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Scandal Erupts at the L.A. Times By: Jan Golab
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 02, 2005


Times are bad at the L.A. Times.  Competition from new media and “a lingering feeling of bias” continue to plague the paper and drive down circulation. Editors John Carroll, Michael Kinsley and leftist icon Robert Scheer have all recently been sent packing. Now, the once venerable paper faces a scandal of Jayson Blair proportions, one that may topple key players—including a Pulitzer Prize winner—and permanently sully its reputation.

The Times’ questionable coverage of the Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. (AKA Biggie Smalls) murders has long been the subject of Internet gossip and speculation among reporters.  But no one in the mainstream media has dared to address it—until now.  Rolling Stone Magazine hits newsstands today with a lengthy, exhaustive piece re-examining the unsolved murder of Biggie Smalls (AKA Christopher Wallace), who was gunned down in L.A. on March 9, 1997. “When looking back at this nine-year-long saga of deceit and corruption, nothing is more troubling—or more incomprehensible—than the role played by the Los Angeles Times,” the story states.  The 14,000 word piece by Randall Sullivan, author of Labyrinth, a 2002 book about the case, details numerous examples of “a deluge of biased reporting” by the Times. Attorney Perry Sanders, who represents Voletta Wallace (Biggie’s mom) in a lawsuit against the City, bluntly describes the Times as “a co-conspirator in the cover-up.”

Last July, a mistrial was declared in Wallace’s wrongful death lawsuit, which charges that gangster cops killed her son and the LAPD covered it up. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs were at least half right; the LAPD had in fact engaged in a cover-up, withholding tapes of a jailhouse confession, as well as 1000 pages of crucial documents. This information was turned over to Wallace’s attorneys, who are currently conducting further discovery and preparing to re-file the case.

Following the lead of the Los Angeles Times, the story of this mistrial was largely ignored or downplayed by the media. Few understood the potential impact of this court ruling. A victory in the lawsuit could literally bankrupt the city, as Biggie’s potential lifetime earnings have been projected at over $350 million.  The decision also served to re-open the LAPD Rampart scandal, as Rampart songbird Rafael Perez was implicated in the case by the suppressed evidence. City officials felt Rampart was behind them, having approved $70 million in settlements without any of 200  lawsuits ever going to trial. Now, all that buried evidence is likely to surface.  “The Rampart scandal and the lengths to which police and city officials had gone to protect Perez from those who knew him as a fabricator were now an essential aspect of the case,” states Rolling Stone. Still worse, the story proclaims: “Suddenly, the central figures in this scandal were not the collection of corrupt police officers whose double-faced criminality has been the focus of both public and private investigations, but rather the people who hold the levers of control at the city’s most powerful institutions.” 

Chief among those institutions, Sullivan charges, is The L.A. Times.  The Times has long dismissed the theory behind the Wallace lawsuit—that “gangster cop” David Mack, best friend of Rafael Perez, killed Biggie on behest of rap mogul Suge Knight. The man behind this theory, former LAPD Robbery/Homicide Detective Russell Poole, a cop of impeccable reputation, resigned from the force after 18 years in 1999 because, he claimed, the LAPD had suppressed his investigation of the Biggie Smalls murder. Poole first tried to take his story public that same year by going to the L.A. Times, which mis-reported what he told them and bungled his story.  The Times has ignored or attempted to discredit Poole’s theory ever since, even as Poole’s highly documented tale has become the subject of a score of magazine stories, documentaries, books and upcoming films.  

Poole’s trail began when he investigated the 1997 shooting death of LAPD officer Kevin Gaines, who was living with Sharitha Knight, ex-wife of Gangsta Rap mogul Suge Knight and Snoop Dog’s manager.  Gaines, who was suspected by the FBI of moving money and drugs for Death Row, led Poole to gangsta cops David Mack and Rafael Perez. Following a 6-month investigation, Perez was arrested (by Poole) in August ‘98 for stealing 8 pounds of cocaine from LAPD evidence lockers. Perez cut a deal for leniency on a 12-year prison sentence in September of 1999 and started to talk. The result was the "Rampart Scandal," the worst in LAPD history.

