June 04, 2001 12:00 PM

Ever since the July 1995 morning when Joelle Bolline picked up the phone to learn that her youngest sister, Krissy, 17, had died abruptly after an asthma attack, she has been terrified of early morning calls. So when the phone rang around 8:00 a.m. on April 29 in her West Palm Beach, Fla., home, Bolline, 31, instantly stiffened. “Whenever I get a phone call super early,” she says, “my heart just stops.” This time Bolline’s fears were realized. It was her mother, Barbara Taylor, calling to say that Joelle’s other younger sister, Niki, the 5’11” beauty whose smile has graced more than 250 magazine covers, had been in a car accident in Atlanta. She was lying near death in the intensive-care unit of Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, her duodenum bruised, her liver torn in two.

Since then Niki, 26, has withstood at least four surgeries and on May 16 was taken off a ventilator. Later that day Bolline and her family were delighted when Taylor scribbled “drink” on a piece of paper, then spoke her first and only word to date: “Coke.”

But even as Taylor shows signs of improvement, she is not out of danger. Still in Grady’s ICU, where she remains in critical condition, Taylor “will require continued hospital care for some time,” her doctor Jeffrey Nicholas told reporters May 17. “She remains at risk for significant complications and setbacks.” Under such circumstances, infections and blood clots pose the gravest risk.

By day Taylor’s parents, Barbara, 53, a homemaker, and Ken, 60, a retired Florida Highway Patrol trooper, sit by her side, with her sister and closest friends coming by regularly. At night, when Niki’s parents retire to a friend’s apartment 10 minutes from Grady, the watch is often taken by James “Chad” Renegar, 27, the stockbroker Taylor had been visiting in Atlanta, who was at the wheel of the car in which she was injured. Renegar told police that he had been reaching for a ringing cell phone when he lost control of his 1993 Nissan Maxima and struck a utility pole. He suffered rib and shoulder injuries; the third person in the car, banker John Lauck, 30, suffered only facial bruises. “Chad, I can tell you, is completely devastated,” says Bolline. “We don’t talk about the accident.”

Though Taylor is battling for her life, her face and body show no trace of the trauma. “She looks beautiful,” says Christopher Walker, 28, her best friend and hairdresser, who spent days by Taylor’s side, smoothing her hair, rubbing her hands and feet and putting balm on her lips. “No scratches.” The only external signs of injury are the postsurgical marks on her abdomen.

Internally, says Dr. Nicholas, Taylor’s liver is “not normal but seems to be making progress.” Nicholas will not comment on whether a liver transplant is under consideration, but Dr. Enrique Martinez, who is medical director of the Adult Liver Transplant Unit at nearby Emory University Hospital, which is affiliated with Grady, notes that the liver is the only vital organ capable of regeneration. “People with severe liver trauma can bounce back from these things in 8 to 12 weeks,” he says. As for Taylor’s recent addiction to the painkiller Vicodin, he says, “There is no way it would have contributed to her injury or played a role in her recovery.”

While Taylor’s loved ones visit, her favorite CDs play in the background: Sting, Faith Hill and, for the recently born-again patient, contemporary Christian music. A popular model described by friends and acquaintances as “down-to-earth” and “unaffected,” Taylor has received gifts and well-wishes from around the country, some from people she has worked with while shooting campaigns for Cover Girl and L’Oreal cosmetics, Lee Jeans, Pantene shampoo and, ironically, Nokia cellular phones. “She’s a great girl—so real—so everyone who has ever worked with her calls,” says Walker. Tim McGraw and Hill, who met Taylor through their mutual work as Cover Girl spokesmodels, sent a life-size teddy bear. The Atlanta Braves sent their good wishes. Former nightclub impresario Ingrid Casares, pal to Her Material Highness, sent word that Madonna is praying for Taylor.

The events surrounding the crash remain as clouded as the supermodel’s prognosis. Bolline says Taylor flew to Atlanta on April 25, leaving her twin sons Jake and Hunter, 6, in the care of her ex-husband Matt Martinez, 31, with whom she shares custody. Bolline, who lives about an hour from her sister and serves as her personal assistant, says it was “not unusual” for Taylor to visit Atlanta. Renegar, she says, “was a close friend, someone [Niki] was spending time with.” Until the accident, Bolline had not met Renegar and says his relationship with Niki “hadn’t reached the level of romantic interest.” Still, she notes, “it might have been going in that direction.”

Taylor, who met Renegar through her childhood friend Ashley Hodges, an interior decorator, spent Friday evening with Renegar, helping him do his laundry. In the Saturday evening hours leading up to the crash, says Niki’s manager Lou Taylor (no relation), Niki and Renegar stopped for pizza at the home of Renegar’s college friend Lauck, then went dancing. Local gossip among the clubbing set places the trio at two nightclubs: eleven 50 and the Riviera. Employees at both clubs, however, deny seeing Niki. At the Riviera, where people must pay $15 and present a picture ID for photocopying to become members, the club’s attorney Suzanne Coe says, “Nobody in here knows of seeing her here, and we looked through our cards for a picture with a membership.”

But what followed is not in dispute. At 3:50 a.m. Renegar phoned 911 and said, “I need an ambulance.” He said his car had “hit a telephone pole” and that there were “three people in the car, all three of us were injured.” Asked about the nature of the injuries, he responded, “Uh, I don’t know, there’s blood…please hurry.” At no point on the 2-minute, 8-second tape does Renegar sound inebriated.

