As rap impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs prepares to stand trial in New York today on gun and bribery charges, authorities are investigating the possible connection of a co-defendant to a fatal shooting in Atlanta.
The homicide occurred five years ago at a party Combs attended with associates from his Bad Boy record label, according to several witnesses. An argument that evening involving Combs' employee and bodyguard, Anthony "Wolf" Jones, ended in a hail of gunfire that left an employee from a rival record company dead, witnesses said.
Law enforcement officials recently interviewed one person who saw the shooting and says Jones pulled the trigger. In addition, an off-duty police officer watched the shooting, and Atlanta detectives are now seeking to interview several other witnesses.
Jones is now on trial with Combs in New York on weapons charges; they each face 15 years in prison if convicted. Attorneys for both Combs and Jones say they had "absolutely nothing" to do with the Atlanta killing.
The 1995 shooting is yet another in a series of violent acts surrounding Combs in the last decade. A conviction in the New York trial could severely damage the relationship between Combs and executives at Bertelsmann, the Gueterslow, Germany-based media conglomerate that finances his record label. Combs' record productions, clothing lines, restaurants, magazine and other businesses generate an estimated $130 million in annual sales, according to Forbes magazine, which recently put him on its cover and proclaimed him one of the world's richest entertainers.
Although Combs hangs out in the Hamptons with the likes of Martha Stewart and Donald Trump and recently made an appearance on ABC-TV's hit program "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," his ascent as chairman of the Bad Boy music empire represents an extraordinary confluence of violent art and violent reality.
His company's latest hit record, titled "That's Gangsta," features Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, a Bad Boy rapper who is charged with attempted murder in the New York case. Police say Barrow opened fire in a Manhattan nightspot Dec. 27, 1999, and seriously injured three bystanders after a club patron insulted Combs.
On the CD, Barrow raps about gunning people down and getting away with murder. The song's video includes a cameo appearance by co-defendant Jones, who has a lengthy rap sheet that includes a conviction of attempted murder of a police officer. During the video, Jones stares into the camera and quips, "That's gangsta!"
Law enforcement sources view the Sept. 23, 1995, shooting death of Jai Hassan-Jamal Robles at an Atlanta nightclub as the primary catalyst for a bicoastal feud during the 1990s between New York-based Combs and Marion "Suge" Knight, founder and owner of Los Angeles-based Death Row Records.
Knight attended the Atlanta party that evening with Robles, a friend and former gang member nicknamed "Big Jake." Knight had hired Robles straight out of prison to do marketing and promotion for the Death Row label not long before the shooting.
Last month, Atlanta police investigating Robles' death contacted New York authorities seeking background checks on Combs and his bodyguard Jones, who were charged with gun violations stemming from the 1999 shooting in Manhattan. A stolen weapon from Atlanta was found on the floor of the vehicle in which New York police arrested Jones, Combs and his girlfriend, actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, after a high-speed chase.
Prosecutors did not file charges against Lopez, who was called last year before a grand jury along with Combs' driver. The driver testified that Combs offered him a bribe to tell officials that the gun recovered from the vehicle belonged to him.
The following account of the Atlanta incident is based on information detailed in a police report obtained by The Times and from interviews and law enforcement sources.
The shooting occurred about 4 a.m. at the Platinum City Club following a party for rap producer Jermaine Dupree, whose So So Def record label is based in Atlanta. Combs had flown in from New York the previous night to attend the after-hours party. Knight had flown in from Los Angeles with Robles.
The killing was witnessed by Chris Howard, an off-duty Fulton County deputy sheriff who was working security at the Platinum. In his statement to police that night, Howard said the shooting stemmed from an argument during the party involving individuals associated with Death Row and Bad Boy, including Knight and Combs. At one point, the verbal dispute apparently got so heated that Howard had to step in and break it up.
Following a second flare-up involving Robles and Jones, Howard said, he told Combs and Knight and their associates to leave the club. To avoid a clash, Howard said, he asked Knight to wait inside the club while he escorted Combs and his crew out of the building. Checking the entrance to the club to make sure that Combs and his associates had left, Howard then turned to Knight and Robles.
"I told Suge, 'OK, coast is clear,' and we walked outside and he got into the limo," Howard told The Times in an interview. "His partner was just about ready to get into the limo when all of a sudden Puffy's guys came from around the corner . . . and one of them had a gun.
"I chased the guy with the gun around the corner," Howard said. "He handed the gun off to another guy. It was a .45. By the time I got back out front, that's when the guy took a shot at Suge's partner. He shot him two or three times."
Howard said he had drawn his weapon but couldn't fire because a crowd had gathered outside the club. He said he saw the shooter jump into a car carrying Combs' associates.
"I couldn't see who was driving, but all the guys who were with Puffy ran to the car when the shooting took place," Howard said. "Then the shooter jumped in, and they drove off."
Howard then telephoned police for help, but by the time officers arrived 15 minutes later, the killer had escaped. The shooter's weapon was never recovered.
Robles died a few weeks after the shooting in an Atlanta hospital.
Sources familiar with the case said an individual affiliated with Combs has told New York authorities that he saw Robles get shot and identified the triggerman as Jones. Atlanta detectives are now looking to interview that individual.
Police documents indicate that Jones was named as a suspect in the case as far back as 1996 by a New York investigator on the killing. According to the document, an informant told the investigator that "the shooter is a guy named Anthony Jones, street name 'Wolf.' Jones is a bodyguard for Sean 'Puffy' Combs."
Jones declined to be interviewed, but attorney Michael F. Bachner said his client had "absolutely nothing to do with the incident in 1995."
Combs also declined to comment, but two sources close to the rap entrepreneur vehemently disputed Howard's account, contending that Combs never saw Jones that night or entered the club.
The sources said Combs arrived at the party with another friend and had barely exited his limousine when gunshots rang out. Combs did not see the shooting, the sources said, but was nearby and spoke to Knight. Combs then got back into the limousine and drove away, the sources said.
Combs' attorneys Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Ben Branfman released the following statement:
"Mr. Combs had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the incident in 1995. We do not believe that the timing [of this story] is coincidence but rather part of a concerted effort by members of the law enforcement community to compromise Mr. Combs' chances to have a fair trial in his New York City case."
Atlanta officials have never questioned Combs or anyone at his record company regarding the shooting. Atlanta detectives never did a follow-up interview with Howard and never showed him photographs from a roll of film they confiscated at the party.
Detective Steve Balkcom, the Atlanta investigator in charge of the Robles probe, declined to comment except to confirm that the case was reopened last month following new information.
"We are actively investigating the case now, working in conjunction with New York City Police," Balkcom said.
Atlanta police interviewed Knight the evening of the shooting. Knight told detectives that he heard gunfire but did not see the shooter.
In subsequent interviews with the rap magazine Source, Knight said he holds Combs responsible for Robles' killing. Knight has been in a prison in Ione, Calif., on an assault probation violation since 1996 and is about to be released. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Robles' mother, Shadidi Kiontozi, says she's eager for authorities to catch the killer.
"The police need to solve this murder," Kiontozi said in an interview. "My baby's dead. He was my only child. This has gone on far too long."
Howard, the off-duty sheriff's deputy, says he is willing to be interviewed again by police.
"It's like this: I was standing three feet from the shooter and I got a real good look at him," Howard said. "The one who did the shooting was the ringleader of the group who was there with Puffy. If someone showed me his photo right now, I could still recognize him. No question."
An excerpt from "That's Gangsta," the latest video release from Sean "Puffy" Combs' Bad Boys Records, can be viewed at http://www.latimes.com/rap.