Cursed Beauty

updated 05/14/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At first the crash seemed relatively minor. Driving his friends Niki Taylor and John Lauck, a banker, home at 3:50 a.m. after a night out in Atlanta on April 29, James "Chad" Renegar reached to answer his cell phone, lost control of his 1993 Nissan Maxima and crashed into a utility pole. Police say no alcohol or drugs were involved in the accident, and Renegar, 27, and Lauck, 30, did not suffer serious injuries. Neither, it appeared at first, did Taylor, who had buckled herself into the passenger seat and whose million-dollar face bore no visible trauma.

Her relief, however, was short-lived. Moments later, Taylor, 26, complained of stomach pains and was rushed to Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, where she was listed in critical condition. "She sustained severe liver injury," says Dr. Jeffrey Nicholas, who performed a series of operations on Taylor. "She has several hurdles to cross before we say she will get well from this."

Sadly, Taylor knows all about the sudden setbacks life sometimes has in store. Six years ago her younger sister Krissy died at 17 after an asthma attack. Not long after that Taylor's marriage to the father of her beloved twin boys ended in divorce. More recently she suffered through a yearlong addiction to the prescription painkiller Vicodin, the same drug that ensnared Melanie Griffith and Matthew Perry. But things seemed to have taken a turn for the better. Just weeks ago she finished a 10-day stay at a rehab center and was eager to launch an acting career.

Then tragedy struck again. Taylor's parents, Barbara, 53, and Ken, 60, and her older sister Joelle, 31, flew in from Florida—where Taylor also lives—to be at her side. Her sons Jake and Hunter, now 6, stayed in Fort Lauderdale with her ex-husband Matt Martinez, 31, a former Arena Football League coach, who shares custody of the children. "Right now Matt's taking care of the boys," says his father, Reynel Martinez, 54. "But he's pretty hurt by this. He's just trying to cope."

Success seemed to come easy at first for Taylor, whose mother is a homemaker and father a retired Florida highway patrol trooper. She began modeling at 13 and three years later signed a multimillion-dollar contract with L'Oréal. In 1994 Taylor married Martinez in a private Las Vegas ceremony, and the couple had twins the same year. But Taylor's joy at being a mother was interrupted on July 2, 1995, when her sister Krissy—who had followed her into modeling—returned from a night out and collapsed in her parents' ranch house in Pembroke Pines, Fla. It was Niki who found Krissy lying face down near the front door. An hour later Krissy was pronounced dead. "They were incredibly close," says her former publicist George Dassinger. "They leaned on each other, and after Krissy was gone there was no one Niki could lean on like that."

The next year Taylor and Martinez divorced, and she began dating Miami nightclub owner Chris Paciello, who later pleaded guilty to a string of Mob-related crimes, including murder. Though they broke up in 1998, about a year before his indictment, Taylor was stunned by the charges, says Dassinger. "It's like reading about a friend you thought you knew and finding out there's more to them than you thought."

In the year before the accident Taylor was secretly coping with a dependence on Vicodin. Realizing that "the drug was preventing her from functioning as a human being, a mom and a model," says her manager Lou Taylor (no relation), Taylor checked into Father Martin's Ashley Treatment Center, an 80-bed rehab clinic in Havre de Grace, Md.

Now comes Taylor's toughest battle yet. But, as they have before, family and friends are rallying around. "She has a strong will and the drive to overcome this," says her former father-in-law. "We'll pray for her. That's all that we can do."

Alex Tresniowski
Michael Cohen, Joseph Harmes, Don Sider and Linda Trischitta in Miami, Gail Wescott in Atlanta, Fannie Weinstein in New York and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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