It's been 15 years since someone murdered Biggie Smalls outside the Petersen Automotive Museum and then disappeared forever down Wilshire Boulevard in a dark-colored Chevy Impala. The music world is still waiting for answers.
The family of Biggie, whose real name was Christopher Wallace, is among those still searching for closure. Every time a new theory or accusation rises to the surface, Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, and his widow, singer Faith Evans, hope it will lead to justice, only to have their hearts shattered when nothing solid develops.
In October, it happened again, when retired detective Greg Kading, who led an LAPD task force seeking Biggie's murderer, self-published a book, Murder Rap, unveiling a new confession that implicated former Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight. Before he left LAPD, documents show, Kading elicited a confession from the “baby momma” of one of Knight's children. Her name was changed in the book to “Theresa Swann,” and she told police that Knight instructed her to pay his close associate Wardell “Poochie” Fouse to shoot Biggie.
For years, Voletta Wallace believed something quite different. She subscribed to the widely reported theory promoted by another former LAPD detective, Russell Poole, that Knight used dirty cop David Mack, convicted of robbing a bank in 1997, to help orchestrate the hit, on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. Poole's theory, popularized in the 2002 book Labyrinth by Randall Sullivan and in the 2002 documentary Biggie & Tupac by Nick Broomfield, spurred Voletta Wallace to hire famed civil attorney Perry Sanders and file a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles over officer Mack's alleged involvement and subsequent alleged police cover-up.
Now, the ground is shifting in one of the most baffling cold cases in Los Angeles history. In an exclusive interview with L.A. Weekly, Wallace says that, while she has not ruled out dirty LAPD cops, she leans toward Kading's new evidence and wants to see Suge Knight in jail.
“Over all these years I've been trying to find the truth,” Wallace says. “Now it seems that the 'truth' we originally found out may not be the truth. I believe everything in [Greg Kading's] book. So if Greg Kading found out all this truth, why isn't Suge Knight behind bars? What are the police waiting for? They murdered my son. LAPD, make a goddamn arrest.”
About three weeks before the March 9 15th anniversary of Biggie's slaying, his widow, Evans, and Wallace's attorney, Sanders, secretly met at the L.A. County District Attorney's Office with several LAPD homicide detectives and Deputy DA David Walgren, the prosecutor who sent Michael Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, to prison.
Sanders says he was grateful that Walgren agreed to the meeting, where, among other things, the discussion turned to whether the county DA's office would convene a grand jury to look into Knight's possible involvement in the murder. The meeting was described as emotional. Longing for someone to be held accountable for the death of her husband, Evans was in tears. When it was over, however, the Biggie team walked away disheartened.
“In keeping with the spirit of law enforcement and prosecutorial policy,” Sanders says, “information is a one-way highway. So if we want to ask them questions [about convening a grand jury], like, 'What about this?' it's a one-way highway. They're never going to get back and say, 'Oh, here's the answer to that.' Which, of course, all victims, including my client, find a little bit frustrating. I think it's fair to say that this case is less unsolved than unprosecuted.”
Voletta Wallace is even more outspoken about law enforcement's lack of action in the wake of the new evidence. “Even after you have [Swann] come forward and say, 'This is what happened,' and LAPD still can't make an arrest? It makes no sense.”
Walgren declined to comment on the secret meeting or the status of the case, and there is no indication that the DA's Office is actually pursuing it. Kading and Sanders, it seems, are the two last men standing, working in the background to find answers and hold someone responsible.
Both men believe sufficient evidence has been unearthed to indict Knight for the murder. Knight could not be reached for comment despite repeated efforts by the Weekly.
Both Kading and Sanders say Swann's confession is solid, unimpeachable evidence. Kading, however, says that DA Steve Cooley has a policy not to prosecute murders based on a single witness.
The problem is with corroborating the dark confession by the mysterious “Theresa Swann” detailing hit money flowing from Knight to her. In Kading's book and in law enforcement documents, she says she was the go-between.
For the second witness, Sanders is relying on a jailhouse informant who implicated Knight. But, muddying the waters, the informant also has espoused Poole's theory that corrupt LAPD cops were involved in killing Biggie. Kading says that will never fly with L.A. prosecutors, who he believes will not consider any evidence or testimony that supports former detective Poole's theory.
Poole's version of the killing that night has been ruled out by the City of Los Angeles. Wallace and attorney Sanders still entertain the idea of dirty cops, but Wallace says she is open to Kading's findings. “My whole objective is for justice to be served,” she says.
