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

A Special Report: Did the LAPD suppress evidence that rogue cops conspired with Death Row’s Suge Knight to assassinate rap star Biggie Smalls? Inside the civil trial that is threatening to bring down the most powerful institutions in Los Angeles

Notorious B.I.G.

Notorious B.I.G. performing in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 29th, 1995.

David Corio/Redferns/Getty

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.

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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.

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Back in 2000, it looked as if all the skeletons rattling around the 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.

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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!”

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 Sub-urban. 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 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.

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 girl-friend 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.

Detectives investigating the murder learned that “LAPD officers provided security for members of Death Row during criminal activities … and drug deals.”

Despite his wealth, Knight maintained his reputation as a dangerous man. The most serious charges against him stemmed from a 1992 inc