Prosecutor probed on rap mogul’s probation

Knight, founded Death Row Records, the label that shaped the rise of gangsta rap.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Death Row Records owner Marion “Suge” Knight signed the teenage daughter of prosecutor Lawrence M. Longo to a record contract while Longo was monitoring Knight’s probation from a 1992 assault.

In addition, Knight lived this summer in an oceanfront home leased from Longo’s family in the exclusive Malibu Colony, home to movie stars and entertainment moguls.

Longo, who was abruptly taken off Knight’s case last month, said Thursday that his family’s financial relationships with Knight did not affect his decisions about the case, which he supervised for nearly four years. He denied any wrongdoing.

He acknowledged that he had initially pursued the case against Knight aggressively but said Thursday his views of the record company executive had changed--though not because of subsequent financial dealings with Knight.

The district attorney’s office said Longo has been under investigation since the office learned Sept. 17 that Knight had been living in the Malibu house. Longo remains at work in the Beverly Hills courthouse, but a senior prosecutor said the department was investigating possible violations ranging from ethical impropriety to criminal conduct.

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti declined to comment Thursday.

Knight, 31, built Death Row into the first rap label to consistently dominate the pop charts, a powerhouse that generates more than $100 million in annual retail sales. Its stars and executives, however, have been associated with violence--among them rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus and who was acquitted of murder earlier this year, and Tupac Shakur, gunned down Sept. 7 in Las Vegas in a car driven by Knight. Earlier this year, the FBI launched an investigation of Death Row inquiring into allegations of gang-related drug trafficking and money laundering.

In February 1995, Longo agreed to settle the assault case with a plea bargain that spared Knight nine years in state prison. Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk approved the deal but termed it “rather unusual.” On Monday, Ouderkirk returned Knight to jail pending a hearing on possible probation violations.

In an interview Thursday, Longo said: “Why should Suge Knight bother to sign [my daughter] if she doesn’t have any talent? What was he going to gain? I told Suge Knight before he signed her to the label that he was not going to get any special treatment from me. That’s all there is to it.”

He said that the house, which is held in a family trust, had been rented to David Kenner, Knight’s lawyer in the assault case, and asserted that Kenner had installed Knight in the home, located on the beach in the exclusive Malibu Colony. Residents, irate over noisy parties that they complained sometimes carried on until dawn, said they had called sheriff’s deputies to the scene several times this summer.

“I rented the house to David Kenner and he was allowed to rent it to whoever he wanted,” said Longo. “When I found out [Knight was living there], I felt a little uneasy about it. I said to Kenner, ‘You’re placing me in an awkward position and I want you to know that if something goes wrong, you’re not going to get any favorable treatment from me.’ ”

Longo continued: “I made it very clear when I accepted the plea bargain that [Knight] wasn’t going to get any special treatment from me. I told him that my career is as straight as an arrow and if he [messed] up while on probation, he was going to jail.”

Longo added that his son, Frank, who is also an attorney, negotiated and signed the record contract and the lease for the house.

“My father had nothing to do with either deal,” Frank Longo said Thursday. “I negotiated both of them.”

Knight could not be reached for comment. Calls to the West Los Angeles offices of Death Row Records were referred to Kenner, who declined to comment.

Legal ethics experts said Thursday that the circumstances bore the appearance of impropriety. “The appearances are terrible,” said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School dean and former federal prosecutor.

“It’s important for a prosecutor to remain as objective as possible, to avoid any vested interest, personally or through your family in a defendant or a case,” Levenson said.

“That’s common sense. Common sense applies here. That’s why the appearances are terrible.”

Longo, 56, a son of a wealthy investor and developer, has been a deputy district attorney since 1970, the year after he graduated from LaVerne Law School.

He earned a reputation as a tenacious courtroom battler. In the 1980s, he prosecuted the so-called Chinatown case, which stemmed from a robbery that caused the deaths of a Los Angeles police officer and two holdup men.

Longo had sought a first-degree murder conviction for Hau Cheong “Peter” Chan, the alleged mastermind of the robbery. Instead, a jury found Chan guilty of second-degree murder.

Throughout his career, Longo has remained a trial deputy. In recent years, he has been assigned to cases such as one that involved a woman accused of castrating her sleeping husband with a pair of scissors.

Longo was also the protagonist in a recently published book, “The D.A.,” which chronicled a year in the life of the district attorney’s office.

In the preface, author Lawrence Taylor said he chose to follow Longo for a year because he “is a simple man with simple values,” and called him a devoted family man “who still believes in things like honor, loyalty and justice.”

According to court records, Longo took over Knight’s assault case the day it landed in Superior Court, Dec. 7, 1992. Knight had been arrested after a July 13, 1992, attack on two aspiring rappers in a Hollywood recording studio.

Initially, according to transcripts, Longo came off in court as the tough prosecutor.

On one occasion, in September 1993, Knight did not show up for a hearing. Kenner told Ouderkirk that Knight was keeping a bedside vigil for his girlfriend, injured in a car crash.

Longo told Ouderkirk that while he had sympathy for Knight, “The defendant has no justifiable reason for not being here today.”

In August 1994, Longo transferred from the Criminal Courts Building downtown to Beverly Hills, but he kept charge of the Knight case.

