The murder, the cover-up and the conspiracy By RANDALL SULLIVAN
Those who arrived as spectators at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on July 6th expecting to observe the fourth day of testimony in the Notorious B.I.G. wrongful-death suit swiftly discovered that they were on hand to bear witness to something else: history. In an announcement that stunned everyone who had been following the case in the media, presiding judge Florence-Marie Cooper abruptly suspended the proceedings and called a mistrial. Only a handful in the courtroom knew of the remarkable events of the previous days: an anonymous late-night phone tip; the extraordinary lockdown of a Los Angeles Police Department division; a stash of secret, incriminating documents. But the following day, Judge Cooper issued a written ruling stating that she had come to believe the LAPD had deliberately concealed a massive amount of evidence that attested to the involvement of rogue officers in the rapper’s slaying.
The implications of the judge’s decision extended far beyond the mystery of B.I.G.’s unsolved murder. For months, Los Angeles’ most prominent political figures and police officials, along with the city’s most influential media, had been insisting that this legal claim by B.I.G.’s family was nothing more than a nuisance suit, based on an outlandish conspiracy theory that attempted to tie a group of LAPD officers — affiliated with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records and the Bloods gang — to not only the murders of B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, but also to the origins of the biggest police-corruption case in Los Angeles history, the so-called Rampart scandal. Yet here was one of the most respected district court judges in Southern California declaring in open court that the LAPD’s lead investigator on the B.I.G. murder case for the past six years had deliberately concealed hundreds of pages of documents. The contents of these pages not only supported the conspiracy theory, but also implicated the central figure in the Rampart scandal — the disgraced detective who was the source of the whole sorry, sordid affair — as one of those involved in the rapper’s death.
The judge’s declaration of a mistrial provided one of those breathtaking moments when the facade of a Big Lie is peeled back to reveal the men behind the curtain. Suddenly, the central figures in this scandal were not the collection of corrupt police officers whose double-faced criminality has been the focus of both public and private investigations, but rather the people who hold the levers of control at the city’s most powerful institutions.
Back in 2000, it looked as if all the skeletons rattling around the Rampart scandal had been locked away in deep closets. But in the spring of 2001, theories that had been discarded by both the police and the L.A. media were explored by articles in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker . Perry Sanders, the iconoclastic lawyer who would spearhead the wrongful-death lawsuit, first became involved in the case in June of that year. An attorney for murdered rap star Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, asked Sanders to read the Rolling Stone article. “I thought there were grounds for filing a lawsuit just based on reading the story,” says Sanders. Because he takes cases only on contingency, however, the attorney had to decide whether he could justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of his life to sustain a federal court claim against the city of Los Angeles.
Angular and fit, the fifty-one-year old Sanders is a mercurial Louisianan whose shaved head and pale eyes give him the look of a more intelligent Bruce Willis. The son of Perry R. Sanders Sr., one of the South’s best-known Baptist ministers, the attorney had devoted much of his young adulthood to the music business; he performed as a guitarist and vocalist all across the Southern club circuit during his years in college and law school. By the time he passed the bar in 1982, Sanders co-owned the Baton Rouge recording studio Disk Productions, where he and two partners composed and recorded jingles for companies including Hilton and Honda. Within a few years, Sanders moved on to Nashville, working in entertainment law by day and as a writer and producer at night, then to L.A., where he was a partner in the studio West Side Sound. Eventually, he returned to Louisiana and the practice of law, specializing in environmental and civil-rights cases. He made enough money by his mid-forties that he could devote his considerable energies to whatever interested him.
“The B.I.G. case interested me plenty,” Sanders says, but he and his sometime associate, Colorado attorney Rob Frank, were at that moment embroiled in a massive environmental suit against the Schlage Lock Company. Not sure if he could afford what the B.I.G. lawsuit would demand, Sanders dispatched Frank to meet with the murdered rapper’s mother, Voletta Wallace, in New York. “After meeting with Voletta,” Frank recalls, “I reported back to Perry that we may or may not have a great case, but we certainly had a great client.”
Tall and bespectacled, Wallace still speaks in the lilting accent she brought with her when she moved to New York from Trelawny, Jamaica, as a young girl in 1959. She remembers Christopher not just as a world-famous rap star but also as the largest five-year-old in their Brooklyn neighborhood — a boy who was already living with the nickname “Big” by the time he turned ten. She worked two jobs to raise him alone from the age of two, when B.I.G.’s father, a small-time Jamaican politician named George Latore, abandoned the family. To this day, she seems to be as proud of the prizes her son won as an English student at Queen of All Saints Middle School as she is of the awards he received for his rap albums.
Before her son’s murder, she says, “I trusted everyone . I trusted the Los Angeles Police Department. I had to believe that they wanted to find out who the murderer of my son was. I had no idea there were such powerful forces involved in all of this.” After reading about LAPD officer David Mack’s alleged involvement in her son’s murder, Wallace decided to pursue a civil action. “I wasn’t thinking about the world that I was taking on, only that something was not right and I have to make it right. If I have to sue them for that, I was gonna do it.”
By early 2002, Sanders had weighed what he learned from Wallace and arrived at a decision, filing a civil-rights claim in the federal district court of central California. “We knew it was a long shot,” he admits. The lawsuit accused the LAPD of “policies and practices” that permitted officers to obtain employment with Death Row Records and enabled at least one of them, David Mack, to conspire with his friend Amir Muhammad in the murder of Notorious B.I.G. “Even then we didn’t appreciate the magnitude of what we were getting ourselves into,” says Frank. As it dawned on them, each attorney drew upon the other’s strengths. The forty-year-old Frank, with his blond beard, slumped shoulders and self-deprecating attitude, was a skilled legal technician who handled most of the briefs and motions, but deferred to Sanders in matters of strategy and presentation. Despite his reputation as a brilliant attorney, Sanders’ Southern accent and good-time grin initially made it difficult for a lot of people in L.A. to take him seriously. “Being underestimated,” he admits with a sly smile, “was our biggest advantage at the beginning of the case.”
He and Frank would soon recognize, however, that the strange facts of Biggie’s murder and the convoluted web of events and people surrounding it would become their greatest assets.
When LAPD officials tried to explain how the murder of Notorious B.I.G. had gone unsolved for eight years, one excuse they could not offer was a lack of witnesses. Dozens of people had been on the street at forty-five minutes past midnight on March 9th, 1997, when B.I.G. was shot to death. At least seven people, including two of those who had been in the car with B.I.G., had gotten a good enough look at the killer to help the police create a composite drawing of the man. As many as a hundred others witnessed the thing go down.
The killer, it seemed, had exploited a recent complacency among those in B.I.G.’s entourage. Death Row Records’ infamous CEO, Marion “Suge” Knight, had been sent to prison a month earlier; there was a general feeling that hostilities between the major East Coast and West Coast rap labels were cooling and that the gun violence, which had climaxed with Tupac Shakur’s murder in Las Vegas six months earlier, might be at an end. Perhaps even the blue-jacketed Crips who had backed Puffy Combs and B.I.G. could make peace with the red-coated Bloods behind Suge and Tupac, some people hoped.
B.I.G.’s murder took place on the last day that he and Combs were to spend in Los Angeles. B.I.G. and Combs did not decide until that afternoon to attend the evening’s Vibe magazine party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A.’s Miracle Mile District. The party would be a closed event for music-industry executives, Combs had been told; security would not be a problem. The scene at the Petersen Museum apparently had been quite mellow, especially given the complications suggested by the guest list. Among the women in attendance, for example, was B.I.G.’s estranged wife, Faith Evans, whom Shakur, on his last record, had famously claimed to have “fucked” as a way of settling scores with her husband. Death Row rapper DJ Quik had shown up with ten fearsome-looking Treetop Piru Bloods in tow, while the dozen or so Crips who wangled invitations included Orlando Anderson, widely believed to have pulled the trigger on Shakur. By midnight, the museum was crammed with many more people than it was permitted to contain, and a majority were smoking marijuana. At 12:30 a.m., the air was so thick with smoke that an announcer warned the crowd, “The fire marshal’s gonna turn the party out!”
B.I.G., Combs and the rest of the Bad Boy contingent headed for the nearest exit. In the cool, fresh air outside, B.I.G. and Combs waited for valets to deliver their vehicles and debated whether to hit another party or head back to the Westwood Marquis. Combs decided they should just return to their hotel and climbed into a white Chevy Suburban next to his driver, Kenneth Story, with his three bodyguards in the back seat. B.I.G. lifted himself into the passenger seat of a green Suburban, next to his driver, Gregory “G-Money” Young, while Junior M.A.F.I.A. rapper James “Lil’ Caesar” Lloyd, who had grown up with B.I.G. in Brooklyn, and B.I.G.’s best friend, Damien “D-Rock” Butler, rode in the back seat.
