A paid informant who figured prominently in police and FBI investigations into the killing of rap star Notorious B.I.G., and who accused rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight and a rogue police officer of orchestrating the murder, has admitted that his information was "all hearsay."
The informant, questioned under oath in a civil lawsuit, also admitted that his identification of the alleged gunman was fraudulent. He described himself as a paranoid schizophrenic.
The statements cast grave doubt on a theory that has gained wide currency: that corrupt police officers played a role in the killing and that top LAPD officials covered up their actions.
The theory, energetically promoted by a former Los Angeles police detective, has been featured in Rolling Stone magazine, on MTV and PBS' "Frontline," and in books and movies. Along the way, it has attained a kind of pop-culture immortality.
Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace, was gunned down March 9, 1997, after a music-industry party in the Mid-Wilshire district. The case remains unsolved.
Leads that the informant gave LAPD detectives formed the basis of the theory that Knight, founder of Death Row Records, conspired with then-LAPD Officer David A. Mack to arrange the shooting.
According to this scenario, a college friend of Mack's, a Southland mortgage broker named Amir Muhammad, ambushed Wallace as his motorcade waited at a stoplight.
The informant picked Muhammad's picture out of a police photo lineup in 1998.
Five years later, he served as an undercover operative in an FBI investigation that focused on Muhammad.
In his recent deposition, the informant, known to law enforcement officials as "Psycho Mike," all but demolished his earlier assertions about the killing.
He said he had no solid information that Knight or Mack was involved -- only "hearsay." And he acknowledged that he had never laid eyes on Muhammad when LAPD detectives showed him six photos and asked him to identify the suspect.
The informant was asked how he knew what Muhammad looked like.
"I didn't know what he looked like," he replied, according to a transcript of the Feb. 3 deposition obtained by The Times.
"So actually, when you looked at this picture, you guessed?" a lawyer asked.
"Yes," the informant said. "Hearsay."
The Times is withholding the man's name because authorities said disclosing it could endanger his life.
Muhammad, Mack and Knight have long denied any role in the killing.
The deposition was related to a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles by Wallace's estate, his mother, Voletta Wallace, and other relatives.
The suit contends that LAPD officials covered up police involvement in the rapper's death, and seeks unspecified monetary damages. It is scheduled to go to trial in U.S. District Court on June 14.
For nearly two hours, the informant sat in a downtown law office, answering questions from attorneys on both sides.
Wallace, 24, who also went by the name Biggie Smalls, was in Los Angeles in March 1997 to attend the Soul Train Music Awards. The next night, he attended a music-industry party at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
After the event, a man in a dark Chevrolet Impala pulled up beside Wallace's sport utility vehicle and opened fire.
The killing has often been attributed to a bitter feud between hip-hop camps in New York City and Los Angeles.
Wallace, a onetime Brooklyn crack dealer, was part of the East Coast rap establishment led by music and fashion entrepreneur Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Knight was leader of the West Coast rappers, notably Tupac Shakur, who recorded for Death Row.
In September 1996, Shakur was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Police surmised that Wallace's killing six months later may have been an act of retaliation.
In July 1997, Psycho Mike contacted LAPD detectives from a county lockup, where he was serving time for a parole violation. He offered information about the Wallace murder, hoping for early release from jail.
In his recent deposition, he said he grew up in Compton, started stealing bicycles at age 6 and moved on to car theft and armed robbery. In 1979, he shot a man to death to avenge the killing of his twin brother, he said.
Behind bars, he joined a prison gang and stabbed an inmate 14 times as an initiation rite. Then, he said, he found God and decided to change his life.
The man, now 48, said he has served as a paid informant for an array of agencies: "The Sheriff's Department, FBI, DEA, Long Beach police, anti-terrorist groups."
He said he has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since childhood, has been hospitalized repeatedly for treatment, and has been on medication "for most of my life."
On July 10, 1997, LAPD Det. Theodore L. Ball went to see him at the North County Correctional Facility to find out what he knew about the Wallace slaying.
The informant said associates in Compton had told him that it was a contract killing ordered by Knight. According to an LAPD summary of his statement, he said the gunman had a Middle Eastern-sounding name -- Amir, Ashmir or Abraham.
He said the assassin belonged to a security force associated with the Nation of Islam and was also a bodyguard for a drug dealer named Bay Gardner.
The gunman lived near "Greenleaf and Johnson" and hung out on "83rd Street in Compton," the informant said.
There were signs that the information might not be reliable. There is no 83rd Street in Compton. No one by the name of Bay Gardner sold drugs in the city during the 1990s, according to gang and narcotics detectives who patrolled Compton then.
LAPD investigators put the informant's statement in a file along with other leads. Six months later, Psycho Mike was released from jail.
David Mack was an undercover narcotics officer who seemed to have a bright future at the LAPD. Then, in December 1997, he was charged with robbing a Bank of America branch of $720,000. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Detectives investigating the Wallace killing began to suspect that Mack might have played a role in that crime too.
He owned a black Chevrolet Impala similar to the one seen speeding from the murder scene. A witness, shown a photo of Mack, said he thought he had seen him outside the Petersen museum the night of the shooting.
The visitor registry at the Metropolitan Detention Center held another clue. On Dec. 26, 1997, 10 days after Mack's arrest, Amir Muhammad had paid him a visit. The two had been student-athletes at the University of Oregon, and Muhammad was godfather to Mack's two children.