Lou Taylor says that as soon as Niki stepped from the car, she said, “my stomach hurts,” then fell to the ground. When the ambulance pulled up, she was still complaining of pain but “appeared stable,” according to the police report. Taylor adds that Niki remained conscious both en route to the hospital and in the emergency room. That sequence is familiar to Rae Tyson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who says that internal injury often results when a passenger uses an automatic shoulder restraint but does not fasten the lap belt. (It remains unclear if Taylor was wearing her lap belt.) Dr. Tom Scalea, a Maryland trauma expert, says that in such instances, “your pelvis goes forward and the injuries will be in proportion to the amount of force that is applied to your body.”

Back at the crash scene, police ran no drug or alcohol tests on Renegar, who was cited for hitting a fixed object and driving without proof of insurance. “There were just no indicators that Mr. Renegar was under the influence,” says Officer John Quigley, a department spokesman, noting that at present the police investigation “is completed and at a dead end.”

Two lawyers have opened a private investigation. “We’re looking into the driver’s story, the condition of the road and the seat belt,” says Niki’s attorney Stephen Screnci of Boca Raton, Fla. “That passive-restraint system has been the subject of past and present litigation.” The Taylor family, however, hardly sounds in a litigious mood. “There were no drugs, no foul play,” says Bolline. “It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone.”

But the lack of drug and alcohol tests has raised eyebrows for two reasons. At 4:45 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 1998, Renegar was stopped by Atlanta police for allegedly driving under the influence and speeding. An officer reported that Renegar’s speech was confused and that he had a “strong odor of an alcoholic refreshment.” Field sobriety tests indicated that he could not balance on one leg or walk heel to toe for 18 steps. Renegar was subsequently found not guilty.

Then there is Niki’s recent history of prescription-drug abuse. Lou Taylor says that Niki’s habit got started after a physician gave her a prescription for Xanax for general anxiety. From there Niki progressed to Vicodin, the painkiller that has also ensnared celebs like Matthew Perry and Melanie Griffith. Ex-husband Martinez says that during the year or so that Niki was hooked on Vicodin, he saw her doze off at the dinner table on occasion. In Fort Lauderdale waiters and clerks report instances of Taylor nodding off in restaurants and knocking over display cases.

In February Niki checked herself into a 28-day rehab program in Maryland. Most friends and family members maintain that Niki had been clean and sober for 78 days at the time of the accident and do not express concern that Niki was club-hopping so soon after rehab. “She was walking it out a day at a time,” says her manager. One intimate, who calls Niki “footloose and fancy-free, a girl who likes to party,” says, “I hope this is a wake-up call for her.”

At the time of the crash Taylor seemed finally to be getting her life in order. On the modeling front, she had pared back her schedule to just four to six days a month, working exclusively for Cover Girl and Nokia. “As [her] children got older, she worked less,” says Walker. A deal with Liz Claiborne ended abruptly in February, just four months after the Niki Taylor line appeared in Target Stores. “Unfortunately, the marketing of a major apparel brand requires more day-today involvement than I initially realized,” Taylor said at the time. Though the termination roughly coincided with Taylor’s decision to enter rehab, Lou Taylor maintains that the decision was mutual and that “should [Niki] want to work five days a week, she’d be working five days a week.”

Instead, Niki had her eye on an acting career. “She’s had several offers over the past several years but never felt confident,” says Bolline. Niki was set to begin classes in Fort Lauderdale the first week in May with acting coach Marc Durso.

In February Niki put her 5,000-sq.-ft. Fort Lauderdale house on the market for $2 million and moved in with her parents, who live in Pembroke Pines, while completing construction of a new house in nearby Davie. “She always wanted a bigger place for the kids to play and to live in an area where there wasn’t so much traffic,” says Paul Lepine, her former neighbor. The twins, says Bolline, “are her whole world. Most models move to New York, but Niki chose to remain in Florida so her children could be raised surrounded by family.”

That includes Martinez, who currently has their sons at his house in Plantation, 10 minutes from Taylor’s new house. Taylor and Martinez married in 1994, divorced rancorously two years later after feuding over money and the boys’ schooling, then moved back in together last year. Though they split again last Christmas, Martinez says of a future reconciliation, “Well, you never know…We’ve always said that we’re always going to be soulmates.”

Martinez, a stuntman, actor and model, says he has not yet taken the boys to see their mother in the hospital because “it’s so chaotic, with the press and everything.” But he has talked to them about her injuries. “I got a book of anatomy and showed them where Mommy got hurt,” Martinez says. “They were a little curious, but they’re not asking a lot of questions.”

In Atlanta, meanwhile, Taylor family members continue their bedside vigil. “What we’ve already been through as a family has made us all strong,” Bolline says, alluding to her sister Krissy’s death. She and her parents, who like Niki have tattoos of Krissy’s name—Niki’s on her left hand, Barbara’s and Joelle’s on their forearms, Ken’s on his leg—do not allow themselves “to go into any of the what-ifs or what might happen tomorrow,” she says. “If Niki’s doing good today, that’s all we ask.”

Jill Smolowe

Don Sider, Linda Trischitta, Gail Wescott and Michael Cohen in Atlanta, Lori Rozsa in Plantation, Denise Sypesteyn in Miami, Melody Simmons in Washington, D.C., and Fannie Weinstein in New York City

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