Combs, in the lead, blew through the amber light at Wilshire as the signal turned red and Biggie’s vehicle stopped on the south side of the intersection. A white Toyota Land Cruiser promptly made a U-turn and tried to cut between Biggie and a trailing Chevy Blazer driven by Bad Boy’s director of security. At that moment, a black Impala SS pulled up on the Suburban’s right side. The driver, alone in the sedan, was a black male whose blue suit, bow tie and fade haircut suggested Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam sect. He looked B.I.G. in the eye for a moment, then reached across his body with a blue-steel automatic pistol held in his right hand, braced it against his left forearm and emptied the gun into the front passenger seat of the Suburban. B.I.G. was the only passenger in the vehicle hit by the bullets. As the Impala sped away, heading east on Wilshire, the Land Cruiser made another U-turn and drove off. The Suburban in which Combs rode slowed nearly to a stop when Story heard the gunshots. Everyone inside ducked, then someone shouted that B.I.G. was under attack. Combs jumped out of the vehicle and ran across Wilshire to the green Suburban. When he opened the passenger-side door, Combs saw B.I.G. hunched over the dashboard with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, bleeding through his jacket. He spoke to B.I.G., Combs told police, but his friend just stared back, eyes open and blank. The terrified Combs jumped into the Suburban behind B.I.G., while Story pushed G-Money aside and drove the vehicle to the emergency dock of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, less than five minutes away. At the hospital, it took six people to lift B.I.G. onto a gurney. Doctors rushed him into surgery as Combs and the others dropped to their knees and prayed, but B.I.G. was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m.
The most striking thing about the immediate investigation of the murder was the absence of detectives from the LAPD’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division. “They were there that first night,” notes Sergio Robleto, a former LAPD lieutenant who would eventually join Sanders on the case as a private investigator. “But they were gone by the next morning and didn’t come back to the case until an entire month had passed. In thirty years, I had never seen that: a murder case involving a major celebrity that wasn’t taken over by Robbery-Homicide right out of the gate.”
The Wilshire detectives who handled the investigation that first month accomplished almost nothing, notwithstanding a number of promising leads. The LAPD had solid descriptions of both the killer and his vehicle, plus four spent shell casings from the gun that had fired the fatal shots. Despite multiple descriptions of the killer as “a Muslim,” however, the people downtown wanted to focus attention on rumors that B.I.G. had been murdered by Crips gang members angry that they hadn’t been paid for security work. “To me it was obvious this wasn’t a gang shooting,” says Detective Russell Poole, who, with partner Fred Miller, would become a lead investigator on the case when it was finally assigned to Robbery-Homicide in April 1997. “Biggie’s murder was much more sophisticated than anything I’ve ever seen any gangbanger pull off. This was professionally executed.”
The detective had come to the Smalls case directly from a shooting investigation that was no less controversial. It had taken place nine days after B.I.G.’s killing, on the other side of the hills, in North Hollywood. Two men — one white, the other black — had become embroiled in what appeared to be an out-of-control traffic dispute. Only after the black man was dead did the California Highway Patrol officers who were first to arrive on the scene discover that the shooter was undercover LAPD detective Frank Lyga, and that the dead man was off-duty LAPD officer Kevin Gaines. What was immediately a politically explosive case took the first of several strange turns when detectives ran a computer check on the customized Mitsubishi Montero that Gaines had been driving and learned it was registered to Suge Knight’s estranged wife, Sharitha. Poole and Miller soon received a tip that Gaines, although married, had been living with a girlfriend in the Hollywood Hills — in a gated mansion owned by Suge Knight. Gaines’ girlfriend, it turned out, was Sharitha, who, among other things, had served as Snoop Dogg’s manager.
Rumors had been circulating for months that there was a cadre of black LAPD officers employed as “security” by Death Row, despite the department’s having explicitly forbidden any involvement with the gangsta rap label. But from the start, Poole’s superiors discouraged him from pursuing “the Death Row aspect of the case.” The LAPD brass also seemed in no hurry to vindicate Lyga, even though every bit of available evidence supported the detective’s self-defense story. Poole was stymied in his efforts to move aggressively on the investigation when it was transferred to the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division, under the supervision of then-deputy chief Bernard Parks. Poole knew that under the auspices of Internal Affairs, the details of the case would be shielded from the public and the investigation would likely be more controlled by the department’s top officials.
Poole’s orders to steer clear of anything having to do with Death Row Records, however, were becoming difficult to obey. Officers from the LAPD’s Pacific Division told Poole that Gaines regularly showed up for work wearing thousand-dollar Versace shirts and that he owned a fleet of cars, including a BMW and a Mercedes. “All this on a salary of $56,000 a year,” Poole observes. Then Poole received information from a reliable prison informant that “Officer Gaines and other LAPD officers provided security for members of Death Row Records during various criminal activities . . . [They] accompanied the members during drug deals and acted as lookouts and advisers.” The day after reading the informant’s statement, Poole received a phone call from a detective in the Wilshire Division. The caller advised him that homicide investigators there had information that Gaines might be involved in the recent assassination of Notorious B.I.G.
The majority of clues collected by investigators assigned to B.I.G.’s murder pointed in the same direction as the word on the street did — directly at Suge Knight. An inmate at California’s Corcoran State Prison said that his cellmate, Marcus Nunn — a Mob Piru Blood from Knight’s home turf in Compton — had confided that Knight, from behind bars, had hired another Mob Piru to take Biggie out. Nunn also said he knew the name of the person who had killed Shakur — also on Knight’s orders. A former Death Row employee claimed he could provide police with evidence that B.I.G. had been murdered by members of Knight’s “goon squad.”
Detectives were amazed that witnesses came forward, given the level of fear Knight inspired in virtually everyone who dealt with him. For the first time in a long while, people seemed to view Knight as vulnerable. Watching him get locked up seemed to turn the tide. Yet until the month before B.I.G.’s murder, Knight had been getting away with outrageously violent behavior for years. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Knight had combined his status as an all-conference defensive end for the football team with a reputation as the biggest drug dealer on campus, while repeatedly using his athletic connections to avoid prison time. On Halloween night 1987, Knight was arrested after shooting a man twice and stealing his Nissan Maxima, yet managed to have the felony charges against him reduced to misdemeanors.
Moving home to Southern California in 1990, Knight used the constant threat and regular exercise of violence to transform himself from bodyguard to talent agent to record producer. In 1991, Knight showed up for a meeting with Ruthless Records owner Eazy-E accompanied by two of his thugs from the Bloods gang. During the next hour he “persuaded” Eazy to sign over three of his top acts — including the leading talent in rap, Dr. Dre — for no compensation. After launching Death Row Records with an investment by the legendary drug lord Michael “Harry-O” Harris, Knight secured $10 million from Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field of Interscope and promptly released Dr. Dre’s The Chronic , which by the end of the year had become the biggest-selling rap album ever.
Despite his wealth, Knight maintained his reputation as a dangerous man. The most serious charges against him stemmed from a 1992 incident at Hollywood’s Solar Records. There, surrounded by an audience of his homeboys, Knight dealt with an impudent rapper named Lynwood Stanley by pistol-whipping him and his brother George, then forcing the two to take off their pants and lie naked in front of him while he removed IDs from their wallets. He promised to have them killed if they went to the police. The brothers called the cops anyway, but Knight, with the aid of his megalomaniacal attorney David Kenner, was able to delay his trial for three years, and then persuaded both the victims and the prosecutor, Larry Longo, to back his appeal for a suspended sentence. Judge Stephen Czuleger, who did not know at the time that the Stanleys had recently signed a $1 million contract with Death Row Records — or that a few months later, prosecutor Longo’s eighteen-year-old daughter would become the first white singer signed to a Death Row contract — recommended a nine-year suspended sentence but agreed to let Knight spend a month in a halfway house, then walk away from the whole mess with five year’s probation. Knight’s involvement in the melee that preceded Shakur’s murder in Las Vegas in September 1996, however, would end his freedom.
As was his standard practice in securing new talent, Knight had honed in on Tupac Shakur at the lowest ebb of the rapper’s life. Shakur was in the New York state prison at Dannemora, serving up to a four-and-a-half-year sentence for sexual assault and recovering from the five bullet wounds he had suffered in the lobby of the Quad Recording Studios off Times Square. Knight promised not only to solve Shakur’s money problems, but to secure his release from prison as well. In October 1995, Shakur signed a three-page handwritten agreement drafted by Kenner, and within a week he walked out of prison to the white stretch limousine where Kenner and Knight waited for him. But within a year, Shakur would try to break away from Knight. First he formed his own production company, Euphanasia, to develop movie projects. And later that summer, the rapper fired Kenner as his attorney — effectively signalling his independence. It was a move that a lot of people predicted would get him killed. At the MTV Video Music Awards held in New York a week later, Knight approached Shakur to insist he had no hard feelings; as a gesture of friendship, he invited Shakur to join him in Las Vegas for the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon heavyweight title fight the following weekend. When Shakur confided to his fiancee, Kidada Jones, that he felt uneasy about the trip, she advised him to wear his bulletproof vest. But Shakur said Vegas was too hot for that.
