Cordele Taylor, an aspiring actor back from Los Angeles for a brief visit to Willingboro, embraces Kevin Clifton, a friend from the old days.

"What's up? You're grinding. You're doing it, son!" Clifton says as both break into broad smiles. "You're doing it!"

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The two hadn't seen each other since the death six years ago of Bobby Hickson, a close friend of Taylor's who died in Clifton's arms.

Clifton mentions that Jamar Doggett, the second of Taylor's closest old friends, has just started a jail sentence for his role in a multistate motorcycle-theft ring anchored in Burlington County.

It is a sad note in an otherwise hearty congratulations to Taylor, a streetwise ex-crook who has returned to make a documentary about the people he knew in Willingboro.

Taylor has been building a career on the West Coast, appearing in a dozen rap videos and winning roles in

House Arrest

and other movies.

"Y'all grew up together, tight," Clifton says, shaking his head, interlacing his fingers. "I watched everybody come over. Always part of the family with me."

Overwhelmed, Taylor says only: "Yeah. Yeah."

It is a mystery how Taylor eluded death and jail, fates that consumed his two old friends and that had been aiming at him, too. And so it is that Taylor steps off a plane in Philadelphia and embarks on a five-day trip to come to grips with his old life.

"I'm going to open up some old wounds," Taylor says as his buddy's car zips up I-95, carrying him home.

'The hustle ambition'

Taylor, 31, stands 5-foot-9, sports a dark goatee, and has skin the color of molasses. He is lean and handsome, with a diamond stud in each ear. He was the only one in his family not to go to college.

Driving around, Taylor points out the Mount Holly neighborhood where he used to sell crack. On other occasions, he talks about the billboard in California bearing his face and the antidrug advertisement: "I lost me to meth."

How he once described himself: "The hustle ambition, it runs through my veins."

"I ain't nothing special," he has also said, in a humbler moment.

But he has become something special to a circle of primarily African American men in Willingboro, who say they saw a guy who was always acting through his lively personality long before he called it his profession. His career is fledgling, his successes small by Hollywood standards, but to these people his is the story of an unlikely path to making it.

Taylor left for Los Angeles in 2006, propelled by a role as the boyfriend in the music video for the R&B song "Hypothetically" the previous year. He won parts in movies such as

Epic Movie

,

Akira's Hip Hop Shop

, and

Nora's Hair Salon II

.

"He's been through it. He's not a silver-spoon dude," says Thomas Goodwin, 22, of Willingboro. Hollywood was just "another hurdle. A hustler gonna get it however he needs to."

More painful for that circle has been Taylor's untimely arrival: The recent imprisonment of Doggett, 28, and several others has not been easy for those left behind. As Taylor and his Los Angeles promoter friend trek through Willingboro with a film crew, a narrative emerges of men whose fates split dramatically.

Going through their teens and 20s in the 1990s, Taylor, Doggett and Hickson were an inseparable force. People who know them say they were the most fun, the most boisterous, the best-dressed, the most popular with girls.

Doggett was a few years younger and looked up to the other two, friends said. He could be quieter if he didn't know you, but to people close to him he was a nonstop jokester.

"They were the cats you wanted to be," says Rodney Temistocle, 22.

They all came from middle-class neighborhoods, spending much of their time in Hickson's house in Willingboro. Doggett eventually had a child with one of Hickson's sisters; they are in a relationship to this day.

Taylor graduated from Willingboro High School with a C-plus average, and drifted between menial factory and warehouse jobs. All three took to riding motorcycles. Doggett and Hickson, in particular, earned a reputation for their stunts.

Taylor, meanwhile, got into selling drugs; he was once carjacked and held at gunpoint during a deal in Trenton. The guys eventually let him and a friend go.

In 1999, the three friends were indicted on counts of robbery and assault after a man accused them of demanding his gold chain at gunpoint. The county prosecutor dismissed the charges the next year after the accuser's credibility came into question.

