Three New Accounts Point to Suge Knight in Killing of Biggie Smalls
Just as the music mogul is to be released from prison, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and PBS's Frontline produce reports that say evidence tying him to the shooting -- and to dirty LAPD cops -- was never examined. Similar questions once divided the LA Times newsroom.
by Warren Cohen
Monday, May 14, 2001

No suspect has ever been arrested for the March 1997 murder of multimillion-selling rapper Christopher 'Biggie Smalls' Wallace, the star of Sean 'Puffy' Combs's Bad Boy Records. His death in Los Angeles was largely believed to be retribution for the killing of rival Death Row Records artist Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas six months earlier. Suspicious observers have chalked the shootings up to a blood feud between the leading East Coast and West Coast rap labels, but it's never been proven.

This week, however, three new reports -- one in Rolling Stone, one in the New Yorker and another on PBS's Frontline, which was produced in conjunction with the New Yorker -- refresh allegations about Death Row's involvement in Smalls's murder by pointing to some dirty cops in the Los Angeles Police Department as the possible culprits. Each of the stories says that off-duty LAPD cops moonlighted as bodyguards for Death Row Records; the Rolling Stone piece suggests Knight may have masterminded Smalls's death (and perhaps Shakur's as well).

The battling stories (written by Randall Sullivan for Rolling Stone and Peter Boyer for the New Yorker) focus mostly on the broader 'Rampart' scandal in the LAPD, named after a downtrodden section of the city that was patrolled by members of an elite anti-gang police unit who have since been accussed of commiting crimes themselves. More than 70 officers have been implicated in misconduct which has subsquently cost the LAPD millions of dollars in settlements. One city councilman told the New Yorker that the scandal 'may well be the worst man-made disaster this city has ever faced.'

Both stories seem pegged to upcoming prison releases. In June, renegade police officer Rafael Perez is set to be freed. Perez made a deal with prosecutors to reveal corruption in the department in exchange for leniency after getting caught for stealing drug evidence -- replacing cocaine with Bisquick. This cop-turned-informant told tales of LAPD cops framing and falsely arresting gang members and also revealed that many officers had gang ties themselves. Perez's freedom may be short lived, however, as he could be indicted in a federal civil rights probe into the LAPD. And in July, Death Row Records chairman Marion 'Suge' Knight is expected to be released. He is finishing a sentence for felony assault with a deadly weapon.

While these long reports all offer similar, but detailed, storylines of various rogue officers and a recap of Perez's controversial accusations, they diverge in tone. The thrust of Frontline and the New Yorker is to wonder about Perez's credibility while Rolling Stone also raises troubling questions about investigative trails never followed by a scandal-weary police department. But neither account offers substantially new revelations regarding the murder of Smalls.

The reports rely on information provided by Russell Poole, a former LAPD detective who led the investigation into Smalls's murder. Poole is convinced of a link between David Mack, Perez's old partner on the force who got arrested for bank robbery, and Smalls; the LAPD is on record saying that Mack and a potential accomplice are no longer active targets of the Smalls investigation.

Smalls was killed by a gunman in a custom black Chevy Impala SS. A similar vehicle was found in Mack's garage after he was arrested for the bank heist. Mack also had taken leave from the force the day Smalls was killed. He also reportedly hung around with Death Row employees, had posters of Tupac in his house and demonstrated his ties to the Bloods gang while in prison. Knight has made no secret of his membership in the Mob Piru Bloods.

The Rolling Stone piece, through Poole's eyes, claims that the LAPD refused to run forensic tests on the Impala and prevented Poole from pursuing the connection because the results would implicate the department. Poole is quoted in the Rolling Stone article, which will appear on newsstands this week, saying: 'We had had a series of incomplete investigations and it was orchestrated to be that way, because policemen were involved. I had become convinced that LAPD officers were involved in the conspiracy to kill Biggie Smalls, and none of brass wanted to hear that.'

An investigator with a spotless record, Poole has filed a lawsuit against the LAPD for violating his First Amendment rights by preventing him from going public with his investigation. LAPD chief Bernard Parks described Poole's allegations about a cover-up as 'totally false.'

Poole's idea is that Mack had an accomplice who may have been the actual shooter. One informant told Poole that Smalls was shot by a contract killer named 'Amir or Ashmir' (although the source also admitted that the name could be Kenny or Keeky). The first person to visit Mack in jail was Amir Muhammed, a college friend of Mack's, who allegedly used a fake name and social security number when signing in for the visit.

The Rolling Stone piece, with builds its case largely with on-the-record comments from Poole, seriously weighs Muhammed's involvement. By entertaining this allegation, the piece enters highly disputed territory; the topic produced a legendary journalism skirmish at the Los Angeles Times.

In December 1999, the Times ran a page one story written by reporters at the metro desk naming Muhammed as a suspect based on a police source. This source was later revealed to be Poole (by the detective himself, who admitted it to LA's alternative New Times). The metro reporters wrote that numerous attempts to find Muhammed were unsuccessful.

But Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music business reporter at the Times who has closely tracked rap-related violence, was suspicious of the story based on his own reporting. He discovered that both Mack and Muhammed had been ruled out as suspects in the Smalls murder long ago -- even by the time the metro story ran.

Unlike the other reporters, Philips found Muhammed in three days and interviewed him about the case. Muhammed was upset about being identified on page one as a suspect and feared for his safety. Once Philips proved that the police didn't consider Muhammed a suspect, he prepared a follow-up piece. But infighting between the LA Times metro and business desks (as described in an article in Brill's Content last August) caused the paper to delay running Philips's updated story.

Philips has continued to follow the story and is unsure why the allegations now have a second life. 'I don't think there is any new evidence that justifies a story,' he says. 'They've named Mack and Muhammed even though there is no proof by police that this is true.' While he believes that Poole may be justified in wondering why his superiors didn't vigorously pursue his theories, Philips hasn't found any proof to support Poole's other allegations about the case itself. 'I have never been able to prove that Death Row was involved in drug laundering, money laundering, or as far as I can tell, the murder of Tupac and Biggie,' he says. 'I have not run into any investigator who has any proof of evidence that that was true.'

That hasn't stopped others from remaining suspicious about the Smalls killing. Perez, the cop at the center of the LAPD scandal, has implicated more than 70 officers in crimes, one cop he says is clean from corruption is his old partner Mack. In the Frontline documentary, former LA district attorney Gil Garcetti is skeptical. 'I'm absolutely convinced he (Perez) knows something,' he says, alluding to the Smalls murder. 'He has never told us.'

Today the killers of Smalls (and Shakur) are likely still at large. And these new reports don't seem to get local and federal law enforcement officials any closer to an explanation. The LAPD did not return calls seeking comment about the new batch of stories or an update on the status of the Smalls investigation.