As the Death Row contingent stepped out of the MGM Grand Hotel’s auditorium following the bout, one of Knight’s homeboys approached Shakur to whisper in his ear. Shakur’s bodyguard, Frank Alexander, saw him turn to stare at a young black man who stood on the other side of the hallway. The man was Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson, a member of the Southside Crips. Anxious to impress Knight and the other Bloods with his continuing loyalty, Shakur charged across the hallway and threw a punch at Anderson. The Crip went to the ground immediately, said Alexander, who found it difficult to believe the skinny rapper could hit that hard. Knight and the Bloods surrounded Anderson, punching, kicking and stomping. They all fled before the police arrived, but Knight, strangely, stopped very near the scene of the crime to make a phone call.
About an hour after the fight, the Death Row crew traveled in a caravan of luxury vehicles to Knight’s 662 club. At Knight’s insistence, he and Shakur rode alone in Knight’s BMW, listening to Shakur’s newest album, Makaveli , at an obliterating volume. When the BMW stopped at a red light just off the Strip, a white Cadillac with four young black men inside pulled up on the right. The passenger in the left rear seat rolled down his window, extended the barrel of a semiautomatic pistol and sprayed the side of the BMW with thirteen bullets, mortally wounding Shakur, before the Cadillac sped away.
“When you saw it laid out, the whole thing looked pretty well planned,” Poole says. “But how did the killers know Tupac would be in that car at that place at that time?” Poole’s suspicions would harden into a working theory after he learned that Snoop Dogg had told the L.A. County Sheriff’s office that Knight was behind Shakur’s murder. Poole was further convinced after he was advised by several people who knew Knight well that he was perfectly capable of taking the risks involved in sitting so close to the target of a contract killing.
Bad news for Knight followed shortly, when the D.A.’s office in Los Angeles obtained a security camera videotape of the attack on Anderson at the MGM Grand and decided Knight’s participation was a violation of his probation. When Knight showed up for his court hearing in February 1997, he was wearing not one of his famous red suits, but rather the blue coveralls of an L.A. County jail inmate. But nothing about the hearing was more remarkable than this: Southside Crip Orlando Anderson, whom virtually everyone believed to be Tupac Shakur’s killer, had come to court to testify on behalf of his sworn enemy, Bloods gang member Suge Knight. “I seen him pulling people off of me,” Anderson swore on the witness stand. Judge Czuleger, like virtually everyone else present, concluded that Knight was paying Anderson for this performance. Czuleger ordered Knight to begin serving the nine-year prison sentence that had been suspended two years earlier. Two weeks later, Notorious B.I.G. was shot dead in Los Angeles.
The most startling discovery he had made about the circumstances surrounding Shakur’s murder, Poole told Sanders, was that among the security staff working for Death Row in Las Vegas that evening was an LAPD officer. Richard McCauley, it turned out, was the only LAPD officer who had ever officially applied for a permit to work for Death Row Records. That permit was revoked in early 1996, however, and McCauley had been ordered to avoid any association with Death Row. Information that he had violated that order, and was in Las Vegas on Death Row’s payroll at the time of Shakur’s killing, would produce the only investigation the LAPD has ever made of its officers’ involvement with the record label.
Poole had learned about McCauley’s involvement with Death Row from the senior lead officer in the LAPD’s West Valley Division, Kenneth Knox. Knox had first visited Knight’s CAN-AM Recording Studios on June 23rd, 1996, because of complaints from neighbors about seeing “armed gang members” coming and going from the Death Row studio; studio manager Kevin Lewis explained that the people carrying guns were not gang members but off-duty police officers. “Some are your guys,” Lewis told Knox.
“As soon as it was suggested that there were at least several, and probably a lot more, LAPD officers working for this gangster organization, the brass told Knox to back off and not to get involved anymore,” Poole explains. “He had become convinced that this was a huge scandal in the making.” What Poole knew that Knox did not was that three other LAPD officers had been identified by informants as “associates or employees” of Death Row Records. The names of these officers are now familiar to almost everyone in Los Angeles: Kevin Gaines, David Mack and Rafael Perez.
Officer David Mack first came to the attention of detectives investigating B.I.G.’s murder in mid-November 1997, when he was arrested for one of the biggest bank robberies in L.A. history. With the assistance of a girlfriend who worked at a Bank of America branch near the USC campus, Mack and two accomplices had stolen $722,000 in shrink-wrapped bundles. He had pulled a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol from a shoulder holster under his suit jacket, pointed it at the two women who were counting the cash and told them, “Don’t touch those fucking pagers or I’ll blow your heads off!”
The girlfriend rolled over on him only a month later, though, and Mack was arrested on December 16th. Mack encased himself in a hard shell from the moment detectives from the LAPD’s bank-robbery squad began reading him his rights. “Take your best shot,” he told them. At the Montebello City Jail, where he was locked up after his arrest, Mack informed the other inmates that they had better not fuck with him because he was a member of the Mob Piru Bloods, then boasted that the nearly $700,000 remaining from the bank robbery was “invested” in a way that would double his money by the time he was released from prison.
What most interested Poole about the arrest report on Mack was the black Impala SS parked in the garage of his house next to a wall decorated with Shakur memorabilia; detectives described it as a “shrine” to the slain rapper. When Poole asked to have Mack’s Impala tested by the LAPD’s Scientific Investigations Division, however, “the brass said no,” he recalls. “They didn’t want to ‘step on the FBI’s toes.’ What bullshit! The LAPD has never cared about stepping on the FBI’s toes.”
But Mack would not become the focus of Poole’s investigation until January 1998, when Poole learned that the first person to visit the arrested officer in jail was a man who went by the name Amir Muhammad. An inmate described by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department as an “ultra-reliable informant” (having already solved two homicide cases for them, deputies said) had reported that the shooter in the Biggie Smalls case was a contract killer who belonged to Louis Farrakhan’s elite security squad, the Fruits of Islam, and went by the name Amir or Ashmir. The inmate had been told the killing was ordered by Knight and had something to do with the death of Tupac Shakur.
Muhammad and Mack met as scholarship athletes — Muhammad was a running back on the football team, and Mack was an All-American middle-distance runner — at the University of Oregon in the late 1970s. Poole took a deep breath when he first saw the driver’s license photo Muhammad had presented at the Montebello City Jail: While Mack looked nothing like the composite drawing of the shooter in the Smalls case, Muhammad bore a distinct resemblance to the suspect. And Muhammad (whose legal name is Harry Billups) had used a false address and a false Social Security number when he signed in as a visitor at the jail, Poole learned.
When Poole re-interviewed B.I.G.’s best friend, Damien Butler, the detective showed Butler a photo lineup. “I’m sure this guy was standing just outside the door to the museum as we were entering the party,” Butler said, as he pointed to a photograph in the upper-right-hand corner. It was Mack’s mug shot.
From Poole’s point of view, this evidence all but nailed Mack for involvement in B.I.G.’s murder. The detective’s superiors told him they did not see it that way. “I was told, ‘We’re not going that way,'” Poole says. “‘Just keep your mouth shut and do your job.'”
Yet Poole’s follow-up interviews with Shakur’s former bodyguards, Frank Alexander and Kevin Hackie, added to his mounting conviction that the primary link between the murders of B.I.G. and Shakur was Knight. Alexander told Poole he believed the assault on Orlando Anderson had been staged. Convinced by Alexander that he needed to interview Anderson, Poole found the Crip difficult to locate. He finally turned up on May 29th, 1998 — shot to death at a car wash in Compton. Yafu Fula, a childhood friend of Shakur’s who was riding in the same car with Alexander at the time of the murder, and who had told Las Vegas police he could identify the killer, was himself shot to death in November 1998 in the hallway of a New Jersey housing project.
“It just seemed incredibly convenient,” Poole observes. “The best witness and main suspect in the murder of Tupac, both shot dead, while the case remained unsolved.”
Poole first heard the name Rafael Perez in February 1998; still overseeing the Biggie murder investigation, he was given a list of LAPD officers who were closest to Mack. The most significant incident connecting the two went back to their days as an undercover narcotics team, when they had been involved in the shooting death of a drug dealer named Jesse Vincencio; Mack had been awarded the Police Medal, the LAPD’s second-highest honor, for the shooting. Poole was struck by a statement from Perez that he owed his life to Mack and would do anything for the man. Poole learned that Perez and another black detective, Sammy Martin, had left with Mack for Vegas two days after the bank robbery, staying in a $1,500-a-night suite at Caesar’s Palace and blowing through $21,000 in a weekend.