Kading has taken a different road from Sanders to the same destination — pointing at former rap mogul Knight — that doesn't include dirty LAPD officers. Kading says that new, explosive evidence leads to Knight and could be used against him. He claims, but cannot produce any documentation, that the FBI has a tape on which Knight alludes to his and Swann's involvement in the murder.
The question now is, can these disparate forces so close to the Biggie Smalls case persuade the DA to convene a grand jury to delve into a murder mystery long fraught with red herrings and dead ends?
For celebrity attorney Sanders, the prosecution of Biggie's murder comes down to a simple equation: Two people deemed reliable at one point by LAPD — Swann and jailhouse informant Mario Ha'mmonds — both provided official statements or testimony implicating Suge Knight in masterminding Biggie's death. Therefore, Sanders argues, there should be a clear path toward securing an indictment.
First, there's Swann. Sanders and Kading say she's a strong witness and accept her assertion that, after she spoke to Knight one day in jail, where he was incarcerated on a probation violation, money was transferred into a bank account, which Swann withdrew and gave to Biggie's shooter. Her statements were taken down using proper police protocol and, according to Kading — to whom Swann confessed — she is required under her immunity agreement to testify before a grand jury.
Next, there's Ha'mmonds. Nearly everyone involved says his testimony comes down to the question of reliability — a test, Sanders argues, that Ha'mmonds passes with ease.
In the late 1990s, Ha'mmonds and Knight were both locked up at San Luis Obispo Men's Colony. According to Ha'mmonds' 2005 sworn deposition, he and Knight, who was serving a nine-year sentence for his unrelated beating attack on two aspiring rappers, had met each other several times before winding up inside the same cell block, where they quickly renewed their association. Ha'mmonds, according to Rolling Stone, alleged that Knight took credit for Biggie's slaying, telling Ha'mmonds, “My people handled the business. They took care of him … and he took it like a fat bitch.”
In 1999, LAPD detectives served search warrants on four locations connected to Knight, including the offices of Death Row Records. The cops seized Knight's dark-metallic-purple Chevy Impala. The Los Angeles Times reported that investigators were characterizing Knight as “a key” and “a prominent” suspect.
Nothing resulted from the search warrants at the time. But the primary reason LAPD was able to obtain the warrants against Knight, it later came out, was Ha'mmonds' allegation.
“Years ago,” Sanders says, “a search warrant was executed on Mr. Knight's home based on information by [Ha'mmonds] that the LAPD thought was credible enough to get a search warrant from a judge.”
Swann and Ha'mmonds, Sanders argues, are two independent sources who led detectives to the same murder suspect.
Sanders, who refers to Knight as “the General,” complains that “two different sets of investigators over an almost 15-year period have reached the same conclusion, and we've yet to have a prosecution. And [LAPD] has reached that same conclusion relying on wholly different witnesses, both of whom [LAPD] has vouched for. So given what LAPD believed about the General based on [Ha'mmonds] and what Greg Kading got independently pointing to the same General, it gives me great pause for concern for why there hasn't been a prosecution.”
Kading has a hunch about the district attorney's inaction. He says nobody from the DA's office or LAPD is willing to touch Ha'mmonds, or any witness who takes on LAPD by claiming that David Mack was part of the shooting.
“I don't see how Sanders and I can take two different angles to the same destination,” Kading says. “Certainly we both agree that Suge Knight is ultimately the big target we'd like to see indicted. However, Sanders loses the DA with Ha'mmonds. … The prosecution will lose Ha'mmonds as a reliable witness during the whole legal process — and the DA knows it. So even though Ha'mmonds and Swann both finger Knight, because they lead to different shooters, they therefore work against each other, and I don't see how to reconcile the two.”
Kading, who is obsessed by the case, having spent from 2006 to 2009 trying to identify Biggie's killer, says his only hope of persuading the district attorney to convene a grand jury is to convince Sanders that Russell Poole's dirty-cops theory is a loser.
Former LAPD detective Russell Poole has no problem with the idea that Suge Knight was behind Biggie's murder.
“I've long said that Suge was the catalyst behind the whole thing,” Poole tells L.A. Weekly. “I've been pushing that publicly for years, and Suge has never tried to sue me or never said, really, that I've been wrong.”
But Poole firmly believes that Knight persuaded Detective David Mack and Mack's college friend Harry Billups, who later changed his name to Amir Muhammad, to commit the murder. The bedrock of Poole's theory, Kading says, is essentially built on three clues:
First, the getaway car outside the Petersen Automotive Museum that night 15 years ago was a dark Impala, and it was described as black by several witnesses leaving the Soul Train Music Awards after party at the museum. David Mack owned a black Impala and used it to steal more than $700,000 from a bank eight months after Biggie was killed.
