'Puffy' Combs Not Guilty in Gun Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sean "Puffy" Combs, the multimillionaire rap entrepreneur, was acquitted Friday of weapon possession and attempted bribery charges in a case stemming from a 1999 shooting at a crowded Manhattan dance club.

Combs held a copy of the New Testament as the verdict was read, and he shook with relief.

"I am just so grateful today," he told a throng of cheering fans outside the courthouse. "I feel blessed."

"Right now, I just want to go and be with my kids."

Jurors also found the Grammy Award winner's bodyguard, Anthony "Wolf" Jones, not guilty of the same accusations. But they convicted Combs protege Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow of assault, reckless endangerment and criminal possession of a pistol. Barrow, 21, faces up to 25 years in prison.

More than 60 people testified during the seven-week trial of the 31-year-old entertainer, who presides over a multimillion-dollar empire of music, movies and restaurants.

Witnesses offered often contradictory accounts of the shooting and its aftermath. Combs testified at length, insisting that he had no role in the shooting and saying that he thought he was an intended target when shots rang out.

Attorney Johnnie Cochran said the defense team made the right decision in allowing Combs to testify and in not calling his then-girlfriend, actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, as a witness. Lopez had accompanied the rapper to the dance club. "In this case, we basically proved Sean Combs' innocence," Cochran said.

Prosecutors alleged that Combs, Barrow and Jones all were armed when they entered the Club New York on Dec. 27, 1999.

Shots were fired after an argument between members of Combs' entourage and Matthew "Scar" Allen, a former convict and fledgling rapper from Brooklyn. Prosecutors charged that Combs and Barrow both opened fire. Three people were wounded.

"Mr. Barrow doesn't like his boss being disrespected," Assistant Dist. Atty. Matthew Bogdanos told the jury in closing arguments.

Following the shooting, Combs, Lopez and some others in the entourage fled in a sport-utility vehicle that police stopped several blocks away. Officers found a 9-millimeter pistol in the car, and Combs was charged with trying to bribe his driver to claim ownership of the weapon. He also was charged with carrying a gun illegally into the club.

During the chase, authorities say, a second pistol was thrown from the vehicle.

Combs Tried to Hide Gun, Driver Testified

Testifying for the prosecution, driver Wardel Fenderson said he saw Combs tuck a semiautomatic pistol into his waistband before entering the dance club.

Fenderson told jurors that, while police pursued the gray Lincoln Navigator through a string of red lights, Combs shouted, "Don't stop!" as he sought unsuccessfully to have a gun stashed in a secret compartment.

Prosecutors charged that Combs and Jones, while in the police precinct, offered Fenderson $50,000 and a diamond pinky ring as collateral if he would claim that the pistol belonged to him.

"I can't take this gun. I'm Puff Daddy, and all you'll get is probation," Fenderson said Combs told him.

Combs denied carrying a weapon.

In closing arguments, Benjamin Brafman, another defense attorney, told jurors that only two people testified that they saw Combs holding a gun. Both were wounded and are suing the music entrepreneur.

The lawyer said that Fenderson also has sued Combs, charging emotional distress and seeking $3 million.

"Bad people came into this courtroom and made bad accusations because they wanted to get rich," Brafman said.

"He doesn't deserve a dime," the lawyer said, referring to Fenderson.

Brafman said the testimony of Natania Reuben, who was shot in the face, was refuted by another witness, Patricia Richardson, her close friend, who said that Reuben had told her, "I don't remember who had a gun. . . . I was on the floor holding my face."

The case overshadowed the prosecution just two blocks away in U.S. District Court of four followers of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden. They are charged in the killing of 224 people in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

During the trial in a Manhattan court, Combs was accompanied daily by his mother, Janice. "Thank you, Jesus," she declared when the jury returned the acquittal.

Antonio "L.A." Reid, chief executive of Arista Records, said he was "extremely pleased" that Combs would be able to return to work at the helm of Arista's joint venture with Bad Boy Entertainment, the company that Combs heads.

Reid said that, at the same time, "we feel saddened by the outcome of the trial" as it relates to Barrow.

Combs Saw Friend Fatally Shot

Combs witnessed the killing in 1997 of his top recording act, Notorious B.I.G., when the rapper, born Christopher Wallace, was gunned down by an unknown assailant outside an industry party in Los Angeles.

Wallace's death came six months after the 1996 killing in Las Vegas of Tupac Shakur, a rap star at a competing label who had previously accused Combs of setting him up to be shot and robbed at a studio.

"This is a dude who has had so many dings over the past decade and he always bounces back," Frank Williams, executive editor of the Source, a hip-hop magazine, said of Combs. "Puffy has been hit so many times, with the trouble with Tupac to the death of Biggie [Wallace] and all his problems with Death Row Records, and now this episode. I think Bad Boy Entertainment will be cool in the future."

Those shootings followed years of friction in the rap world as authorities suspected Combs was involved in a bicoastal feud between his New York-based label and Death Row Records in Los Angeles.

Steeped in accusations of robbery, assault and retaliatory executions, the much-hyped rap war ultimately became the target of a federal investigation probing both companies for alleged links to street gang-related criminal activity, law enforcement sources say. That probe, directed by the Justice Department, remains open but appears stalled.

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Times staff writer Chuck Philips in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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