It was becoming clear that Perez was no ordinary corrupt cop. The LAPD amassed considerable evidence that Perez and his partner Nino Durden, possibly aided by other officers, were selling cocaine — three kilos of it, stolen directly from the LAPD Property Division — on the street. But at Perez’s trial in the summer of 1998, the jury deadlocked. “That hung jury changed the whole outlook of the investigation,” Poole recalls. “Parks wanted this thing over by the end of the year, but when they lost that first trial, the chief panicked, thinking, ‘We gotta do something fast.’ So they started pushing to make a deal with Perez.”
That deal would have a bigger impact on Los Angeles than any ever negotiated by the city with a criminal defendant. Perez was recast as a whistle-blower, a flawed but ultimately heroic man exposing the corruption around him. Over a period of weeks, and then months, Perez went on to implicate more than seventy officers with whom he had worked at the LAPD’s Rampart Division in assorted crimes and abuses against the community’s largely Hispanic population. The story Perez told became increasingly byzantine, with descriptions of a “crash pad” where a “secret society” of Rampart officers debauched themselves with stolen drugs and coerced prostitutes; of prizes given for shooting gang members; and of cover-ups by assorted supervisors. All along, Perez insisted he knew of no criminal activity by either Mack or Martin.
In September 1999, Bernard Parks, now the chief of police, held a news conference to announce that a total of twelve LAPD officers had already been relieved of duty on the basis of what Perez said. From the start, The Los Angeles Times framed the story in the context of the Rodney King beating — the brutalization of minority victims by blue-suited brutes. Parks addressed the Los Angeles City Council the next day and made the remarkable statement, “We take Rafael Perez at his word.” On and on it went: lawsuits, indignant editorials, a cottage industry for the political left in L.A. Despite failing five city-administered polygraph tests, Perez would be sentenced to just five years, less time served, for the cocaine thefts, and receive immunity for all other crimes to which he had confessed. To some, it seemed as if one of the dirtiest cops in the history of the LAPD was playing puppet master to the whole city.
The inconsistencies in Perez’s story emerged slowly. First, the LAPD was never able to find the crash pad Perez had described. When Perez appeared at an LAPD trial board to testify against former colleague Lawrence Martinez, whom he had accused of helping to frame two gang members on gun charges, Martinez’s attorney pinned him down on the date, got Perez to name the informant he met with shortly before the arrest, then promptly demonstrated that the man had been in prison on that date. “The problem with Perez,” the attorney said, “is that he’s told so many lies that he’s confused. He doesn’t know what the truth is anymore.”
Chief Parks continued to back Perez, telling reporters “seventy to eighty percent” of what Perez claimed in his “confessions” had been verified by LAPD investigators. Yet by early 2001, all eleven of the Rampart officers subjected to Board of Rights disciplinary hearings, in which the main witness against them was Perez, had been exonerated — because, as the LAPD captain who presided over one of those hearings put it: “Perez has shown himself not to be a credible witness.”
By this point, though, the official story line of the Rampart scandal had achieved the sort of critical mass that made those who questioned it irrelevant. In May 2000, the L.A. Times ran an article under the headline MAN NO LONGER UNDER SCRUTINY IN RAPPER’S DEATH. It was written by Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music-industry reporter. An LAPD detective had told Philips that the department was no longer investigating the theory that Mack and Muhammad had been involved in B.I.G.’s murder. The article, however, raised many more questions than it answered. The detective quoted in the piece gave no explanation for why the LAPD had abandoned this “theory.” LAPD detectives told Philips they still wanted to interview Muhammad — but didn’t explain why (if he was no longer a suspect), or why they had neglected to contact him. And while Philips did speak to Muhammad, he failed to report any answer to the most obvious question: If Muhammad’s visit to Mack in jail when he was arrested in December 1997 was an innocent contact between two old friends, why had the man used a false address, false Social Security number and an out-of-service phone number to arrange it?
But the Times had overlooked many details about Muhammad. The newspaper had not reported that on October 21st, 1998, Muhammad had been arrested in the city of Chino for “firearm brandishing,” in an incident where he was reported to have pulled his black BMW sedan up alongside the white Blazer in which his ex-girlfriend, Angelique Mitchell, and her new boyfriend rode and pointed a pistol at the couple. Police found a semiautomatic Beretta with an eight-round clip in Muhammad’s car when they pulled him over. Muhammad (who was now shaving his head, rather than wearing the fade haircut he had sported at the time of B.I.G.’s murder) denied pointing the pistol at the couple, then explained that he was in the process of moving and had forgotten the gun was in his car. After providing police with a fake driver’s license (in the name of “Harry Muhammad”), he was eventually cited for carrying a concealed weapon and released. Six days later, Mitchell and her boyfriend were dead from gunshot wounds to the head, in what police would rule a murder-suicide. “Harry Muhammad” waited two years, then had his weapons conviction expunged.
Still, the damage from the L.A. Times was done: In one fell stroke, the only viable theory of the Biggie Smalls murder had been discarded. Russell Poole, after quitting the force in 1999, attempted to resurrect the story by filing a federal lawsuit against the LAPD in 2000, but his case was dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. It looked like the subject might be buried forever, until Perry Sanders and Voletta Wallace stepped forward in early 2002 and filed a federal lawsuit that threatened not only the LAPD but everyone involved in promoting and profiting from the Rampart scandal.
During her first meeting with Rob Frank, Wallace advised the attorney that a confidential source had told her that a man named “D-Mack” was the key to solving this murder and that she had passed this information along to the police in Los Angeles. While Sanders and Frank found no mention of this tip from the victim’s mother in the first batch of documents they received from the LAPD, they did discover that another informant had apparently given detectives the same tip. The attorneys later found a piece of jailhouse correspondence that Mack had signed with his street name — D-Mack — and the initials “MOB,” for “Member of Bloods.” “As soon as we saw that,” Sanders says, “we knew this case wasn’t as long a shot as we had feared.”
The attorneys were further encouraged when they learned that the FBI was looking into B.I.G.’s murder. A young agent in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Phil Carson, had become convinced that an independent federal investigation was warranted. By late 2003, Carson was working with a pair of detectives from the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division, who apparently felt the same way. Carson and the Internal Affairs investigators phoned Sanders to ask for a meeting. He and Frank were staggered when the three investigators began the meeting by stating, “We believe you have sued the right people, and we believe other police officers were involved.”
On the other hand, their depositions of Steve Katz — the lead detective on the Biggie investigation since 1999 — left the attorneys with the impression that the LAPD still believed it could bluff its way through this mess and, in fact, intended to make sure the Biggie murder was never solved.
The attorneys were startled by Katz’s admission that during the past few months, he had made three trips to Houston in connection with two primary suspects named Richard Daniels and Tony Draper — men never implicated by a shred of evidence — who had been seen in a Bentley coupe the night of the shooting. Sanders and Frank could barely conceal their astonishment: The LAPD had identified the vehicle driven by the killer as a black Impala in dozens of documents, including search warrants. The attorneys asked why no forensic tests had been run on Mack’s black Impala. Katz had no explanation.
The detective seemed to become confused, though, after Sanders and Frank got him to acknowledge that the FBI was focusing its investigation on the “Mack-Muhammad theory” of the case. Katz insisted that he had recently made a “plan” to interview Muhammad but was asked by the captain of the Robbery-Homicide Division to “hold off,” because the FBI was still investigating. He had been considering placing a wiretap on Muhammad, Katz admitted. Why, the attorneys asked, would he do that? Because Muhammad was still a suspect in the murder, answered Katz, apparently forgetting that he had earlier stated that Muhammad was not a prime suspect. Katz acknowledged that there was one piece of evidence that implicated Muhammad in this crime: a witness who had placed him at the scene on the night of the murder.
Sanders and Frank both knew that Katz was referring to the man they believed would be their best witness at trial, Puffy Combs’ former bodyguard Eugene Deal.
Deal had impressed LAPD detectives as the most credible witness among those in the caravan of cars that had carried Combs and B.I.G. to the Petersen Museum party on the night of the murder. In his interviews with the police, Deal, a New York State parole officer, had strongly denounced the LAPD’s pet theory that Crips had committed the crime, mainly because the members of the gang he met at the Petersen party that night had shown him “nothing but love.” And Deal’s description of the “Nation of Islam guy” who seemed to be stalking Combs as they waited for their rides after the party had always been the most intriguing statement provided by any witnesses. As the Muslim approached from the sidewalk that evening, Deal said, he “seemed to be checking them out” — Combs in particular — before turning to walk north in the direction from which the black Impala would come less than ten minutes later. Deal said that police never showed him a photo of Amir Muhammad, but documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield did; with camera rolling, Deal was shown pictures of a half-dozen people who had been linked to the murder in one way or another. Deal immediately picked out one photo and said, “That’s him right there.”
The man in the photograph was Harry Billups, a.k.a. Amir Muhammad.
