Slain rapper’s family keeps pushing suit

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Despite numerous setbacks, the family of slain rapper Biggie Smalls continues to pursue a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles based on a theory that a rogue LAPD detective helped orchestrate the murder.

Now, with a trial set for this summer in federal court, newly disclosed police documents shed light on how that theory took shape and how police themselves discounted key parts of it almost immediately.

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 near a stoplight in a sport utility vehicle when the killers pulled up in a dark Chevrolet Impala, opened fire and sped off.

While the murder has spawned books, documentaries and magazine articles exploring possible conspiracy theories, the rapper’s family continues to subscribe to the rogue cop account publicly championed by Russell Poole, an LAPD detective assigned to the case who later left the police force and became an expert witness for Wallace’s family.

Poole’s theory: Los Angeles rap impresario Marion “Suge” Knight conspired with a corrupt LAPD detective, David A. Mack, to kill Wallace as part of a bicoastal rap feud linked to the Las Vegas killing six months earlier of Tupac Shakur.

Both Knight and Mack, who is now in prison for robbing a bank, deny any involvement and have been dropped as suspects by both the LAPD and the FBI. No one has been charged in the killings of Shakur and Wallace.

Lt. Paul Vernon, an LAPD spokesman, declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit and the ongoing investigation of the Wallace slaying.

Perry Sanders, the attorney representing Wallace’s family, said that “there are documents that we have looked at in the LAPD file that support our theory. The documents indicate that David Mack killed Christopher Wallace.”

Poole’s theory holds that Knight wanted to kill Wallace in retaliation for the rapper’s suspected involvement in Shakur’s murder. Mack worked as a “covert agent” and security guard for Knight’s rap label, Death Row Records, according to Poole’s theory. He was an ardent fan of Shakur with a “shrine” to the rapper in his garage, Poole has said.

He was also a Muslim, a fact that took on great significance in Poole’s mind because a jailhouse informant -- since discredited -- had told police early on in their investigation that the rapper’s killer went by a “Middle East” sounding name, possibly “Amir” or “Ashmir” and that he could have belonged to a security force connected to the Nation of Islam.

When a college friend of Mack’s named Amir Muhammad visited him in prison on Dec. 26, 1997, 10 days after Mack’s arrest on the bank robbery charges, Muhammad immediately became a suspect in the shooting. Both the LAPD and the FBI later concluded that he was not involved in the crime.

The newly disclosed police records show how Poole’s theory started coming together in late 1997 and sprang from the work of two other detectives, Brian Tyndall and Greg Grant, who were investigating the bank robbery in which Mack was convicted. Tyndall, who declined to comment, now heads an LAPD task force created last year to solve the Wallace murder case and lay to rest the rogue cop theory. Grant, now retired, could not be reached.

The records, a series of interview logs that are part of the “murder book” in the Wallace case, were obtained by Mack through the discovery process in the wrongful-death suit, in which he was originally named as a defendant. He recently included them as part of a motion he filed in federal court challenging his bank robbery conviction.

Beyond illuminating the origin of the theory, the logs help explain why the theory fell apart: almost everything Tyndall and Grant reported about Mack was later debunked in police documents and court papers.

The first log entry on Mack was Dec. 12, 1997, four days before Mack’s bank robbery arrest. Grant wrote that another LAPD officer, Kevin Lowe, had told him and Tyndall that Mack offered him an off-duty job providing security for a girlfriend of Knight.

But a Jan. 20, 1998, entry by another detective who conducted a follow-up interview with Lowe said he adamantly denied telling Grant that Mack solicited him to work for Knight.

The first reference in the police log to Mack’s “shrine” to Shakur came on Jan. 13, 1998. The log notes that Grant informed a colleague assigned to the Wallace investigation that he had “observed several life-size photos of Tupac Shakur” on a wall in Mack’s garage.

Mack denies the existence of any shrine and argues in his motion that Grant and Tyndall concocted the concept after viewing a handful of 5-inch-by-5-inch CD covers by rap acts Ice Cube, Frost, Scarface and Shakur that he had stapled to a board behind his workout bench. FBI photographs of Mack’s home also revealed no posters or shrine.

Tyndall himself ultimately testified in a deposition in the wrongful-death suit that he did not recall seeing any pictures of Tupac Shakur at Mack’s residence. Also in the police log for Jan. 13, 1998, Grant and Tyndall informed their colleagues on the Wallace case that Mack had disclosed to them that he was a Muslim during an interview at a federal lockup the previous month after his arrest on the bank robbery charges. But Mack, as part of his motion, included his arrest report, which states that he “refused to answer questions” and that he specifically “refused” to disclose membership in any organization.

Finally, a Jan. 21, 1998, log entry says that Tyndall directed a Wallace investigator to interview Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Steve Smith, who reported that Muslim security guards were “very uncooperative” at a video shoot until an LAPD officer resembling Mack calmed things down.

A week later, according to a log entry on Jan. 29, 1998, a different Wallace investigator conducted a follow-up interview at the Beverly Hills police station and was told that no one named Sgt. Steve Smith worked there.

Poole’s rogue cop theory has suffered setbacks as the Wallace family has pursued its lawsuit.

Shortly before its first trial began in June 2005, the family dropped Mack and Muhammad as defendants, after both the LAPD and FBI dismissed them as suspects. The paid informant who first identified “Amir” as the killer and later figured prominently in both the LAPD and FBI investigations admitted that his identification of Muhammad was fraudulent.

The FBI, meanwhile, closed its investigation of Wallace’s killing, finding there was “no basis for prosecution” after investigating the possibility that Mack, Muhammad and Knight orchestrated the killing for 18 months.