On Feb. 9, 1995, Knight pleaded no contest to two counts of assault. In exchange, he received a suspended prison sentence of nine years, and five years probation. Among the terms of probation were that Knight be tested regularly for drug use and notify authorities before he left the country.

Ouderkirk went along with the deal though he noted that it was a “rather unusual and somewhat complicated grant of probation.”

In recommending the plea bargain in court, Longo said Knight not only had received a favorable probation report but had “indicated since this incident that he is a very productive citizen . . . now the head of one of the foremost record companies, he employs numerous people.”

Longo noted that the two would-be rappers, Lynwood and George Stanley, had by then recorded an album for Death Row. The Stanley brothers have since alleged in a lawsuit that Death Row paid them $350,000 but still owes $650,000; a hearing on that case is set for Wednesday in Superior Court.

In the months before the plea bargain, Longo had told a Times reporter on several occasions that he felt Knight was dangerous and vowed to put him behind bars.

By March 1995, however, Longo’s assessment had changed considerably:

“Marion Knight is one of the few guys I have ever prosecuted who I actually believe can turn his life around and really change the community from where he came,” Longo said then in an interview.

“I have never seen a guy transform as much as this guy has since he was first booked. It’s remarkable.”

Knight’s company, meanwhile, had been transformed from scratch into a wildly successful record company, the top rap label in the country.

In January 1996, the prosecutor’s daughter, Gina Longo, then 18, signed a record contract with Death Row, according to Frank Longo. Her record deal was celebrated over a dinner at an Encino restaurant that was attended by Longo, his wife, Frank and Gina, as well as Knight and several of his associates.

Billed simply as “Gina” in a recent Death Row magazine advertisement, she has not released any music to date. But she has trained with a vocal coach hired by Death Row and recorded demo tracks at a studio rented by the company.

Gina Longo could not be reached for comment. Frank Longo said his sister was signed after he gave a demo tape, unsolicited, to Kenner.

Neither Longo nor his son would comment on the value or terms of Gina Longo’s deal.

While it is rare for artists to be signed from a demo tape, it does sometimes happen. Longo is believed to be the only white singer of the 22 rap and R&B acts currently listed on Death Row’s artist roster.

Longo said Thursday: “My daughter is an adult. She does what she wants. She doesn’t live at home. She’s been trying to get into the record business for a long time and this was an opportunity that presented itself.”

Beginning last fall, the Longo family beach house in the Malibu Colony was essentially torn down and rebuilt, emerging as a three-story stucco structure with a red tile roof. Knight moved in about Memorial Day, just as construction was being completed, according to residents of the colony.

During the summer, such a house would typically rent for between $30,000 and $50,000 per month, residents said. The gated colony is home to many film and recording stars who value privacy and quiet.

Longo declined to say how much his family’s home rents for.

Within the colony, the issue of what--if anything--to do about complaints of late night noise at the residence became something of a crusade for some residents. The issue even surfaced at the colony’s annual meeting, held outdoors a few weeks ago on a tennis court and attended by about 100 people.

On Aug. 19, with Longo appearing for the prosecution, Ouderkirk said in court that he had received information that Knight allegedly had tested positive for marijuana. That information, the judge said, came from a county probation officer--who, in turn, had been notified by federal probation authorities. Knight is also serving three years federal probation on a weapons case.

The judge ordered Knight to undergo more tests.

On Sept. 16, Longo made a final appearance for the prosecution, this time in federal court, where he asked to see the results of drug tests conducted by federal probation authorities.

The next day, the D.A.'s office received “the report of what I would call a conflict of interest involving Longo,” said Steven A. Sowders, the deputy who heads internal affairs investigations.

He declined to identify the source of the report.

Longo was immediately taken off the Knight case, Sowders said, and an investigation launched.

“We’re involved with ethics, personnel policies, Civil Service rules and possibly criminal,” Sowders said Thursday. “So far, the focus is Civil Service and personnel policies.”

Last Friday, as Ouderkirk was issuing a warrant for his arrest, Knight moved out of the Malibu home.

“That morning the biggest furniture van you’ve ever seen pulled up,” one resident said. “By 5 p.m., they were gone.”

Chronology of the Case

Some key dates in the assault case of Death Row Records owner Marion “Suge” Knight:

* July 13, 1992: Knight attacks two aspiring rappers in a Hollywood recording studio.

* Dec. 7, 1992: Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence Longo takes over the case for the prosecution.

* Feb. 9, 1995: Knight pleads no contest to two counts of assault and receives a suspended prison sentence of nine years and five years probation from Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk. Longo recommends the deal to the judge, saying Knight received a favorable probation report.

* January 1996: Longo’s daughter Gina signs record deal with Death Row.

* Memorial Day 1996: Knight moves into house owned by Longo family in Malibu Colony. The lease was signed by Encino attorney David Kenner, Knight’s lawyer in the assault case.

* Aug. 19, 1996: Longo appears for the prosecution at a hearing before Ouderkirk. The judge orders another hearing Sept. 20.

* Sept. 16, 1996: Longo makes last appearance in the Knight case, in federal court to ask that federal authorities disclose the results of Knight’s drug tests. In the following few days, he is abruptly removed from the case after supervisors learn that Knight has been living at the Malibu beach house.

* Oct. 22, 1996: Knight is sent to jail for missing drug test required by probation.