Deal was remarkably consistent in the deposition conducted this past Valentine’s Day by Frank, Sanders and a lawyer from the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. He was on edge from the moment he saw that “serious-looking” man in the blue suit and bow tie outside the Petersen Museum, Deal said in his deposition. “We had had a confrontation [the night before] at the Soul Train Awards with some people that were from the Nation of Islam, and I was a little worried about that,” he said. As the Muslim “came close,” the bodyguard recalled, “I looked him in his eye, and I showed him my weapon.” Only then did the man turn and disappear among the cars that lined the street. As the Bad Boy caravan left the museum’s parking structure a few minutes later, Deal rode in the lead vehicle with Combs. They had just driven past Wilshire when “I hear Tone [a member of B.I.G.’s entourage] say, ‘Yo, somebody is pulling a gun at B.I.G.,'” Deal recalled, “and then I heard something go bap-bap-bap-bap-bap .”
Sanders and Frank were convinced the bodyguard was a solid-gold witness. A giant of a man (six-feet-seven and 309 pounds) who carried himself with quiet confidence, Deal spoke well and without hesitation. Better yet, he had nothing to gain from his testimony in the case; in fact, he was paying a considerable price for his cooperation. After interviewing him, Deal said, the LAPD’s Katz told him that “they’d be getting back in touch with me. . . . But I never heard from them after that day.” But Deal believed the LAPD did speak to his employer. He was put on unpaid leave for exceeding the allowable number of hours devoted to outside employment during the time he was working for Combs. To make matters worse, Combs, a friend of Deal’s since 1989, has not hired him again since learning that Deal was talking to the police.
The man who would be Diddy had failed to fully cooperate with the investigation of B.I.G.’s death ever since it had begun back in 1997. Notorious B.I.G. was not only the Bad Boy label’s biggest earner, but also, supposedly, one of Combs’ closest friends. Yet Puffy had made it clear from the start that he would be doing nothing to help police solve the murder. Gregory Young, who had been sitting next to B.I.G. when he was shot to death, told Poole that Combs went so far as to tell the other members of the Bad Boy entourage that “if our names even appear on a witness list, we’re out of a job.” And now, suddenly, the other witnesses who were in the vehicle with B.I.G. on the night of his death also seemed to be losing their memories.
Wallace has been reluctant to speak about Combs in connection to this case, but she now says, “If Puffy has been threatening people with the loss of their jobs for cooperating with the police, I want that made public . . . If — and I’m gonna spell that capital I , capital F — IF he did that, then I think he is lower than low.”
Even with Deal on their witness list, Sanders and Frank were feeling outgunned. They added firepower in the person of Sergio Robleto, who had spent twenty-six years with the LAPD, retiring in 1995 to enter high-end private security work. His last position with the department had been commander of South Bureau Homicide, where he supervised Poole. Before agreeing to become involved in the case, Robleto asked if he could take a look at the evidence the attorneys had received from the LAPD. “It was forty-four boxes of stuff,” Robleto recalls. “When I read through it, I was shocked by what I found. Percipient witnesses who were present on the street when this shooting took place haven’t been interviewed by the LAPD. That just doesn’t happen.” Robleto was especially scandalized, he says, by the degree to which “political considerations” had compromised the B.I.G. murder investigation. “Internal Affairs made sure that anybody who said anything bad about Rafael Perez was neutralized. This case was corrupted from the start, and it only got worse as it went along.”
After reading through the evidence, Robleto agreed not only to work for the plaintiffs as an investigator but also to testify in court as an expert witness. He helped develop several witnesses for the plaintiffs, including a man whom they believed could break the case wide open — an intimidating convicted felon named Mario Ha’mmonds.
Ha’mmonds, a former partner in a small rap label called Lock Records, had a long and complicated history of both criminal conduct and cooperation with the authorities. He had been working with the FBI since the early Nineties and was passed on to the LAPD as a “confidential and reliable” informant in 1999, after the B.I.G. murder. From 1997 to 1999, he was part of Knight’s protective circle at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.
A hulking figure who wore graying dreadlocks and black horn-rim glasses with his prison blues, Ha’mmonds sat in a wheelchair fingering prayer beads during his deposition in May. He was being treated for a broken neck and liver cancer, among other ailments, Ha’mmonds said, and he understood that he was not long for this world. He remained a man who could take care of himself, however; Sanders and Frank questioned him at San Quentin, where he had been transferred from the Marin County Jail (serving a sentence for identity theft and forgery), following a bloody battle with another inmate. This man had attacked him with a pen, Ha’mmonds said, after overhearing a phone conversation involving the Smalls case. Although in his wheelchair at the time, Ha’mmonds had managed to inflict what the authorities characterized as “great bodily injury” on his armed assailant. “Music, records, film — crime,” he said, in answer to a question about what kinds of businesses he had been involved in. He freely admitted that he had spent twenty-six of his forty-nine years in jails or prisons.
An Oakland native, Ha’mmonds was OG (original gangster) in the most fundamental sense of the term, having joined the much-feared Black Guerrilla Family prison gang while incarcerated as a young man. What really gave Ha’mmonds stature in the gangsta-rap world, though, was the time he had spent as an enforcer for the most powerful drug lord in Northern California, Felix Mitchell. Ha’mmonds had dropped out of the BGF in 1987, when he joined a Nation of Islam splinter group known as Five Percenters, which anointed him “a Muslim who will commit crimes in the name of Allah,” as Ha’mmonds explained it. He abandoned the Five Percenters to become an orthodox Sunni Muslim in 1990, around the same time he decided to “debrief” (inform on his former fellow gang members) in order to escape the suffocating confines of the super-maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay and return to a mainline institution. Most of what he told the government involved “when we had dudes killed or we killed ourselves,” Ha’mmonds said in his deposition.
Ha’mmonds had worked ever since as what he liked to call an “agent provocateur” and had been well paid for assisting the government in various investigations, in particular those involving Death Row Records and Suge Knight. His introduction to Knight was provided by Shakur: He and Pac had known each other since the late 1980s, when the future rap legend was a skinny, scared teenager living in Marin City and working as a dancer with the Digital Underground. The two of them had met up in Las Vegas for the Holyfield-Bowe heavyweight title fight in November 1995, Ha’mmonds said, and were gambling with a group that had included Knight, Snoop Dogg and several members of the Dogg Pound, at Caesar’s Palace, before adjourning to the VIP room at Knight’s 662 club. One night when Knight had arranged for them to be alone, Ha’mmonds recalled, Knight said, “‘You’re from up north, right, man? You fuck with Felix and them, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he mentioned Christopher Wallace — Biggie Smalls — and he say, ‘You know, that fat punk is giving me a lot of lip and a lot of shit on the East Coast. You think you can handle it?’ By ‘handle it,’ meaning, can you arrange or do — assassinate — Christopher Wallace, Biggie Smalls? I told him no.” Knight seemed very disappointed: “He say, ‘Aww, I thought you was hard, man.'”
But Ha’mmonds was still welcome to hang with Knight and his crew. During a video shoot in L.A., Knight had told him that there was no need to worry about drug busts and such while on location, “’cause we got LAPD.'” It was in this period that he met David Mack, whom he understood to be part of Knight’s security team. “I don’t trust cops,” Ha’mmonds said, “regardless of how cool they is.” But he felt an immediate rapport with another man he met at one of Knight’s parties in Las Vegas: Amir Muhammad. He was impressed that Muhammad had greeted him in fluent Arabic.
Knight and Ha’mmonds had shared the same cellblock at San Luis Obispo Men’s Colony in the late Nineties, living just ten feet from each other. Both the LAPD and the FBI communicated with him in that regard. During their first few days on the block, Ha’mmonds said, “Me and Suge Knight reacquainted ourselves from our little escapades in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and we reminisced and laughed and jived and bullshitted about it.” Their relationship became more serious when Knight began to rely upon Ha’mmonds for physical protection. Knight apparently understood that the Rolling Sixties Crips had wanted him dead. On top of that, Knight “wouldn’t even trust his own Bloods associates,” Ha’mmonds said, “because a lot of them wanted to do something to him there as well.” Knight turned to the Muslims and brothers who either were, or had been, members of the BGF, explained Ha’mmonds: “He made sure we had money on our books, made sure that our families was taken care of.” Over time, Knight began to rely on Ha’mmonds in almost every detail of daily life: “I would get people to run his errands for him . . . to run his weed over to different quads, make sure the officer was bringing us what we needed.” Since Knight could barely read or write, Ha’mmonds said, “I used to sign for his packages” and spent evenings reading aloud to him in the prison yard’s bleachers.
The murder of Notorious B.I.G. had taken place not long before Knight was moved to the Men’s Colony, and Ha’mmonds recalled that Knight hadn’t needed much time after his arrival to take credit for the killing. “He said, ‘My people handled the business. They took care of him . . . and he took it like a fat bitch.’ He started laughing, and he said, ‘We just missed Puffy.'” At first, Knight maintained that B.I.G.’s murder was retaliation for Shakur’s slaying, according to Ha’mmonds. He began to doubt this story, though, when people associated with the Bay Area rappers Too Short and E-40 offered him money to assassinate Knight, insisting it was Knight who had had Shakur killed. “They asked me, Why am I hanging out with this dude,” Ha’mmonds recalled, “when you know he killed homeboy?”