On Jan. 15, 2000, Taylor was arrested and charged in Moorestown with possessing drugs with the intent to distribute and eluding police. Police had found less than a half-ounce of cocaine in his car.

Around the same time, Taylor's wife kicked him out of the Mount Holly house they shared with their young son.

Tension tore at the couple over Taylor's decision to start training at barber school. Jolted by the prospect of jail time over his charges, Taylor drifted from his friends, opting to live in the back of the Camden barbershop where he had just begun working.

One day, Hickson came in to the shop.

" 'Cats be missing you,' " Taylor remembers him saying.

Hickson urged him to go back to Willingboro; he knew a barbershop where Taylor could work. Taylor got the job, working for $200 a week and tips, and graduated from barber school shortly after, in October 2001.

But he maintained a distance from his old friends, heavy with fear over his future. In March, he had pleaded guilty to the drug charges. People who knew him sent letters to state Superior Court Judge John Almeida in the final days of 2001, attesting to the fact that he had begun to chart a better life.

"Several years ago, I was concerned about the direction his life was taking," his mother, Linda Taylor, wrote, according to court records; she and her husband had moved to Texas several years before. Her son had "strayed from what he knew was correct and decent, and now he has returned to us."

The judge sentenced Taylor to 364 days in jail to be served on weekends, allowing him to keep his job. After several months, the jail time was dropped, and Taylor was given community service and probation.

As he fought the charges, New Jersey state police were collecting surveillance on Doggett for his alleged role in the motorcycle-theft operation, says Detective Sgt. Mark Wilhelm, a lead investigator on the case. Wilhelm did not recognize Taylor's name. In interviews, Taylor indicates he was aware the bikes he rode probably had been stolen.

Three diverging fates

Taylor stands in Hickson's parents' house for the first time since he cut the corpse's hair at the morgue, since he was the pallbearer at the funeral. A photo album of Hickson is spread on a table before him.

Tears fall down his right cheek. The veins in his forehead strain. He bites his lip. His eyes redden. He sniffles, twists his mouth to the side, taps a finger against the album. He wills himself to composure.

On March 28, 2002, Hickson, riding with Doggett and other friends, collided with a vehicle while on his motorcycle, in the middle of a wheelie, the police report said. Clifton, an auto mechanic, who watched the boys grow up, saw the accident and ran to the scene, holding Hickson as the blood left him.

Hickson, 23, who was engaged and turning his own life around, died that night.

Here with Taylor, Hickson's mother talks about how she always considered the boys her sons. Hickson's parents tell him they understand why he hadn't been around since the funeral. They and Taylor say they believe Hickson gave Taylor new life and inspiration.

Several years after the death, a customer at the barbershop who was an actor gave Taylor a contact that led him to a role as the boyfriend in a music video. He went on to Los Angeles, living in a cheap motel, working as a barber, finding other roles, moving up.

On May 4, 2005, state police conducted an early-morning raid, resulting in 19 arrests, including Doggett. The investigation, Operation Ninja, drew on assistance from the FBI and eventually charged more than two dozen people.

Hickson's mother says Doggett was "just as cheerful as ever, making jokes," the last time she saw him in March, when Doggett and her daughter were having a birthday party for their young daughter.

Still, nothing here has been the same for a long time, which is why, Taylor says, he had to build the confidence to return.

"Jamar is not here. He got locked up," Clifton says. "Bobby's not here 'cause he's dead. A lot of them are just not around anymore. It's not like it used to be. I knew just about everybody in the ring."

"I'm so happy for Cordele, I'm nervous for Jamar, and I'm very sad for Bobby," says Hickson's mother, Renee Forman.

"It's hard," she adds later. "You see the different fates they had, and it's painful. It just hurts."

Taylor, who intends to produce the documentary through a new production company he and a friend started, returned to Los Angeles on May 5.

Doggett is scheduled for release in 2012.

Contact staff writer Maya Rao

at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com.