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Lost in a Maze 

More puzzles than clues in new Rampart book

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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THERE IS A SCOOP IN LABYRINTH, THE first book that seeks to make sense of the sprawling police scandal that wracked Los Angeles over the past four years. It arrives in the final chapter, two pages before the epilogue, and it's supplied by Nick Broomfield, the British documentarian who made exposé films on pop icons Courtney Love and Heidi Fleiss.

Broomfield, we learn from author Randall Sullivan, was fascinated by the murder of Biggie Smalls, the East Coast rap star slain after a music-industry party in Los Angeles in 1997. In May 2001, Broomfield sat down with Eugene Deal, a New York state parole officer who was moonlighting as Biggie's bodyguard the night of the murder. Broomfield presented Deal with photographs of several people police believed might be involved. Deal pointed out one as a man he'd seen on the sidewalk 10 minutes before the shooting.

"That's him right there," Deal said.

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The man Deal identified was Harry Billups, a.k.a. Amir Muhammed, a friend of ex-cop David Mack, who was later convicted of robbing a Bank of America branch of more than $700,000 in cash. Mack, in turn, was close friends with Rafael Perez, the rogue cop whose confessions launched the Rampart scandal. And Mack was spotted at several functions thrown by Marion "Suge" Knight, major domo at Death Row Records. Though Knight was in jail at the time, many believe he ordered the Smalls shooting.

Confirming that Billups -- or Muhammed, as he signed his name when he visited Mack in jail -- was present that night could represent a major advance in the story, the first real break in the Biggie Smalls case. It could also establish a possible tie between police officers and the crime scene at Death Row Records, which is one of Sullivan's primary themes.

But while Sullivan serves up the Broomfield interview, he does nothing with it. He never contacts Deal, nor does he bother speaking with Billups -- the same lapse committed by the L.A. Times reporters who first broke the Mack/Billups/Biggie Smalls story three years ago. And he introduces Broomfield's meeting with Deal chronologically, hundreds of pages after the shooting and the police interview of the other witnesses are played out in the book.

It's a curious decision by Sullivan, the coda to a book that is by turns fascinating, tedious and ultimately odd. The story meanders, beginning with a police shooting in Los Angeles, then delving deep into the back story of rap heavies Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur and Puffy Combs, and finally swinging back to the LAPD. We cover a good 200 pages before Rafael Perez gets any serious play, and then track him through the lurid recollections of onetime girlfriend Sonya Flores, before Sullivan points out that Flores recanted much of her testimony.

This is an expanded form of a piece Sullivan wrote for Rolling Stone last year. It suffers from many of the same flaws and inconclusive reporting that riddled the magazine article. Sullivan's detours are lengthy and well worn -- the rap lore is a rich vein, but in Labyrinth it's a lifeless rehash of published material unleavened by interviews or scenes or primary sources. The police stories are familiar as well, at least to readers in L.A. And when it comes to the LAPD, Sullivan's treatment is so conflicted it's hard at times to discern his thesis: He portrays Perez as a liar who concocted the Rampart scandal, but he also lays out in some detail several of the central cases from Rampart, cases that taken alone would constitute a major police scandal.

PART OF THE REASON LABYRINTH FEELS so, well, labyrinthine, is that it's built around the story of Detective Russell Poole. And as Poole himself has told half a dozen reporters, his experience at the heart of what came to be known as Rampart left him frustrated, angry and confused.

Poole was a distinguished homicide detective when he was assigned to investigate the shooting of Kevin Gaines, an African-American police officer killed while off duty by another LAPD cop, narcotics specialist Frank Lyga, in what appeared to be a case of aggravated road rage.

Poole soon learned that Gaines had been living with Sharitha Knight, the estranged wife of the rap mogul, and had made substantial sums working on the side for Death Row Records. Poole began making inquiries into possible connections between black police officers and the rap label. A month later, he and his partner were assigned to investigate the Biggie Smalls shooting -- in part, Poole said, because of his familiarity with Death Row.

That assignment took Poole deep into the violent world of gangsta rap. A feud between East and West Coast record labels was believed to have resulted in several shootings, and Suge Knight and thugs close to him had perpetrated several vicious beatings. Poole also learned that Knight had funded a private security firm staffed exclusively with off-duty police officers, the better to insulate himself from on-duty law enforcement. Most were from south L.A. cities like Compton and Inglewood, but one, Richard McCauley, was LAPD; Gaines may have been another.

During the same period, Poole was getting a taste of life at the top of the LAPD. Assigned for the first time to the elite Robbery-Homicide Division, Poole found that cops there spent their afternoons on the golf course and made case decisions based on their own career prospects. He found that his new partner was one of the leading exponents of the go-along, get-along police culture. And he found his own hard-charging attitude marked him as an outsider.

Poole's frustration began to mount. Here he was, surrounded by intriguing leads -- were there more cops at Death Row? Was there a connection between Gaines and McCauley? -- and nobody wanted to help him get answers. Now Death Row was implicated in a murder -- were there cops involved? He requested authority to pursue numerous leads but was rebuffed.

David Mack's arrest for bank robbery in late 1997 hit Poole like a cattle prod -- here was another black, criminal cop. Then Poole was assigned to probe still another bad apple, Mack's close friend Perez, and from there the investigation shifted into Rampart. But when Poole turned up an entrenched pattern of police abuse and misconduct in the CRASH unit, the LAPD brass, and Poole's partner, remained indifferent. Once again, he was told to curtail his inquiries.

No wonder the successive investigations left Poole's head spinning. No wonder Poole was outraged that his department declined to follow up on the clues he'd put together. No wonder Poole was thrilled when he was contacted by an investigative reporter who might pursue the fallow leads.

EXCEPT THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED. Sullivan does a fine job of laying out all of the material Poole amassed over the final three years of his career at the LAPD -- all the evidence, all the leads, all the rumors, every red herring floated by any jailhouse snitch in the state prison system -- but he does little to advance it on any front.

We learn nothing new, for example, about Compton. It was home to Suge Knight and also, apparently, to David Mack, but did that lead to any connection between the two men? Did Knight and Mack know each other, as some have speculated? Did they attend school together? Did they have any friends in common?

We hear about mortgage brokers and real estate deals, including an investigator who located "dozens of real estate records" linking "Perez, Mack and at least two other LAPD officers" to "a screen of phony transactions," but the records, and the investigator, go unnamed.

More disappointing, Sullivan backs off key material from the lengthy story he published on Poole and the Rampart cops in Rolling Stone last year. In particular, the Rolling Stone piece quoted two sources who placed David Mack at the scene of the Biggie Smalls shooting. One is "a security guard"; the other, Damion Butler, "Smalls' closest friend," points to a picture of Mack and declares, "I'm sure this guy was standing just outside the door to the museum . . ." In Labyrinth, however, the guard is gone and Butler "offered little" crime-scene identification when interviewed by detectives. In fact, in the book, nobody places Mack at the scene, leaving distinctly unclear the question of how Poole tied Mack to the Smalls shooting in the first place.

Labyrinth is written in the style of the classic exposé, challenging convention, denouncing doubters and demanding answers. It seems reasonable to expect that, for all his conviction, Sullivan would supply some closure. But the book ends with a phone call from FBI agents promising a continued investigation into the leads surfaced by Detective Poole. Readers looking for answers will simply have to wait.

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