Two of the names Knight had mentioned in connection to the murder were “Reg” — believed to be Death Row’s then-director of security, Reggie Wright Jr. — and an individual he referred to as Big Sykes. Knight went on to name two other members of the “team” that had taken B.I.G. out, according to Ha’mmonds: David Mack and Amir Muhammad. Knight told Ha’mmonds that all four had helped him arrange the murder by phone while he was incarcerated at the county jail in Los Angeles, and he gradually offered details about how the killing had been accomplished: Two women who had infiltrated the Bad Boy camp provided the information about when and where B.I.G. would be exposed, and his team had coordinated events on the night of the murder using cell phones. Knight never did tell him who exactly pulled the trigger, Ha’mmonds said. He did, however, ultimately reveal that his story about B.I.G.’s killing being payback for Tupac’s murder was “a smokescreen,” Ha’mmonds said, adding that shortly before Knight’s transfer to Mule Creek State Prison, “He say, ‘Later on, down the line, you’ll see the big picture. It’s about money.'” Knight also told Ha’mmonds he had no concern about being charged with B.I.G.’s death. “He told me this out of his own mouth, that because LAPD was involved, that this murder would never be solved, and that ‘If anybody says anything against me, I can find out.'”
For Sanders and Frank, Ha’mmonds’ pretrial testimony was about as good as it could get. Still, they knew he’d pose problems as a witness — after all, he was a snitch, a career criminal who had been involved in murders. Of greater concern: While LAPD records indicated Ha’mmonds had passed on the information about Big Sykes and Reg being involved in the Notorious B.I.G. murder, there was no mention of Mack or Muhammad in those documents. The moment he had brought up Mack and Muhammad to the LAPD, Ha’mmonds says, he was told, “We don’t need to talk about that.” Ha’mmonds came to believe that whatever he told the LAPD was somehow being passed on to Knight. At his last two court appearances, Ha’mmonds said, “people from Knight’s camp” had taken seats in the gallery and that both had made slashing motions across their throats when he looked at them.
LAPD representatives clearly recognized how damaging Ha’mmonds’ testimony could be to them: They had not only withheld tapes and materials generated by his interviews with the police during their initial surrender of evidence in the case but had blacked out his name in documents as well. Police officials relented only after Sanders and Frank discovered an obscure reference to the man and threatened a court order, persuading the LAPD to turn over everything in its possession that mentioned Ha’mmonds. This resulted in the production of documents that revealed the biggest problem for the LAPD: The department itself had vouched for Ha’mmonds’ integrity when it used his statements to obtain search warrants in its investigations of Knight. During his interrogation by the city’s attorneys, Ha’mmonds put it this way: “I am an honest individual. Even though I’m a criminal, I do not lie. My credibility . . . must be good, because I’ve made a livelihood out of this. People are in prison . . . locked up from some of the information that I have contributed to government agencies.”
“The LAPD has to be asking themselves how they’re going to call him a liar now,” Sanders says, “when they’ve already called him a credible witness. I can’t wait to see how the L.A. Times tries to spin this one for them.”
When looking back on this nine-year-long saga of deceit and corruption, nothing is more troubling — or more incomprehensible — than the role played by The Los Angeles Times . Sanders bluntly describes the Times as “a co-conspirator in the cover-up.”
Up until September 2002, the Times could have settled its debt to the reading public with a moderately embarrassing mea culpa — an acknowledgment that all was not as it had seemed in the story of whistle-blower Rafael Perez and the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. Instead, the newspaper chose to go over the top with a huge two-part front-page article (written by Chuck Philips) published on the six-year anniversary of Shakur’s slaying. The gist was that Shakur had been murdered by Crips gang members at the behest of Notorious B.I.G., who had offered them $1 million to do it. The Times reported that on the night of Shakur’s killing, a Crips “emissary” had visited B.I.G. in the penthouse suite at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, where the enormous rapper promised $1 million on the condition that Shakur was killed with his gun — then placed a loaded .40-caliber Glock on the table in front of him. The only two named sources in the article about B.I.G.’s involvement were Knight and Atlanta rapper E.D.I. Mean, both of whom offered descriptions of the shootings that had already appeared in print many times. There was no documentation offered of B.I.G.’s stay at the MGM Grand or even of his presence in Las Vegas. The paper couldn’t name one person who had seen one of the most famous young black men in the country — a flamboyant rapper who weighed almost 400 pounds and traveled with an entourage — in Las Vegas that weekend.
Within five days, the Times was forced to publish a new, shorter article — also authored by Philips — reporting that lawyers for the Wallace estate had produced invoices that placed B.I.G. in a New York recording studio — Combs’ “Daddy’s House” — on the evening he was supposed to have been meeting with those Crips in Las Vegas. B.I.G.’s family was even able to provide MTV with a digital tape of the song “Nasty Girls” that the rapper had recorded during that session.
After the “B.I.G. killed Tupac” article appeared, Voletta Wallace, who describes herself as “flabbergasted” by the Times ‘ attack on her son’s reputation, was immediately contacted by friends of her son who said they had been with B.I.G. in New Jersey, watching the Tyson-Seldon fight on pay-per-view, roughly an hour before the Times claimed he had been meeting Crips in Vegas. “It was so ridiculous,” she says. “My son is Notorious B.I.G. If my son is gonna go to Las Vegas, don’t tell me nobody didn’t see him.”
The deluge of biased reporting about the case had begun to wear on Sanders, he admits: “It’s been a big enough drag to have a whole bunch of very good lawyers against us in this case, but to have the biggest newspaper in the state doing triple back flips to try to influence the jury against us has made it much more difficult.” Still, no one on the plaintiffs’ side was prepared for the front-page article by Philips that the Times ran in June, eleven days before the civil trial was scheduled to begin, under the headline INFORMANT IN RAP STAR’S SLAYING ADMITS HEARSAY.
The essence of the story was the headline: The secret informant who first told police that B.I.G.’s killer was a Nation of Islam member named “Amir” or “Ashmir” had “admitted” that his information wasn’t firsthand. Philips did his best to use the man’s own background — which he had described in a sealed deposition — against him: The informant, known as “Psycho Mike,” had grown up in Compton and had shot a man to death to avenge the murder of his brother; he had joined the Black Guerrilla Family while behind bars, stabbing another inmate fourteen times as his “blood in” initiation rite. He had later experienced a religious conversion that resulted in, among other things, his becoming an informant for agencies that included the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and the DEA. He was also a diagnosed schizophrenic who had been on medication for most of his adult life and a man who had instilled fear in his enemies by cultivating a reputation for unpredictable eruptions of violence.
What the Times did not report was Psycho Mike’s consistency and lucidity during his deposition. He had not been caught in a single contradiction by the city attorneys who tried to trip him up. “Ten minutes into that deposition, I knew this guy was going to be an absolutely great witness for us in court,” Sanders says. “He came across as someone who was just going to tell it like it was, and to hell with you if you didn’t like it.”
The section of the article that embittered Sanders and Frank, though, was where Philips used Psycho Mike’s February 3rd, 2005, deposition to suggest he was confessing that his information about the involvement of Mack and Muhammad in the murder had come to him secondhand. In fact, he had never said it was anything else: Most of what he knew about this case, Mike explained, had resulted from trusted friends and family connections. One of Mike’s own brothers had been a professional killer (until he himself was murdered in his bed) and, in that capacity, was familiar with Muhammad, whom he also had understood to be a contract assassin. “He wasn’t a stranger to my brother,” the informant observed. “Two killers was in the same group.”
When Psycho Mike finally met Muhammad at the house in Compton where a Death Row Records employee named Rick James lived, he said he brought up the Smalls case. Muhammad immediately dropped his voice to a “killer’s whisper” and “said that if my brother was alive, I’d be dead,” apparently meaning that his own brother would have killed him for his insolence. “[He said] ‘I would not be here talking about it.'”
Despite what Psycho Mike claimed to know about how dangerous Muhammad was, he went along with an FBI plan to get incriminating statements from him on tape in December 2003, driving south to San Diego and knocking on the door of the house where Muhammad was then living. But Muhammad “got spooked when he seen me,” Mike recalled. “Thought I was coming there to kill him” and refused to let him inside.
Almost immediately after this encounter, Psycho Mike said, someone had leaked word of the FBI investigation to Chuck Philips, who promptly produced a story for the Times that “penned me out as the source of going down to San Diego with a wire.” He was furious: “I confronted [FBI agent] Phil Carson, and I wanted to jump on him. I wanted to hurt him.” Carson, though, insisted he wasn’t Philips’ source, and even signed an affidavit stating so.
