By Bill Hewitt
September 29, 2003 12:00 PM

On the tough streets of Compton, Calif., gunfire is hardly unusual. So when shots erupted on East Greenleaf Boulevard shortly after midnight on Sept. 14, residents weren’t surprised. In this case, a woman sitting with a male companion in a white SUV outside a house known as a drug hangout died of a gunshot wound to the head. But if the incident wasn’t all that startling, the identity of the victim certainly was: Yetunde Price, 31, the older sister of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

The mysterious murder sent shock waves through the close-knit Williams clan. Venus, 23, got the news in New York City, where she was visiting for Fashion Week. Serena, 22, was in Toronto shooting Street Time, a cable-TV show about urban crime, and by one account she became hysterical when she learned of her sister’s death. Both immediately flew to Los Angeles, where they were joined by Oracene Williams (who had Yetunde in a previous relationship) and family patriarch Richard Williams. “When [Venus and Serena] received the calls from all of us here, they were saying, ‘Are you sure this is correct?’ They couldn’t believe it,” says Raymone Bain, who is acting as spokeswoman for the family. “They’re devastated.”

In the first days after the shooting, it was unclear exactly what happened. Price, a nurse, mother of three and part owner of a modest hair salon in Lake-wood, Calif., was in Compton with her friend Rolland Wormley, 28. According to cops, there was apparently a “confrontation” with local residents. Police could not initially account for why Price, who had no criminal record, would be in Compton, 40 miles from her home in Corona, at that time of night. Wormley, on the other hand, was on parole from prison for receiving stolen goods and has, according to police, gang ties as-well as a lengthy arrest record, including convictions for burglary, auto theft and selling drugs. After the shooting he sped away with Price to the home of a nearby relative and called 911. (Wormley was held for violating his parole.) Several hours later, after a standoff at the house near the crime scene, authorities arrested Aaron Michael Hammer, 24, who was described by investigators as being one of the few whites who is associated with the Southside Crips. Two days later Hammer was formally charged with Price’s murder. (He plans to plead not guilty.)

According to Wormley’s sister Carmelle, her brother had been dating Price for about seven months and had proposed to her. “Yetunde was practically our family member,” says Carmelle. But Kevin Davis, the Williams family lawyer, insists that any notion that Wormley and Price, who was divorced and used her mother’s name, were close enough to be considering marriage is “ridiculous.” Perhaps more to the point, her friends and associates say, it is inconceivable that she would have been mixed up in a drug buy or gang activities. “Yetunde was together, she wasn’t that kind of person,” says one source close to Serena. “She was always upbeat and smiling when she was with Serena. She looked like she loved life.”

Friends and family also believe that she had left the streets of Compton, where she and her four sisters were raised, long ago. In 1991, when Venus was 11 and Serena 10, their father became convinced the girls could make it on the pro tennis circuit. He uprooted the family and moved to Florida so they could train properly. His intuition, of course, has paid off splendidly, with the sisters winning 10 Grand Slam singles titles between them.

Throughout Venus and Serena’s success, Price had remained exceedingly close to them. But while she served as their personal assistant, keeping track of their appointments and the like, and joined them at Wimbledon this year, she also led a largely independent life in California. In an interview with PEOPLE in August, Price seemed to have no regrets about steering clear of the slipstream of her famous kin. “They’re still my sisters,” she said. “We don’t get into the fame thing too much when we’re all together as a family.”

Price lived in a comfortable home in an upscale neighborhood in Corona. According to neighbors she doted on her three kids: Jeffrey, 11; daughter Justus, 9; and son Jair, 5, who has already shown a knack for rapping. On the evening before she was killed, Price and her children visited with friends across the street. She watched part of the Oscar De La Hoya boxing match before making sure the kids would be taken care of and heading off with Wormley on her fatal trip. Kenya McClendon, 33, one of Price’s closest friends, says it was their grandmother Oracene who told the children of their mother’s death. “The look in their eyes was so painful,” says McClendon. “The little one still doesn’t accept it. He still thinks his mom is coming home.”

Today, her shocked neighbors remember her fondly for her kindness and modesty. Imelda Moreno, who lives next door, recalls being stunned to turn on Oprah earlier this year and see Price sitting there with Venus and Serena and their other two sisters, Isha, 29, a lawyer, and Lyndrea, 25, an actress. True to form, Price had never mentioned her notable family ties. “We never treated her differently and she never acted differently,” says Moreno. “She was just like you and me.”

Bill Hewitt

Frank Swertlow, Lyndon Stambler and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles and Lori Rozsa in Miami