops later trail Joe, they see him at an ATM with his dad. Cops say John Taylor withdraws $2,000.
"They saw Joseph's father take out money and give it to Joseph," said Rodriguez. "We don't know what was said, we don't know what Joe Taylor told his father about why he needed the money, but we do know that he got his hands on $2,000 in cash."
"Joseph gets $2,000 and then contacts our undercover officers and wanted to meet again," said Sgt. Mike Szyperski.
Finally Joe Taylor utters those critical words cops desperately need to hear.
Undercover: We don't want to get [---] on this. You want her dead or not?"
Joe: "I want her dead."
Undercover: "OK. Don't change your [----] number."
Now it's just a matter of logistics. Jane Doe lives with her boyfriend and three children.
Joe says he wants the hit carried out before the next custody hearing.
Detectives do a little more fishing to find out how involved Joe's father John may be, aside from withdrawing money for Joe.
Undercover: "Who else lives with you?"
Joe: "My father."
Undercover: "Does he know any [----] of this?"
Joe: "He has an idea."
Undercover: "So your dad knows a little bit about it."
Undercover: "Not mad or anything like that, right?"
Undercover: "OK. You don't know us, we don't know you, all right? Don't [----] with us. I'll let you know when it's done, bro."
"He made it explicitly clear who the target was, where she lived. He asked the detectives, or suggested that they make it look like a burglary gone bad," said San Diego County Assistant District Attorney Jess Rodriguez. "When Joseph Taylor stepped out of the vehicle, in his mind there was nothing else he needed to do. The next thing that was going to happen as far as he knew was Jane Doe being murdered."
Instead of getting his revenge, Joe Taylor gets the heat.
"The decision was made that we were going to go ahead and make the arrest," said Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Mike Szyperski. "There's a fine line with when to make that decision to pull the trigger on a case and make your arrest, and we felt that it was best for the case as well as for the victim that we act quickly."
While Joe is being handcuffed, cops are staked out all over the city, executing a full family takedown of Joe's father John and his brother Matt, and even Travis Sprague, the friend who rolled over on the Taylors. Cops say the fact that Sprague accepted $5,000 from Joe when the hit was initially being planned made him guilty of conspiracy -- even though Sprague had nothing to do with executing the murder plot.
"He was culpable for his actions in this investigation as well," said Sgt. Szyperski.
With all four in custody, cops have one more daunting task: breaking the news to the woman who narrowly missed a date with death.
"I was actually moving out of my deceased father's house and a bunch of undercover police officers walked up," Jane Doe tells Crime Watch Daily. "They said 'We need you to come with us, you're part of a crime that you don't know about, and you're in danger.' I was like 'What is it about?' They're like, 'You don't understand, your life's in danger.'"
At the police department, cops inform Jane that she was the target of a murder for hire.
"He flipped over a mug shot and it was Matt and I just was like 'Are you kidding?'" said Jane. "He said 'What's your relation to that man?' And I was like 'It's my ex-husband.' He flipped over another mug shot and it was his dad, and then I just kind of lost it. I was shocked that they actually tried, but for a second I felt like relief, like 'OK, the police have them, they got caught. They tried. I thought that I was going to have protection now, and they were going to be put away."
But even though Joe Taylor pleaded out and will spend 23 years behind bars, charges were dropped against John and Matt Taylor for lack of evidence.
"We all have our suspicions and thoughts and theories about what was going on behind the scenes, but at the end of the day it doesn't matter what I think. It's what I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt," said Jess Rodriguez. "There wasn't evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt."
The men were free to go, a stunning blow to the woman whom they allegedly wanted dead.
"I was terrified," said Jane Doe. "I was literally, like, I didn't want to leave the police department. I'm just supposed to go, and everything goes back to normal?"
For Jane Doe, it means a life of debilitating fear, constantly looking over her shoulder.
"I wake up and instantly check if all my kids are in the house, if they are alive or breathing," said Jane. "It's routine for me to check the house to see if anyone is waiting to kill me. It's worse now. They got away with so much stuff that I just don't even know that they are going to try now."
"She needs to exercise due caution for herself, but I do believe now that with the family being in the spotlight I don't think that there's going to be any concern of anything else happening," said Sgt. Szyperski. "Because of course they would be the first ones that law enforcement would look at should something happen to the victim."
Crime Watch Daily wanted to know what John and Matt's intentions were, so we looked for them at their surfboard repair shop. The Taylors clearly weren't welcoming any guests at this time.
As for Travis Sprague, the man who mustered up the nerve to rat out his closest friends, charges against him were also dropped. He too is a free man, and a hero.
"He went ahead and went to the authorities and turned it in and got the job done, so yes, I would credit him with saving her life," said OCDA Tony Rackauckas.
For the future, Jane Doe has no choice but to move forward. She's got children to worry about and that's her focus: raising her kids and trying to shake off the fear.
You were brave enough to sit down and tell the story. Why did you make that choice?
"They need to know that I want a voice," said Jane. "I don't want to have them bad-mouthing me and bashing me and just doing everything they can to hurt me and abuse me just because I won't be in a relationship with him and be a family with him, and destroy my daughter's life. I'm not going to stop fighting for my daughter and my rights to her, and being in her life and being her mother, and making sure that she has a good future. I won't let them take my baby from me."
That custody dispute continues. Jane Doe was awarded custody of their daughter after the plot to take her life was exposed. Matt Taylor does, however, continue to get unsupervised visits with the now-10-year-old girl. Jane Doe is now taking him back to court, trying to get the right to take their daughter out of state for things like vacations.