A mortgage broker identified as the suspected assassin of rap star Notorious B.I.G. is no longer under scrutiny by police, according to the lead detective in the case.
Amir Muhammad, who learned he was under suspicion only after an article was published in The Times Dec. 9, said he was stunned and angered by the report.
"I'm not a murderer, I'm a mortgage broker," he said in an interview at his Southern California house.
According to a theory at one point taken seriously by police, Muhammad was hired to kill the hip-hop performer by rival rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight and Muhammad's longtime friend David A. Mack, a former Los Angeles police officer now serving a prison term for bank robbery.
The police have offered conflicting accounts about Muhammad's status as a suspect. The day after The Times article was published, an LAPD spokesman said it was accurate. But a week later, detectives told a lawyer representing Muhammad that his client was not a suspect, the attorney said. The lawyer said detectives initially indicated they wanted to interview Muhammad, but never followed through with their request.
Dave Martin, the LAPD detective in charge of the case, disputed the theory, which was developed by other investigators.
"We are not pursuing that theory and have not been for more than a year," Martin said, adding however, that until the case is solved "no theory can be completely discounted."
Muhammad says he is upset that someone in law enforcement would leak confidential investigative reports to a newspaper. But he is angrier with The Times for publishing the story.
"The fact is the police have never talked to me. And the reason they haven't is because I had nothing to do with this horrible crime," Muhammad said. "The police didn't chase this lead because they obviously realized at some point it wasn't true.
"How can something so completely false end up on the front page of a major newspaper?" he asked.
In the December article, police sources said they hadn't been able to find Muhammad and suggested he had disappeared after the killing.
"The story made it sound like I was some mystery assassin who committed this heinous crime and then just dropped off the face of the Earth--which is the furthest thing from the truth," said Muhammad.
"I live and work right here in the Southland area and have done so for many years. I belong to the same fitness club, where I work out practically every day. I play golf and tennis at the same spots every week. I'm not that difficult to find," he said, noting that his business advertised in local publications during the period when police were purportedly on his trail.
Three weeks after the story ran, in fact, The Times found Muhammad and set up a series of meetings with him and his attorney. Muhammad agreed to be interviewed under the condition that The Times not identify the name or location of his business and residence to protect his family and associates.
Muhammad noted the Dec. 9 newspaper article reproduced police documents displaying his driver's license photo next to a police sketch of the alleged killer.
Muhammad says that he did not leave his house for three days for fear that some irate rap fan might recognize him and retaliate. Muhammad says he spent most of that time on the phone trying to calm his parents, friends, business associates and clients who were worried about his safety.
"You never know what some nut is going to do," Muhammad said. "It's frightening, really. The story had a big impact on my life."
Muhammad was also concerned that fallout from being identified as a suspect in the story could damage his reputation in the real estate community, where he has been brokering loans throughout Southern California since shortly after graduating from college in 1984.
It was while attending the University of Oregon that Muhammad, whose birth name is Harry Billups, met Mack. Police began investigating Muhammad as a suspect in the case because of his relationship with Mack, a close friend of former LAPD Officer Rafael Perez, the convicted drug dealer turned informant at the heart of the ongoing Rampart police corruption scandal.
Muhammad said he and Mack were roommates in a college dorm, played sports together and socialized frequently during their college years.
After Mack married, he and his wife asked Muhammad to become the godfather of their two children. Over the years, however, Muhammad says he began to spend less time with Mack and more time with his godchildren, attending sporting and school events with Mack's family, as the former officer spent progressively less time at home.
By the time Mack began serving a 14-year prison sentence for a Nov. 6, 1997, bank robbery, the two men had seen each other only a few times in as many years, according to Muhammad. The last time Muhammad said he saw Mack was on Dec. 26, 1997, when he visited him in prison at the request of Mack's family.
That visit prompted police interest in Muhammad. But Muhammad says he simply went to see Mack to discuss family matters.
"I am the godfather of David's two children. I visited his wife and kids on Christmas Day and they asked me to go see him in jail, so I did," said Muhammad. "It's as simple as that."
Several months before Muhammad visited Mack in prison, a jailhouse informant had told detectives that the rapper's killer went by a "Middle East" sounding name, possibly "Amir" or "Ashmir" and that his true name might be Abraham or Kenny or Keeky.
The informant also said the killer was a former member of the Southside Crips gang and could have belonged to a security force connected to the Nation of Islam, a Muslim group. Muhammad says that while he does belong to the Nation of Islam, he never has been a member of any security force connected to it. Police sources say he has no gang ties.
Investigators' suspicion grew in January 1998 when detectives obtained a driver's license photo of Muhammad and thought it resembled one of the two composite sketches of the rapper's killer drawn from witness accounts. The 24-year-old rap sensation, whose real name was Christopher Wallace, was gunned down outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles after a music industry party on March 9, 1997.
Police sources in December said that they believed the attack was a professional assassination and that detectives had been trying to build a case against Mack, Knight and Muhammad for two years. Investigators were focusing on Mack because he owned a vehicle similar to the getaway car used by the assassin and was identified by one witnesses as having attended the party where Wallace was murdered. Sources, including one police officer, told investigators that Mack had ties to Death Row Records. Police also identified Knight as a suspect in the killing and served search warrants on sites linked to Death Row in April 1999. The search turned up no evidence of Knight's involvement, and police were forced to return all items under court order, according to Knight's attorney.
Knight and Mack--through his lawyer--say they have never even met and deny any connection with Wallace's murder.
Muhammad says he did not attend the party the night Wallace was shot, but doesn't recall what he was doing. He recalls hearing about the rapper's slaying on the news the next day.
"Let me ask you this, do you remember exactly what you were doing that night three years ago?" he asked. "Of course not. Neither do I."
Muhammad remains outraged.
"I can't find the words to express the injustice I feel was done to me," he said.
"I'm a businessman--not a gang member--and I lead a private life," he added.