Second, a jailhouse snitch named Michael “Psycho Mike” Robinson talked to police four months after the shooting and tossed out numerous, vague names of possible suspects, including the name “Amir,” which Poole came to believe — and some media reported — pointed to Harry Billups.
Third, when Mack was doing time for the bank robbery, his old friend from the University of Oregon, Billups, who by then had changed his name to Amir Muhammad, visited him in jail. At the jail, Muhammad scrawled a fake Social Security number into the visitors' log. A lot of people might do that in a visitors' log, but Poole believed that Mack's seemingly shadowy friend Muhammad was trying to elude detection.
These clues, Kading says, formed the foundation of Poole's theory that Knight had tapped Mack to arrange the hit on Biggie, and that Mack had persuaded his college pal Billups to carry out the assassination.
Kading dismisses the three clues as misinterpreted information that never should have led to Mack. He believes that if author Randall Sullivan, who wrote Labyrinth, or documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, who made Biggie & Tupac, had not produced such high-profile works espousing Poole's theory, someone might be in prison today.
“The whole Mack thing was a mistake,” Kading says. “Poole's well-intentioned attempts to find the truth,” he says, morphed into a “convoluted distraction that it seems like we can never overcome, and it's inhibiting any hope whatsoever of getting any resolution.”
By 2005, LAPD and attorneys for the City of Los Angeles had thoroughly dismissed the notion that David Mack was involved. The FBI closed its investigation into Mack in January 2005, according to the L.A. Times, and a city attorney said there was “not a shred of evidence” pointing to Mack. Sanders dropped Mack and Muhammad from Voletta Wallace's lawsuit against the city, which alleged that lax police department policies enabled Mack to conspire with Billups to murder Biggie.
Even so, to this day Sanders holds on to the idea that corrupt LAPD cops may have been involved — a widely held theory that has taken root in America, becoming a permanent fixture on hip-hop websites.
Kading directly refutes the three bedrock clues that pointed to Mack and buddy Amir Muhammad/Harry Billups as the culprits.
First, Kading says, the shooter's car was not black, like David Mack's Impala — it was green. Hundreds of news reports and write-ups have stated that the getaway car from which the shots were fired was a black Impala, including Sullivan's book, all but cementing the idea as fact in the public's mind.
So who is right about the crucial clue of the car's color?
Soon after Biggie's death, a woman from Houston said her daughter had videotaped the shooting. Detectives, including Poole, were excited, but it turned out the tape did not include a clear picture of the shooting or the car.
Meanwhile, on the night he was killed, members of Biggie's entourage, who were sitting in the SUV with Biggie, in the lead car with Sean Combs (then known as Puff Daddy) and in a trailing security vehicle, offered descriptions of the shooter's car that disagree over its color. Paul Offord, head of security for Biggie that night, told police it was a “black, Acura-type vehicle.” Poole says a bus driver and an Inglewood police officer also described the car as black. However, eyewitnesses Anthony Jacobs, James Lloyd and Gregory Young all told police they thought it was a greenish car.
Kading says the video of the killer's car (which can be seen on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=ZppjTxK4Kt0) shows quite clearly that the car was green: 47 seconds into the footage, when the light shifts, the car — parked along the side of the road behind an SUV in Biggie's caravan — is shown as metallic green.
“This is where Poole starts to go wrong,” Kading says. “But when you see that it's not a black Impala, you've eliminated one of the key clues leading to David Mack.”
Sanders dismisses this notion, however, saying, “The mere fact that Mack's Impala would not be used in the shooting wouldn't clear Mack any more than if my car wasn't used in a bank robbery that I was involved in. It's fallacious reasoning.”
Second, Kading attacks the value of a clue from jailhouse informant Michael Robinson.
Robinson had been a longtime informant for the L.A. Sheriff's Department and the FBI. In July 1997, Robinson gave police a rambling interview in which he threw out many names and nicknames of people potentially involved in the case: “Amir,” “Abraham,” “Ashmir,” “Kenny,” “Keke” and “Stutterbox.” Robinson also mentioned the Southside Crips, PCP, the Fruits of Islam and several addresses in Compton.