Sergio Robleto described the release of the sealed deposition transcript of the “Informant Admits Hearsay” article as “tantamount to jury tampering.” And the Times ‘ decision to reveal the informant’s street name was, he believes, like “signing his death warrant.” Within days of the article’s publication, Robleto says, Bloods gang members found Psycho Mike’s secret location, roughed him up on the street and promised to come back later and “take care of [him] for good.” He disappeared immediately after this incident, and neither Robleto nor the attorneys he is working for have been able to contact him since. Sanders and Frank had expected the man to be one of their strongest witnesses but now would have to make do with a DVD of his deposition.
As the days and hours ticked down toward the start of the trial, the two attorneys realized that Mike was not the only important witness they would have to do without. Kenneth Knox, the one officer other than Poole who had attempted a substantive investigation into the relationship between Death Row Records and the LAPD, had disappeared. Robleto had last spoken to Knox in late 2004. By then retired from the police department, Knox was “extremely reluctant” to discuss Death Row Records, Robleto says: “He explained that his wife was terrified of Suge Knight.” At the same time, however, Knox said he felt compelled to address the troubling manner in which his investigation had been abruptly shut down by the LAPD, which, among other things, had wiped clean his computer hard drive.
In the weeks before the lawsuit’s trial date, Robleto and his associates devoted many hours to surveillance of Knox’s home and saw no sign of him. “We heard he had gone to Mexico to avoid our subpoena,” Robleto says, “but we wondered how he knew exactly when he needed to disappear.” This raised questions about the involvement of Assistant City Attorney Don Vincent, the former police captain who was now the city’s lead lawyer on the case. He has known Knox since he was seventeen — in fact, he recruited his old friend onto the force. But in an interview with Rolling Stone , Vincent denied telling Knox to make himself scarce. Says Frank, “However it happened, his disappearance has hurt our case and helped theirs.”
The attorneys were especially concerned about losing another important witness after Judge Cooper decided against them in a dispute about how the trial should be structured, ruling with the city that the case should be broken into three parts — and that the first hurdle the plaintiffs had to get over would be the highest. Sanders and Frank knew they possessed overwhelming evidence that the LAPD had alternately neglected and obstructed an investigation into the possible involvement of LAPD officers associated with Death Row Records in the murder of Notorious B.I.G., but “you can’t sue someone for the failure to fully investigate a crime,” Frank explains.
To win their civil-rights lawsuit, the attorneys would have to prove that the LAPD was guilty of a “pattern and practice” that had resulted in the rapper’s death. And Cooper had ruled that they would first have to convince the jury that Mack had been involved in B.I.G.’s slaying before they could make the case that the LAPD had covered it up. On the other hand, they weren’t held to the “proof beyond reasonable doubt” standard of a criminal trial, the attorneys note, and would only have to convince a jury that it was more likely than not that Mack and his friend Muhammad were involved in the murder. Mario Ha’mmonds and Eugene Deal, whom they intended to present as their final two witnesses, would provide plenty of evidence to persuade a jury that it needed to hear the rest of their case, the attorneys believed.
By June 21st, when a jury had been selected to hear opening statements, Sanders and Frank realized that combating the impression that their case was falling apart would be even tougher than they had imagined. One witness after another had begun to duck and cover, convinced their lives were at risk if they testified in open court. Frank urged the jury to prepare for inconsistencies in the testimony of “reluctant” witnesses frightened because those implicated in this case “are incredibly violent people.”
The first important witness called by the plaintiffs, former Shakur bodyguard Kevin Hackie, promptly confirmed the two attorneys’ fears with what the Times described as “erratic” testimony. The newspaper’s coverage of Hackie’s appearance in court emphasized the bodyguard’s repudiation of his previous sworn testimony that Mack had worked in a “covert capacity” for Death Row Records. The Times made no mention of how Hackie’s testimony began with the following series of questions and answers:
Q: Do you want to testify in this case?
A: No, sir.
Q: Why not?
A: I’m in fear for my life, sir.
Q: What are you afraid of?
A: Retribution by the Bloods, the Los Angeles Police Department and associates of Death Row Records.
The following day, though, things began to improve dramatically from the plaintiffs’ point of view. Retired LAPD detective Fred Miller, who had been both Poole’s partner and his supervisor, not only praised his former partner’s detective work but testified that after Poole left the LAPD, Miller had taken the case to the district attorney’s office, seeking to have Knight charged with B.I.G.’s murder. Prosecutors had told him the case was “not quite there,” said Miller, who could offer no explanation for the LAPD’s subsequent failure to investigate further.
The most startling revelation of the day, however, was the testimony of LAPD detective Wayne Caffey, who told of having been shown a photograph of a woman posing with Mack and Perez that he had understood was seized from the home of a South Central L.A. gang member. The woman in the photograph, he said on the stand, was apparently Bernard Parks’ daughter Michelle. “That had the jurors on the edges of their seats,” Sanders says. “They had to wonder what the daughter of the chief of police was doing posing with a couple of gangster cops for a photograph found in a gang member’s house.”
Things got even stranger the next day, when Hollywood screenwriter Mikko Alanne, who had been researching the police scandal for a TV movie, testified under oath that during a private meeting, Caffey had told him the LAPD was in possession of a secretly recorded videotape. It purportedly showed Mack and Perez present at a meeting in the offices of Death Row Records in which Knight had ordered B.I.G.’s murder. Caffey denied this story.
But the drama of the trial’s first four days would pale in comparison to what happened the evening of June 23rd and during the days that followed.
Perry Sanders was riding to dinner in an SUV with blacked-out windows, accompanied by two bodyguards hired to protect him during the trial, when he took some time to listen to his voice mails. One was from the secretary at his office in Louisiana, informing him that three people with tips on the B.I.G. case had phoned that day. Only one caller was anonymous, Sanders remembers, but for some reason it was this person he phoned back first. Sanders almost hung up, he admits, when the man on the other end of the line began the conversation with the words “In another life . . .” He had already dealt with too many “‘Tupac’s been reincarnated’-type of callers” in the years since he had taken this case, but then, Sanders says, “This guy goes on: ‘I was at a Board of Rights hearing in the basement of Parker Center.'” Board of Rights hearings were the LAPD’s disciplinary proceedings, Sanders knew, and ordinarily were not held in the basement of police headquarters. But before he went further, the man said he required an absolute promise that his identity would be protected. When Sanders agreed to this, the man said that he was a member of the LAPD’s command staff and had a lot to lose but “felt he just couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t share what he knew,” the attorney recalls. “The guy sounded very credible. He gave me lots of names and dates and other specific details, so I knew that if he was not telling the truth, it would be easy to determine.” Sanders immediately phoned Robleto and asked him to verify that a proceeding like the one described had taken place. Robleto phoned back in the middle of the night to say he was convinced that what the attorney had been told was accurate.
“I showed up for court on Friday morning at 7:30,” Sanders recalls, “and by noon had a handwritten presentation to make before the judge.” Judge Cooper, flummoxed, asked for suggestions about what to do. Sanders proposed adjourning until Monday morning while both sides investigated what he had been told.
“And by Monday we all knew it was all true.”
That weekend, for the first time in memory, the LAPD had locked down an entire division — and not just any division, but the department’s most prestigious, Robbery-Homicide — to search it from top to bottom. Robleto and Poole say they believe the lockdown was essentially theatrical, because the Internal Affairs investigators who performed the search already knew what they were going to find: more than 200 pages of documents hidden in two drawers belonging to Detective Steve Katz. Most of those pages related to assorted hearings and investigations that involved the sworn testimony of a prison inmate named Kenneth Boagni, regarding the confessions of Rafael Perez to his involvement in crimes that included the murder of Notorious B.I.G. “Talk about shit hitting the fan,” Sanders says. “You should have seen the faces of the city’s attorneys when we got to court on Monday morning.”
Most of the Boagni materials have been placed under seal by Cooper and are therefore impossible to detail. A general description, however, has been offered in court documents. What they reveal is this: Sometime in 1999, Boagni was a cellmate and friend of Perez’s at a California penal institution. During that time, according to Boagni, Perez took pleasure in describing his work for Death Row Records and his participation in various crimes, including the murder of Notorious B.I.G., and he detailed his activities, and Mack’s, at the Petersen Museum on the night of the killing. This information had come to light as the result of a Board of Rights hearing involving charges against a Sgt. Paul Byrnes, who had been implicated by Perez in the Rampart scandal.
One of the three panel members at the proceeding involving Byrnes — and the only civilian among them — was Xavier Hermosillo, a former public-relations executive best known in Southern California as a radio talk-show host and community activist. Hermosillo says he found Boagni to be a “totally credible” witness. Right up front, Boagni told the panel he was the black sheep of a good family and that his main motivation was redemption. He’d been blessed with athletic ability and been drafted by the Houston Astros, Boagni said, but he continued to get into trouble with the law. He still considered “P-Dawg” a friend, Boagni said, and felt bad about “stabbing him in the back” but knew for a fact that Perez had falsely accused any number of fellow officers, including Byrnes, of crimes they had not committed.