Perez alleged that Rampart Division gang unit officers were as out-of-control as the gangs they policed. More than 30 officers were suspended or fired in the ongoing probe. At least forty were investigated.  Hundreds of cases "tainted" by Rampart were overturned and city officials eventually turned control of the LAPD over to the feds by entering into a consent decree with the US Justice Department.

But Rafael Perez never said a word about his best friend and former partner, David Mack, a one-time University of Oregon track star who had grown up in the same Compton neighborhood as Suge Knight. Poole learned that Mack and Perez both lived large for a pair of cops—nightclubs, girls, fancy cars, nice clothes, expensive cigars, frequent trips to Vegas and Caribbean cruises. In December of '97, nine months after the Biggie killing, David Mack was arrested for the armed robbery of a bank. He got away with $772,000, most of which has still never been recovered. Mack is currently serving out a 14-year prison term for that crime. Two black male accomplices have never been caught. When detectives arrested Mack at his home, they found $5600 in cash, receipts for $20,000 in recent purchases and a "shrine" to Tupac Shakur. They also learned that two days after the bank robbery, Mack, Perez and another black cop, Sammy Martin, partied with girlfriends at a glitzy Las Vegas hotel. They blew $21,000 in a weekend, staying at a $1500 a night suite. Investigators suspected, but could never prove, that Perez and Martin were Mack’s accomplices in the bank job. 

After he was handed the Biggie Smalls investigation, Det. Poole turned up numerous clues that pointed to Officer David Mack. Mack owned a black Chevy Impala Super Sport like the one ID'd as the shooter's car, and he had taken a string of unusual "family illness" days off at the time of the Biggie murder, just as he had for the bank robbery. Witnesses reported hearing police radios in the Petersen Museum carport when Biggie exited, and Mack had employed police radios in the bank robbery. Investigators had seized five 9MM handguns and three silencers from Mack's residence, but had failed to collect a large amount of ammo. Poole tried to get another search warrant to seize Mack's car and ammo, but he was halted by his superiors. “Their attitude was, Mack had already gone down for bank robbery. Let's not get involved in more controversy," said Poole.

An informant told investigators that the shooter had a middle-eastern name, possibly Amir. Poole noticed that the first person who visited Mack in jail following the bank robbery was an Amir Muhammad (AKA Harry Billups). The fact that Muhammad/Billups gave a false social security number and address heightened suspicions. So did a long trail of dead-end addresses that included Las Vegas and stretched back to Eugene, Oregon, where Billups went to school with Mack. Billups driver's license photo was also a virtual match to the composite drawing made of Biggie's killer from numerous eyewitness accounts—a black man in a bow tie, the attire favored by Nation of Islam members. Other clues connected David Mack to Suge Knight, the man everyone suspected was behind the Biggie murder. A Death Row insider had told Poole that officers Gaines and Mack attended numerous Death Row parties and functions together, and that Mack was a Suge Knight confidant. An eyewitness at the Peterson Auto Museum identified Mack as present that night. 

Despite all these clues, Poole’s investigation was halted by LAPD brass, causing him to finally resign from the department.

Throughout the civil trial this summer, L.A. Times’ stories cherry-picked information to discredit the case. One of the more egregious pieces cited by Rolling Stone was written by Pulitzer Prize winning music-biz journalist Chuck Philips, appearing 11 days before the civil trial began.  It was headlined “Informant in Rap Star’s Slaying Admits Hearsay.”  The only problem was that the secret informant in question, who told police that Biggie’s killer was a Nation of Islam member named “Amir” or “Ashmir,” had always told them he received the information second-hand.  He never claimed otherwise. The Times story was a blatant smear, inspiring one Wallace team investigator to describe it as “tantamount to jury tampering.”  Even worse, the Times revealed the informant’s street name, which led to his being beaten and threatened by gang members and causing him to disappear, making him unavailable to testify at trial.