When Mack was visited in jail by his friend Amir Muhammad five months later, and Muhammad listed a fake Social Security number on the visitors' log, Kading says: “Russell Poole sees 'Amir' on the visitors log and thinks, 'I have another clue with an 'Amir.' So now Poole's got a jailhouse informant mentioning an 'Amir,' and then he gets an 'Amir' connected to Mack because of the visit.”
But, Kading says, Robinson's clues pointed to a dozen groups, neighborhoods, addresses and nicknames that had nothing to do with mortgage broker Harry Billups, who had changed his name to Amir Muhammad after becoming a Muslim. “There's no way that description points to [Mack and Billups],” Kading declares. “Mack and Billups should have been disqualified based on the [weak] clue, not made the focus of the investigation.”
In fact, in 2005, Robinson recanted, saying under oath in Voletta Wallace's civil lawsuit that he got the possible descriptions and names of the potential shooter from somebody while he was in jail and then pretended to have direct knowledge of the purported clues.
Third, and interestingly, Billups/Muhammad was never asked by LAPD why he wrote down a false Social Security number, even though that act fueled years of speculation and news coverage.
It wasn't until a June 2004 deposition that Billups, with his mortgage-broker background and knowledge of identity scams, explained that he hadn't put his real number down on the log because criminals could potentially see it.
Poole is saddened to hear that Voletta Wallace is questioning his tainted-cops theory, but he stands behind his conviction that Mack was involved.
“I've been by Mrs. Wallace's side this whole time,” Poole says, “and my life has changed a lot because I stood up for Mrs. Wallace, so I am sorry to hear it. I still believe Mack and Billups were involved and, contrary to what [Kading] believes, they haven't been eliminated. We agree that Suge Knight was involved, but his Poochie theory doesn't add up to me.”
Sanders agrees that jailhouse informant Robinson's clue was muddled from the start and that Robinson's now-recanted claims can't be narrowed down beyond a vague description of a Muslim or person of Middle Eastern descent.
However, when it comes to Kading's denial that Mack or other dirty cops were involved, Sanders says, “Greg and I just disagree over the logic of certain things. That's all we're doing.”
Voletta Wallace says she now is leaning toward believing that the case was “solved a long time ago.
“And the LAPD is doing nothing about it just because of some little theory or thing that my attorney is saying? That doesn't sound right to me,” she continues. “Who cares what my attorney says? Who cares what Voletta Wallace says? Mr. Sanders and I can't make LAPD make an arrest. And if they won't do a grand jury, then maybe Mr. Sanders was right all along.”
Sanders and Wallace are so frustrated that the district attorney has not summoned a grand jury to look into Knight that Sanders says he's looking into whether a citizen can convene one.
“The idea has been given some modicum of thought,” Sanders says. “I think there's a lot of people in the world who, given the chance to convene an ad hoc grand jury, would do so.”
The burden of proof is far lower in a civil trial than in a criminal trial, which begs the question of why Sanders has not filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Knight.
Kading thinks it's because there's no money in suing Knight, saying, “Suge Knight is broke and Mrs. Wallace's attorneys know it.”
Sanders says he will not discuss civil litigation.
“There is a strategy, but it's not one I float first in the newspaper,” Sanders says. “I'd like to think, however, that the District Attorney's Office of Los Angeles has the spine, fortitude and determination to see this come to fruition. That's what I'd really like to think.”
Kading, however, has a plan that he believes could conceivably compel prosecutors to consider a grand jury. It involves combining Swann's statements and testimony with a shocking new piece of evidence he claims exists.
“According to federal sources directly involved in the investigation,” Kading says, “the FBI is in possession of a tape in which Suge Knight alludes to his and Theresa Swann's own involvement in the murder. If true, and in fact the tape exists that contains incriminating evidence between Suge Knight and Swann, that should be more than enough to justify the prosecution of Knight.”
Sanders says he is unaware of the alleged tape. The Weekly was unable to confirm whether law enforcement possesses it.
In the alleged tape, “Knight's statements corroborate Swann's statements to the LAPD,” Kading says. “That's what the grand jury needs. But it will only happen if the DA is willing to go with Swann, the testimony of law enforcement and this corroborating tape, and that's a decision they need to make, along with LAPD.”
Voletta Wallace now is listening closely to Kading, and doesn't care how her son's killers are brought to justice, so long as someone is held responsible.
She is frustrated with the police and the prosecutors, and with the disagreement brewing among her supporters.
“Based on [Kading's] book,” she says, “I hope to God that these men in the district attorney's office, who claim to represent the people, really will represent the people. Right now it's like they're killing us, they're stabbing us, they're murdering my son all over again.”