Shaquille O'Neal questioned in beating, kidnapping of man by gang members

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 2009 investigated allegations that Shaquille O'Neal was connected to a beating, robbery and kidnapping by gang members of a man claiming to have a sex tape of the basketball star, according to records reviewed by The Times.

Detectives found phone records showing a "flurry of calls" between the alleged ringleader of the assault and O'Neal's business partner around the time of the February 2008 incident, a sheriff's investigative report said.

O'Neal and his business partner, Mark Stevens, denied any involvement in the attack when interviewed by sheriff's investigators. Neither man has been charged in connection with the case.

The victim, Robert Ross, told authorities in early interviews that he believed O'Neal was behind the attack because of a business deal gone bad, and because O'Neal believed he had a tape of the former Lakers center having sex with a woman other than his wife.

This week, Ross testified in Los Angeles County Superior Court during a preliminary hearing for seven members of the Main Street Crips gang accused of kidnapping him at gunpoint from West Hollywood and beating him while demanding the videotape. The gang members face charges of kidnapping, robbery, assault with a firearm and criminal conspiracy.

Law enforcement officials Wednesday declined to say what role, if any, O'Neal and Stevens had in the incident. But early in the investigation, it was clear that detectives suspected the pair might somehow have been involved.

In a July 2009 letter asking for leniency in Ross' sentencing for unrelated federal drug and firearm charges, a sheriff's captain wrote that Ross was cooperating with law enforcement as a victim and witness in a West Hollywood incident that may implicate a "celebrity" — an apparent reference to O'Neal.

"The motive for the crime was retaliation by a 'celebrity' who believed Ross was having an affair with his wife," Capt. David Smith of the sheriff's homicide bureau wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times. "The celebrity enlisted the help of seven 'Main Street Crip' gang members with extensive criminal histories to commit the kidnap, robbery and assault."

"The on-going investigation regarding the celebrity and his manager may also result in charges filed," Smith wrote at the time.

On Wednesday, sheriff's officials would not comment on how their investigation had progressed in the two years since Smith's letter, or how their understanding of the motive behind the alleged kidnapping may have changed. Det. Paul Fournier, the lead investigator on the case, declined to discuss the investigation, saying the probe was ongoing.

Attorney Nicholas Tonsich, who represented both Stevens and O'Neal during their interviews with sheriff's investigators, did not respond to repeated requests for comment late Wednesday. O'Neal's management company also did not respond to requests for comment.

Ross walked into the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Street Division in February 2008, with his face cut and bleeding and his clothes bloody, according to the sheriff's January 2009 investigative report.

He said armed Main Street Crips members, whom he had grown up with and recognized, kidnapped him in West Hollywood and ordered him to drive his Rolls-Royce to the South L.A. house of Ladell Rowles, the gang's alleged shot-caller. There, the gang members beat him up and took from him $15,000 in cash, a diamond necklace and earrings, and a Rolex watch, he told investigators.

During the beating, Rowles — known as "Del Dog"— told Ross, "Mark and Shaq know who the real boss is now," and demanded the "videotape" and $100,000, according to the report.

Ross told investigators that events leading to the kidnapping started with a business deal gone sour. Ross introduced rap artist Ray J to O'Neal's and Stevens' record label expecting to receive a percentage of the profits but was later cut out of the deal. Around the same time, O'Neal, who was having marital troubles, had his wife followed by a private investigator who took photos of her having lunch with Ross, according to the report.

Ross, upset over the deal, told Stevens and O'Neal through a friend that he had a surveillance tape of O'Neal having sex with a woman at Ross' home in July 2007. Ross told investigators that he was "bluffing" to get the money he felt he was owed. The attack occurred two weeks later.

Ross said O'Neal and Rowles knew each other because he had introduced them. O'Neal funded a documentary for Rowles through his record label and mentioned Rowles and Ross by their gang monikers in one of his rap songs, Ross told investigators.

O'Neal was interviewed by investigators in September 2008 at a locker room at USC's Galen Center. When he was told of Ross' allegation that O'Neal had ordered the kidnapping to retrieve the sex tape, O'Neal "adamantly denied" having been involved, according to the sheriff's report.

Even if there had been a sex tape, he told investigators, he wouldn't have cared if it was made public because he and his wife were getting a divorce. He told Stevens to pass that message to Ross, the report states.

He also said he didn't believe Stevens would have been involved in any kidnapping scheme, according to the report.

O'Neal said he had met several Main Street Crip gang members during toy donation events in South Los Angeles but did not have a personal relationship with them.

O'Neal told authorities he had severed ties with Ross about a year before the interview because of Ross' criminal troubles, believing that it would be bad for his image.

Stevens, who was interviewed around the same time as O'Neal, told investigators he found out about Ross' assault three or four days after the fact from Ross' brother and another friend. He said he had a "business-level" relationship with Rowles, helping him organize charity events.

At the time of the attack on Ross, the gang members had already been under surveillance as part of an ongoing federal investigation into the Main Street Crips gang. In one wiretapped phone conversation six months after the attack, Rowles told Stevens that Ross had "gone sour," and that the police had contacted him, according to the report.

Investigators also obtained phone records documenting "a flurry of calls from Mark Stevens to Ladell Rowles" and from Rowles to other gang members "at or around the time of the kidnapping," the sheriff's report states.

Two attorneys representing defendants in the case Wednesday questioned Ross' credibility, pointing to his criminal record.

Attorney Vincent J. Oliver said the prosecution's case rests solely on Ross' account. He said the fact that Ross was lying about having the sex tape "casts more doubt" on his testimony. Rowles' attorney, Ronald J. Higgins, disputed that his client was the shot-caller in the gang, and said he was a respected member of the community.

Ross is expected to resume his testimony when the preliminary hearing continues in July.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.

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