Chuck Philip’s had championed Amir Muhammad’s innocence in a number of previous Times’ stories, having obtained exclusive interviews with Muhammad, who claimed to be an innocent mortgage broker.  (To this day, he has never agreed to talk to police).  According to Sullivan’s piece in Rolling Stone, however, Philips and the Times have failed to report key evidence against Muhammad, including statements by informants that he is a known hit man. Also, according to Rolling Stone, “the newspaper had not reported that on October 21st, 1998, Muhammad had been arrested in the city of Chino for “firearm brandishing,” in an incident where he was reported to have pulled his black BMW sedan up alongside the white Blazer in which his ex-girlfriend, Angelique Mitchell, and her new boyfriend rode and pointed a pistol at the couple.” Muhammad, who provided a fake drivers license, was cited for carrying a concealed weapon and released. “Six days later,” Rolling Stone reports, “Mitchell and her boyfriend were dead from gunshot wounds to the head, in what police would rule a murder-suicide.”

Chuck Philips, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his music business reporting in 1999, has covered Death Row Records since the early ‘90’s. He has long been known for obtaining scoops and exclusive interviews for The Times due to his unmatched access to Suge Knight. Some critics have characterized him as Suge’s apologist and as a reporter corrupted by access. Others speculate there may be more to it than that.  One key witness at the Biggie civil trial, Death Row insider Kevin Hackie, who identified David Mack as attending Death Row functions, also stated in a pre-trial deposition that “Chuck Philips was frequently at Death Row functions and received payments from Death Row Records.” Hackie backed off of this statement at trial, but he also tried to back away from everything he had told investigators, stating, convincingly, that “I’m in fear for my life.” Asked what he feared, Hackie stated: “Retribution by the Bloods, the Los Angeles Police Department and associates of Death Row Records.”

Speculation about Chuck Philips has been fueled by troubling, unanswered questions regarding a controversial story published by The Times on September 6, 2002. In a lengthy piece by Philips titled “Who Killed Tupac Shakur,” based on un-named gangland sources, Philips wrote that Shakur was killed in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996, by members of a Compton gang called the Southside Crips. “The murder weapon,” the story states, “was supplied by New York rapper Notorious B.I.G., who agreed to pay the Crips $1 million for killing Shakur.” The piece described how Biggie Smalls met with the gangsters on the night of the murder in the penthouse suite at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where he was allegedly registered under a false name.

According to Philips’ story, the triggerman in Tupac’s killing was an LA Crip named Orlando Anderson, who was later killed in an unrelated matter.  By fingering two dead men (Anderson and Biggie Smalls) as Tupac’s killers, Philip’s story took the focus off Suge Knight, whom many believe had Tupac killed because Tupac planned to leave Death Row.  Philips’ story also claimed that Biggie was later killed by the Crips for stiffing them—again taking the heat off prime suspect Suge Knight.

Biggie’s family and lawyers immediately branded the Times’ piece “irresponsible journalism,” charging that Biggie wasn’t even in Las Vegas on the night of Tupac’s killing. They provided statements by rapper Lil’ Cease and Biggie’s manager Wayne Barrow, who both placed Biggie at a New York recording studio and his New Jersey home on the day in question. “No way he was in Vegas,” stated Barrow. They also provided a dated audiotape and paperwork to verify Biggie’s N.Y. studio booking. Rob Frank, Ms. Wallace’s co-council, stated: “The notion that a 300 pound icon, the star of his musical genre, could sneak in and out of a city like Las Vegas on the night of a big fight is just silly.”

Informed later that Ms. Wallace’s attorneys were certain they could prove Biggie was in New Jersey, Philips remained defiant: “I stand by my story,” he stated. “I am certain they will not be able to show that. I have information he was somewhere else.” Yet he still refused to name his sources or provide any corroborating evidence—as he does to this day.

Perry Sanders addressed the Times’ story at a pre-trial press conference this summer. “Notorious B.I.G. was a hard to miss individual.  If he was in Las Vegas at the time of Tupac’s murder, I think there would be some credible evidence that he was there. (According to Philip’s story) he paid $50,000, allegedly for a murder, and he owes another $950,000. Then he comes here (to L.A.) and camps out in the backyard next to the people he allegedly owes $950,000. That story was interesting for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it managed to kill two murder theories with one article. Everybody in the world knows that story is ridiculous.” (While the Times covered this press conference, they did not quote Sanders on this subject).