At the Byrnes hearing, Boagni had tried to tell the panel what Perez had told him about his own involvement in B.I.G.’s murder. “But as soon as he started talking about that,” Hermosillo says, “the LAPD’s representative jumped to his feet and cut it off, saying it was ‘under investigation.'”
What the scant available record reveals about this “investigation” is that Cliff Armas, from the LAPD’s Officer Representation Section, visited Boagni on a number of occasions at Calipatria State Prison in 2000; Boagni told the officer about the involvement of Perez and Mack in B.I.G.’s shooting. Armas told Boagni he would pass along the information to another investigator. When a pair of LAPD detectives showed up at the prison where Boagni was housed, the inmate assumed they were the investigators Armas had spoken of. The two detectives, though, were members of the Rampart Task Force, a group that was committed to the validation of Perez’s story. Boagni began to suspect that the two detectives had a hidden agenda; they seemed bent on trying to trip him up and persuaded him not to testify. Boagni filed a complaint that led eventually to an Internal Affairs Division investigation in which he was interviewed many times. The details of that investigation are also under seal.
The single most remarkable fact the judge and attorneys released to the public was this: Boagni offered to wear a wire on Perez to see if he could get him to admit he was lying about the accusations he had made against his fellow officers and to implicate himself in the Biggie murder, and the LAPD turned him down. As Sanders and Frank would note in the Motion for Sanctions they filed with Cooper, “There would appear to be no possible legitimate LAPD motivation for such rejection of help.”
The LAPD’s wild-eyed attempt to defend itself against these charges left Judge Cooper shaking her head. In a deposition of Katz that she ordered, the detective said he’d been sitting in court “reviewing his chronological record” when he saw Boagni’s name and realized he “forgot” to inform the attorneys on the case about the tapes and documents in his possession. Early that evening, he returned to his office and was told by his commanding officer that Internal Affairs was about to lock down the entire division to search for the Boagni materials. Katz handed them over — not to his supervisor, but to a private investigator working for the city on the B.I.G. lawsuit.
City Attorney Don Vincent attempted to mitigate the damage to his side by arguing that Boagni was an insignificant witness who might easily have been overlooked. The judge was having none of it. Katz’s claim that he forgot about the Boagni material in his desk was “utterly unbelievable,” she ruled: “The detective, acting alone or in concert with others, made a decision to conceal from the plaintiffs in this case information which could have supported their contention that David Mack was responsible for the Wallace murder.” The judge listed eighteen of the documents that Katz had hidden from the other side in this case, before addressing Vincent’s arguments. “The sheer volume of information attests to the seriousness with which [the LAPD] treated this informant’s statements and belies [the city’s] current position that he is just another jailhouse informant seeking favors.”
While the judge could not bring herself to award the plaintiffs a default judgment (which would end the trial in favor of the plaintiffs), she felt she had no choice but to declare a mistrial. The judge awarded the plaintiffs “fees and costs” as a sanction for the city’s misconduct.
Sanders and frank were at once exultant and overwhelmed. They knew that in the next trial — likely to occur next summer — the city would have to defend itself against a vastly expanded lawsuit before a judge who quite clearly had become convinced that their claim had merit. “The law of the case is that the LAPD potentially withheld information,” Frank explains. “And now there’s been a judicial finding of that fact. So we have won the most significant point before we even go to trial. Their lead investigator has been found to be a liar and a cheat.”
The inclusion of Perez as one of the officers implicated in B.I.G.’s murder changed everything, Sanders and Frank knew. The Rampart scandal and the lengths to which police and city officials had gone to protect Perez from those who knew him as a fabricator were now an essential aspect of the case. This allowed the attorneys to demand a vast trove of documents that related to Perez’s plea deal, his secret testimony and the investigations that resulted. Sanders and Frank believe there are still grounds for default judgment. Notations on the Boagni evidence demonstrated that at least nine of Katz’s superiors — going up to the rank of assistant chief — were aware of its existence and relevance. “Katz wasn’t alone in this,” Frank says. Sanders adds, “If we can catch them withholding other documents, I believe the judge will have to declare a default verdict in our favor.”
How much could the city of L.A. stand to lose? In the court report by economist Peter Formuzis on B.I.G.’s future earnings potential, Keith Clinkscales, former president of the company that founded Vibe magazine, had described B.I.G. as “the world’s most popular hip-hop artist at the time of his murder”; the report estimated that he would have earned at least $362 million during the remainder of his life. The estate’s lawyers could claim every penny of that, and perhaps a good deal more. After the mistrial, Sanders says, he was contacted by a number of “concerned parties” — including political figures in Los Angeles — worried that this lawsuit might bankrupt the city.
Along with Frank, Sanders has taken particular pleasure in watching how the L.A. Times has absorbed the new reality of the case. The newspaper’s story reporting the discovery of the Boagni materials changed dramatically from one edition to the next. The first version ran under a subhead reading, “Three weeks into their civil case, lawyers for Notorious B.I.G.’s family have failed to prove an LAPD link to the star’s 1997 slaying.” That version did not even mention the lockdown of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division and the discovery of the hidden tapes and documents until the fifth paragraph. By the third version of the story, however, the lead sentence reflected what was already appearing in East Coast newspapers: “The LAPD deliberately hid witness statements tying corrupt police to the slaying of Notorious B.I.G., a federal judge said Thursday in granting a mistrial and potentially lucrative attorney fees to the rapper’s family.”
Still, the newspaper didn’t seem to want to go down without a fight. In the first article reporting the discovery of the hidden Boagni materials, Andrew Blankstein, the reporter who had covered the trial for the Times , threw in a line from Mack, interviewed in prison, claiming that Sanders and Frank “offered him inducements to change his testimony.” Sanders, who had already called the allegations a lie, confronted Blankstein. According to Sanders, “He said to me, ‘I’ve got editors. I was instructed to put that in there.’ So I know that somebody in a position of power at that newspaper has an agenda. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it involves discrediting our case and protecting the city from this lawsuit.” (Blankstein didn’t return calls asking for comment.)
Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor Marc Duvoisin told Rolling Stone , “We stand behind our coverage of the killings of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace. Chuck Philips and The Los Angeles Times have no agenda regarding these stories. We have not tried to favor or disfavor any of the parties to the Wallace lawsuit. We have tried to learn about and publish important and interesting information to the best of our ability, and we will continue to do so. For reasons that should be obvious, we will not reveal the identities of confidential sources.”
Sanders visited Boagni in prison in early October. Composed and articulate, he “might now be the best witness we have,” the attorney says. Alerted soon after this visit that LAPD officials were spreading the story that Boagni had recanted, Sanders asked if it was true, and in reply, received a letter in which Boagni wrote that he stood by his earlier testimony “100,000 percent.” The letter also made it clear, however, that Boagni was beginning to recognize the powerful position in which recent events had placed him. He had just been visited in prison by an LAPD representative, who “made it perfectly clear that if I was to testify, I would bury the city and the LAPD,” wrote Boagni, adding that the police representative “also made it clear he hoped I wouldn’t depose or testify.”
Sanders’ concerns about how the city and the LAPD might try to manipulate Boagni are likely to be overwhelmed by the eighty-one CDs of evidence related to Perez that the LAPD is supposed to send in response to the plaintiffs’ most recent discovery demand. The CDs are expected to contain tens of thousands of pages of documents, and he and Frank will have no choice but to search through every one of them, Sanders knows, as they prepare for the next trial.
Meanwhile, eight years after the death of the Notorious B.I.G., he remains a major star. Later this month, Bad Boy Records will release Duets: The Final Chapter , in which contemporary stars such as Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Jay-Z rap to existing Biggie tracks.
Voletta Wallace continues to insist that she doesn’t care how large her victory is in this civil case. The L.A. Times has reported that the Wallace estate has tried to settle for as little as $18 million. Sanders won’t comment on that, but he notes that the Times articles have omitted one crucial detail of every settlement discussion he has had with the city: his client’s demand that the LAPD devote its resources to solving her son’s murder. “What I need from this lawsuit is that the person or persons who murdered my son are brought to justice,” Wallace says. “What I need from this lawsuit is honesty. What I need from this lawsuit is to show that humans have integrity, show that they’re not cowards, show that they’re not liars, show that they care about the truth.”
Wallace seems to have achieved a remarkable calm amid the storm of secrets and lies her court claim has unleashed. “Let it all come out,” she says. “There’s nothing they can surprise me with anymore.” When asked what she imagines her dead son would say about her claim that his murder was the nexus of a vast and complex conspiracy, she pauses for a few moments, then answers, “I think he would say, ‘Well, if you didn’t know before, now you do.'”
(Posted Dec 05, 2005)