The Unsolved Mystery of the Notorious B.I.G.

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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."

"This wasn't a gang shooting," says Detective Poole. "Biggie's murder was much more sophisticated than anything any gangbanger pulls off."

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!"

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