That the Times could publish a story that places Biggie in Vegas on the night in question, without any named sources or evidence, remains inexplicable. No editor of any repute would run such a piece without independent confirmation. Furthermore, the Times still refuses to retract the story or reveal its sources—a seemingly untenable position under the circumstances.

During the Biggie trial this summer, the Times' overt bias became a hot topic of conversation among court watchers. (This reporter covered the trial for an October 2005 cover story in XXL Magazine).  “Am I involved in the same trial that they are covering?” an incredulous Perry Sanders asked at one point. Sanders confronted Times reporter Andrew Blankstein, Chuck Philip’s apparent understudy, for including a gratuitous smear against the Wallace attorneys in a story about the LAPD’s hiding of evidence. Blankstein told him: “My editor made me put that in there.” The L.A. Times was described in one Wallace motion as “a blatantly one-sided critic of the Wallace law suit.” One out-of-town reporter commented: “I’ve heard stories about The L.A. Times (agenda-driven) reporting on this story, but I didn’t believe it. Now that I’ve been sitting in court everyday and reading their stories, I have to wonder.”

Detective Russell Poole believes the Times’ coverage is simply part of the widespread political pressure to protect the (former) chief. “They (The L.A. Times) just don’t have credibility,” Poole commented following the mistrial this summer. “They take some truth and intertwine it with propaganda, which is basically what the LAPD was doing with the whole Rampart scandal. Somebody needs to ask the tough questions about who is responsible for all this.” Poole likened Chuck Philips to Detective Steve Katz, the LAPD detective who “forgot” the jailhouse confessions and other evidence he left in his desk drawers and which led to the mistrial. “His career is shot. If you lie one time and you get caught, there’s no way you can testify in another case. You’re not reliable.”

From the beginning, Poole has stated that “Rampart was always about cover-up” and that former Chief Parks suppressed evidence and obstructed justice to hide the fact that gangsters had corrupted members of his department. When the Chief tried to suppress Poole’s investigation, Poole did what many believe Deep Throat should have done in Watergate. He resigned from the department and went public with his story and his documents. The LAPD and The L.A. Times have spent the past 6 years either dismissing or trying to denigrate Poole’s accusations. (Chief Parks is now a city councilman). Imagine if the Washington Post had wanted to protect Nixon rather than expose him, and had used all of its power to suppress Watergate rather than get to the bottom of it. That’s “Biggiegate.”

“Philips knows who committed the Biggie murder,” Perry Sanders stated after the mistrial. “The only reason to write that ‘Biggie Killed Tupac’ story is if your number one job in life is to cover-up for the real murderer. The L.A. Times is a co-conspirator in trying to keep this murder case from being solved and this civil case from being won.”

Sanders states in Rolling Stone: “I know that somebody in a position of power at that newspaper (The L.A. Times) has an agenda. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it involves discrediting our case and protecting the city from this lawsuit.”

The Times, meanwhile, has issued a blanket denial of any wrongdoing to Rolling Stone.  (Sullivan and Rolling Stone attorneys reportedly spent 7 hours on the phone with Times editors and lawyers, vetting and arguing over the piece before publication).  The stage is now set for what may become an even bigger scandal—the silence of the mainstream media.  The New York Times, 60 Minutes—any news organization—could have done this story.   It’s what journalists call “a dead skunk in the middle of the road,” a story everybody knows about—because it stinks to high heaven—but nobody wants to pick it up and examine. The Times’ scandalous reportage has been out in the open for more than three years, but everyone chose to ignore it.  The question is, what will they do now? 

 

Jan Golab has written about the Biggie Small’s murder for numerous magazines.  He is the author of The Dark Side of the Force: A True Story of Corruption & Murder in the LAPD, about a previous LAPD scandal from the 1980’s. He has covered the LAPD for 22 years.

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