Chorus of protests seeks to free singer locked up for 1993 killing

Times Staff Writer

He was an R&B singer who had scored a nationwide hit with “My Girl.” He performed around the country, drove luxury sedans and owned a palatial home in Calabasas.

Then, suddenly, Waymond Anderson was an accused murderer. Police in bulletproof vests surrounded his black Mustang on Jan. 29, 1994, and handcuffed him as his wife and 6-year-old son watched.

At the trial, prosecutors persuaded a jury that the entertainer known as “Suavé" was a ruthless drug dealer who had torched a home near the USC campus, killing a man to avenge an unpaid drug debt. Anderson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder.

Now, after nearly 13 years behind bars, he has asked the state Court of Appeal to throw out his conviction, contending that new evidence shows he could not have committed the crime.

Two witnesses who identified him at the trial as the arsonist have given sworn statements saying that they lied under pressure from police.

Anderson’s defense team has also produced travel receipts and sworn witness statements that indicate he was in Jackson, Miss., visiting his sister at the time of the killing. One of that state’s most revered preachers is among those who swear they saw Anderson in Mississippi that day.

“I had nothing to do with this murder — and the police know it,” Anderson, 40, said during a recent interview at Corcoran State Prison south of Fresno. “My son was 6 when they locked me up. Last year, he graduated from high school. Have you any idea how long that is? I’ve never even seen the Internet.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls, who prosecuted Anderson, declined to discuss his court petition. But she said she remained convinced of his guilt.

“I have complete confidence in this verdict,” she said. “There was overwhelming evidence that the defendant did it and that he had the motive to do it.”

A downward spiral

Anderson grew up around Western Avenue and 39th Street in South Los Angeles. Raised by his great-grandmother, he sang in a church choir, wrote songs and orchestrated R&B arrangements in the “new-jack-swing” style in his home studio.

In 1985, Anderson, then 19, signed a recording contract with Capitol Records. He released three albums for the label and struck it big in 1988 with “My Girl,” an update of the Motown hit.

Beneath the veneer of stardom, his life was a mess. Anderson acknowledges that he sold and used drugs, carried guns and cheated on his wife. This hidden side of his life explains why he would have killed a man over a drug debt, authorities say.

The deadly fire occurred in a converted garage on West 40th Place inhabited by a shifting assortment of junkies.

On the morning of Sept. 18, 1993, a tall, ponytailed drug dealer burst through the door, looking for two addicts who owed him money — “Punch” and “One-Arm Will.”

Failing to find them, the man splashed gasoline around the dwelling, twisted a newspaper into a torch and flicked his lighter, witnesses told police. A drug addict named Robert Wellington was killed in the ensuing blaze.

Several weeks later, police tracked down One-Arm Will. He was carrying a business card with a 10-digit phone number scrawled on the back.

The number, it turned out, was for a cellphone registered in Anderson’s stage name, Julian “Suavé" Scott.

Detectives included Anderson’s picture in an array of photos they showed to witnesses, including Wellington’s brother, Willock Garcia. Garcia, who was badly burned in the fire, identified Anderson as the arsonist, police reported.

Patricia Tidmore-Ellison, a heroin addict who lived near the murder scene, also implicated Anderson. Detectives said she identified him from a photograph as the ponytailed man who showed up at her door an hour before the fire, holding a handgun and a grenade and demanding to know the whereabouts of Punch and One-Arm Will.

More than three years passed between Anderson’s arrest in January 1994 and the start of his trial. During that time, he had a mental breakdown in prison and was transferred to Patton State Hospital, where he was deemed mentally incompetent for a period.

He escaped from the San Bernardino facility at one point and was recaptured two weeks later. He remained in the mental hospital until his trial began in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1997.

Without fingerprints, DNA or other physical evidence linking Anderson to the crime, prosecutors relied largely on the testimony of Tidmore-Ellison and Garcia.

In addition to identifying Anderson as the ponytailed man, both witnesses said they saw a black Ford Explorer leave the scene of the crime. A vehicle fitting that description was registered in Anderson’s name.

Prosecutors said cellphone data provided further proof of his guilt. A detective testified that around the time of the arson, a call made on the phone registered in Anderson’s name was relayed by a cell tower near the crime scene.

Anderson’s lawyer, David Herriford, portrayed the prosecution’s eyewitnesses as unreliable addicts. He also called the singer’s hairdresser, who testified that Anderson never wore his hair in a ponytail.

But the attorney did not develop an alibi defense for Anderson, who insisted he was out of state on the day of the killing. Anderson said he traveled frequently as an entertainer and could not recall his exact whereabouts but was confident that his credit card records would show he was not in California.

He said that he told this to Herriford but that the lawyer never followed up.

Asked recently for comment, Herriford said: “I don’t remember that. I can’t say it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember that.”

Ingalls, in her summation to the jury, said the prosecution’s eyewitness testimony removed any doubt about Anderson’s guilt: “Willock Garcia, he picked out the defendant …. They all picked out this guy.”

After four days of deliberation, the jury convicted Anderson of first-degree murder.

Justices uphold verdict

Working with a new attorney, Leslie Conrad, Anderson appealed his conviction all the way to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict.

Anderson expressed frustration to Conrad that the jury was never told he had an alibi.

Conrad said in a court filing that she asked Herriford why he had not pursued Anderson’s credit card records or other evidence to establish an alibi. Herriford, she said, told her he did not have time.

Asked if that was true, Herriford said: “I don’t know any reason why she would make that up. But I don’t recall knowing anything about him being in Mississippi. I certainly could have used more time.”

Conrad could not raise the alibi during her initial appeal because it had not come up at the trial. But she gathered information doggedly, hoping it might later support a writ of habeas corpus, a petition challenging the legality of his imprisonment.

