Nine years after the slaying of rap star Biggie Smalls, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton has launched a task force of senior homicide detectives to hunt down the killer, a rare show of force for a cold-case murder with no new evidence.
The beefed-up Los Angeles Police Department probe comes in the wake of a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles by the rapper’s mother, Voletta Wallace, and other relatives. Whatever new evidence the police turn up could bolster the city’s contention that LAPD officers played no role in the rapper’s death. Wallace maintains they did.
Biggie Smalls was gunned down March 9, 1997, after a music industry party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in the Mid-Wilshire district. The 24-year-old rap star, born Christopher Wallace and also known as Notorious B.I.G., was waiting at a stoplight in a sport utility vehicle when the killers pulled up in a dark Chevrolet Impala, opened fire and sped off.
The murder has spawned a cottage industry of books, documentaries and magazine articles exploring possible conspiracy theories involving Wallace and Tupac Shakur, the other leading rap artist of his generation, who was shot to death in Las Vegas six months earlier. No one has been charged in either killing.
The leading theory being pursued by the LAPD task force involves the possibility that Wallace was killed by a member of Compton’s vicious Southside Crips gang as part of a bicoastal rap feud linked to Shakur’s death, law enforcement sources said.
Another theory involves allegations that Wallace was killed in retaliation by a Blood gang member hired by rap impresario Marion “Suge” Knight, owner of Shakur’s record label, the sources said. Knight denies any involvement in the murder.
Investigators are also closely examining a home video taken moments before Wallace was killed.
The Wallace family lawsuit alleging LAPD involvement had sputtered in court last year but gained new life after U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper declared a mistrial in July 2005, ruling that a detective had deliberately hidden transcripts of an interview with a police informant alleging LAPD involvement in the murder.
A new trial is set for early next year.
After Cooper’s ruling, Bratton ordered a review of the LAPD probe, which had languished for years.
Bratton immediately removed Det. Steven Katz, the lead investigator on the case, who said he had overlooked the transcripts in a desk drawer.
Bratton installed a new captain, Kyle Jackson, to take over the probe and replaced Katz with a team of six veteran homicide detectives. The chief provided the task force with an office, budget and a computerized tracking system to organize the messy 72-volume “murder book.”
This month, investigators fanned out across the nation, meeting with gang experts, contacting informants and interviewing witnesses from Compton to Brooklyn, reinstating a $50,000 reward for anyone who can provide information that leads to a conviction.
Bratton and other LAPD officials declined to comment, citing sensitivity to the pending Wallace family lawsuit.
City Councilman Jack Weiss, head of the council’s Public Safety Committee, applauded the LAPD effort.
“It’s very good that Bratton has brought renewed focus to this case,” Weiss said. “Hopefully it will lead to identification of the actual killer or killers. At a minimum, it should provide some definitive reasons to rule out the more outlandish theories that have evolved over the years.”
The Wallace family argues in its lawsuit that ex-LAPD officer David A. Mack conspired with Knight for the contract killing. The family contends in the suit that Mack arranged for a college friend, Southland mortgage broker Amir Muhammad, to carry out the ambush.
Muhammad was arrested Wednesday by Department of Motor Vehicle investigators on unrelated perjury charges connected to his possession of four false identifications. He was released on $50,000 bail.
Mack, Muhammad and Knight, owner of Los Angeles-based Death Row Records, have long denied any involvement in the slaying.
The hypothesis that the three conspired to kill Wallace was first advanced in 1998 by then-LAPD Det. Russell Poole, a junior investigator in the robbery-homicide division who worked about a year on the Wallace probe. He is expected to testify as an expert witness on behalf of the Wallace family when the wrongful-death lawsuit returns to trial.
Poole began scrutinizing Mack after he was arrested in December 1997 on suspicion of bank robbery. Mack was later convicted of robbery and is serving a 14-year prison term.
Poole did not interview Mack or Muhammad and he did not produce any evidence to support his theory. He quit the police force in 1999 after a series of disputes with his superiors about the direction of various investigations, including the one into Wallace’s murder.
Seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages, the Wallace family and its attorneys continue to advance Poole’s theory.
The transcripts found in Katz’s desk quote a jailhouse informant as saying that another rogue LAPD officer, Rafael Perez, the central figure in the LAPD’s Rampart scandal, was involved with Mack in Wallace’s murder.
But the family has suffered numerous setbacks as it pursues the city in court.
Shortly before its first trial began last summer, the family dropped Mack and Muhammad as defendants. A paid informant who figured prominently in both LAPD and FBI investigations into Wallace’s murder admitted that his identification of Muhammad as the gunmen was fraudulent. The FBI, meanwhile, closed its investigation of Wallace’s murder, finding there was “no basis for prosecution” after spending 18 months investigating the possibility that Mack, Muhammad and Knight orchestrated the killing.
Now, as the LAPD investigates the possibility that Wallace was murdered as part of a bicoastal rap feud linked to Shakur’s death, detectives are trying to determine whether Crips members carried out both killings.
Once tight friends, Shakur and Wallace became bitter rivals and began ridiculing each other at events. The threats exchanged by the rappers and their record labels, New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment and Los Angeles-based Death Row Records, escalated into a series of assaults and shootings.
Each label used gang members for protection, with the Southside Crips paid to provide security for Wallace in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Crips gang members told The Times that Wallace had promised $1 million to the Crips for killing Shakur. According to the gang members, Wallace and his associates paid the Crips only $50,000 and stiffed them for the balance. So the Crips killed him too, the gang members said.
A few months after Wallace’s slaying, police seized a black Chevy Impala from the backyard of a Compton house linked to Dwayne Keith “Keefee D” Davis, a shot-caller in the Southside Crips.
Davis was the uncle of Orlando Anderson, a reputed Crips member who was named by Las Vegas police as a suspect in the killing of Shakur. (Anderson was killed a year later in a drug-related shootout at a Compton carwash.) Records show that Davis was among a group of Crips in Las Vegas on the night Shakur was slain and that he was also present at the Petersen museum on the night Wallace lost his life.
Law enforcement officials questioned Davis about both crimes but didn’t arrest him. He was later convicted in federal court of drug dealing and sentenced to five years in prison.
Another theory investigators are pursuing involves information that Wallace may have been murdered by a Blood gang member at Knight’s behest.
During the 1990s, Knight’s Death Row Records was the top rap label in the music business. At its peak, the company generated $100 million a year in retail sales on the strength of rap stars who emerged from the gang culture, including Snoop Dogg.
Although Knight was in jail when Wallace was murdered, detectives are looking into claims by informants that one of Knight’s associates paid $25,000 to a Blood gang member to shoot Wallace, law enforcement sources said.
The task force is also investigating a theory based on clues drawn from a home video taken moments before the shooting.
Parked on Fairfax Avenue directly across from the Petersen, three young tourists from Texas filmed hundreds of guests leaving the party there. The movements of many patrons, including Wallace’s label chief, Sean “P-Diddy” Combs, are captured on film until about one minute before the ambush.
Last month, police traveled to Houston to interview witnesses and pursue leads about potential suspects, including rap entrepreneur Tony Draper, the owner of a blue 1996 Bentley captured on the video near the crime scene on the night of the shooting.
Draper has acknowledged that he was at the Petersen party but denied having anything to do with Wallace’s murder.