Then-Det. Russell Poole remembered that the informant had listed "Amir" among the possible names of Wallace's assassin. Poole pulled a driver's license photo of Muhammad and compared it to a composite sketch of the killer based on witness descriptions. Poole thought they looked alike.
On Jan. 21, 1998, two detectives went to see Psycho Mike. They showed him six photographs, including Muhammad's, and asked him whether he could identify the "Amir" who was said to have killed Wallace.
The informant circled three photos, one after the other, records show. He picked Muhammad's photo last.
Witnesses shown a photo lineup are supposed to make a single choice, according to police investigators.
The detectives who conducted the photo lineup declined to comment. However, people familiar with the investigation said the informant claimed to have known "Amir" for 12 years.
The detectives later told associates that they considered the identification worthless. But Poole thought it was significant. Combining it with other tips, he developed the theory that Knight and Mack had conspired to have Wallace killed, and had enlisted Muhammad as the triggerman.
Muhammad didn't seem to fit the profile. He was a college-educated mortgage broker from Virginia with no criminal record or any known ties to Knight or the rap world.
Still, Poole persuaded his superiors to let him explore his theory. LAPD officers searched Death Row's offices and several of Knight's homes. No evidence of a connection to Mack, Muhammad or the Wallace slaying was found.
Poole's fellow detectives shifted their attention elsewhere. Poole resigned in the summer of 1999. He later sued the LAPD unsuccessfully, alleging that he was forced out as part of a cover-up of police involvement in the murder.
In December 1999, The Times published a front-page article reporting that Knight, Mack and Muhammad were among the possible suspects in the slaying. A Times article six months later quoted an LAPD detective as saying that Muhammad was no longer a suspect.
Poole, meanwhile, continued to promote his explanation for the killing. Author Randall Sullivan examined Poole's hypothesis in a 2002 book called "LAbyrinth." British filmmaker Nick Broomfield followed with a documentary, "Biggie & Tupac," in which the former detective plays a central role.
Poole has shopped a screenplay about his role in the case, titled "A Detective's Requiem." He is also serving as an expert witness for the Wallace family in its lawsuit. He declined to comment for this article.
An Alleged Confession
In the summer of 2003, a VH-1 television special featuring Poole caught the attention of Philip J. Carson, an FBI agent in Los Angeles. Carson got permission from his superiors to launch an investigation.
Through an FBI colleague, he became acquainted with Psycho Mike.
Agent Timothy S. Flaherty had been working with the informant on a gang investigation. At some point, the Wallace slaying came up, and the informant said he knew who the killer was.
In the fall of 2003, Flaherty drove Carson to the informant's home in Norwalk to meet him, according to the deposition.
The informant said he told Carson that Muhammad killed the rap star. This time, he said, he was not merely passing on gossip. He told Carson that in early 1998, weeks after his release from jail, he had gone to a stripper party in Compton where he saw Muhammad .
The informant said that Muhammad, during a conversation that lasted "a minute and a half or so," confessed to the murder.
The informant did not explain why he waited until 2003 to inform authorities of the alleged confession.
Muhammad says he did not attend such a party or make a confession.
Carson asked the informant him to wear a wire and try to get Muhammad to confess again. The FBI provided a white Mercedes-Benz and Muhammad's home address and agreed to pay the informant for his work.
One night in mid-December 2003, Muhammad and his wife heard a knock at the front door. Muhammad, 45, recounted the incident during a deposition in the Wallace family lawsuit.
He said he answered the door and saw a stranger on his porch. "I say, 'Can I help you?' He said, 'I need to talk to you.' And I asked, 'You need to talk to who?' He said, 'I need to talk to you.' "
Muhammad said he asked the man once again whom he was looking for. When the stranger did not say, he closed the door. Later, he called the police, who told him to call 911 if the man returned.
The FBI sent the informant back about 9 a.m. the next day. He knocked, but Muhammad did not open the door. Instead, he dialed 911.
Muhammad said he could hear the stranger outside, talking on a cellphone or possibly into his FBI wire.
"He said, 'I'm outside the door now,' " Muhammad testified.
Ten minutes later, police arrived and escorted the man from the neighborhood.
Muhammad described what happened next: "When he was leaving, he yelled, 'You're going to be sorry! I'm from the pen. We'll be back. You're dead.' "
Muhammad said he worried for months that the stranger might return. Eventually, he moved his family into a new home in a gated community.
The FBI declined to comment on the undercover operation. The bureau shut down its investigation in January.
A month later, Psycho Mike showed up for his deposition. Lawyers for the Wallace family drew him out about his work on the FBI probe. He said he had told Carson that Muhammad was the killer, that "bad police officers" were involved and that Knight was behind the whole thing.
Then, under questioning by Assistant City Atty. Don W. Vincent, he acknowledged that he had never met Muhammad before their alleged encounter at the stripper party.
Vincent then asked about the 1998 photo lineup.
"Had you met Amir prior to that time?" he asked.
"No," he said.
Then why had he picked out Muhammad's picture?
"Islam," he said, explaining that Muhammad's closely cropped hair suggested he was a Muslim.
The informant continued to assert that Knight, Mack and other crooked police officers were involved in the Wallace murder.
But he admitted that he had no evidence to support those claims.
"All hearsay," he said.
"You know, but it's hearsay. Is that right?" Vincent asked.