In 1998, with help from Anderson’s wife, Allison, Conrad obtained a Diners Club credit card statement and an itinerary issued by an Agoura Hills travel agency that showed the singer booked and paid for a flight to Jackson, Miss., in September 1993.

Before Conrad contacted her, Allison said, she had no knowledge of the trip. She and her husband had been separated for most of 1993.

After hearing from Conrad, Allison contacted her husband’s sister, Janice K. Gentry, who lived in Jackson. Gentry had been estranged from her brother for several years and said she did not know about his conviction and imprisonment.

Allison asked her whether the singer had visited her in 1993. Gentry told her that Anderson had flown to Mississippi around Sept. 18, 1993 — the day of the crime — to help her celebrate her 26th birthday.

In 2000, a fellow prisoner at Corcoran introduced Anderson to Bobby Singleton, an aspiring private detective who befriended the entertainer and began working on his case for free.

Singleton searched for people who might have seen or spoken to Anderson while he was in Mississippi. He also tracked down the prosecution’s two key witnesses: Garcia, who was living on the streets, and Tidmore-Ellison, who was in prison.

In the summer of 2003, both gave sworn declarations recanting their trial testimony. The statements are part of the habeas corpus petition filed in October by Anderson’s current lawyer, David L. Bernstein. He said it’s not unusual to take years gathering new evidence before filing such a petition.

If the Court of Appeal decides Anderson’s writ is worthy, it could order an evidentiary hearing with the state attorney general arguing for the prosecutors. After the hearing, the court could either deny the writ or decide to overturn Anderson’s conviction. Were that to happen, the district attorney would then decide whether to retry Anderson.

In her declaration, Tidmore-Ellison said that when Los Angeles Police Dets. Steven Spears and Kent Anderson interviewed her in 1993, they promised to help her with a check-forging charge if she helped solve the murder.

“I had never seen Waymond Anderson until Det. Spears pulled out a photo lineup card, took out a pen and circled [his] photo,” the statement said. “Det. Spears told me to remember this face, because he was the person responsible for killing my friend Robert Wellington. I did not want to get railroaded by these detectives, so I played the game their way.”

Spears, now an investigator for the Orange County district attorney’s office, said in a voicemail that he had only a vague recollection of the case. He did not respond to follow-up calls.

Det. Anderson declined to comment.

Tidmore-Ellison said she also told prosecutor Ingalls that Anderson was not the man she had seen the morning of the fire.

Ingalls replied that the ponytailed man was Anderson, “and if it wasn’t him, he was still connected and responsible for the death of my friend,” Tidmore-Ellison’s declaration states.

Tidmore-Ellison said she agreed to testify “the way I was coached” after the prosecutor promised to arrange her transfer from Valley State Prison in Chowchilla to a safer facility closer to her family.

Ingalls declined to comment.

Garcia, in his declaration, said detectives pressured him to identify Anderson even though he was unsure Anderson was the killer.

“I should have followed my first mind and said I was not sure, but the detectives told me it was him,” the declaration states. “I know I have made a great mistake.”

The Times sought out Tidmore-Ellison and Garcia to verify that their declarations were genuine.

Tidmore-Ellison met with a reporter at a motel in Inglewood. Now 56 and out of prison, she said her declaration was accurate. She said she had kicked her drug habit and was driven by remorse to help Anderson.

“I was trying to save my own skin. I did what the police told me to do,” she said of her trial testimony. “This has been on my conscience for a long time.”

Singleton and a Times reporter searched the streets and alleys of South Los Angeles for several weekends before locating Garcia, now 54.

Still homeless, he wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans and was pushing a shopping cart full of cans and bottles. He said the statements attributed to him in the declaration were correct. Scanning his surroundings as he spoke, Garcia said he feared retaliation for speaking the truth.

“The guys who killed my brother are still out there,” he said. “They’re dangerous.”

Minister’s statement

Anderson’s habeas corpus petition also challenges the prosecution testimony that cellphone transmissions placed him near the crime scene.

The petition says that the police analysis of cellphone data was flawed and that there is no evidence the phone was in Anderson’s possession. It was one of several phones that his then-manager had registered in Anderson’s name, the petition states.

But the heart of Anderson’s bid for freedom is his assertion — based on the credit card bill, the travel agency itinerary and witness statements — that he was in Mississippi for eight days, before, during and after the fire.

Among the witnesses who place him there is Bishop Phillip Coleman Sr., pastor of the Greater Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Faith Church in Jackson.

At one time Gentry, Anderson’s sister, was related by marriage to Coleman, who leads the city’s largest black congregation.

In sworn statements and in interviews with The Times, Gentry, Coleman and his son Emmanuel corroborated Anderson’s alibi. The bishop said he had a distinct recollection of the singer’s visit because Anderson visited his church and made a $1,000 donation. A church record listing the donation and the date is included in Anderson’s court petition.

Emmanuel Coleman said he picked Anderson up at the airport Sept. 14, 1993, and drove him to Gentry’s apartment. The younger Coleman said that over the next few days, he and Anderson toured Jackson State University, drove around the city looking at real estate and visited Coleman’s relatives.

The younger Coleman said that about 2 p.m. Sept. 18 — the day of the arson in Los Angeles — he took Anderson to meet his father. According to declarations by the bishop and his son, Anderson spent several hours chatting with the elder Coleman about gospel music and his spiritual aspirations.

The next morning, Phillip Coleman said, Anderson attended a Sunday service at Greater Bethlehem, where the bishop introduced the singer to his congregation.

“We’re still crying out after all these years, hoping someone will listen,” Gentry said in an interview. “Waymond is innocent. We’ve got proof.”