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Friday, June 03, 2005

Notorious L.A.T.

It must feel good to be Chuck Philips.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter has demolished once and for all the conspiracy theory that purported to link corrupt LAPD officers to the murder of the Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace, in 1997. It's a theory that's been retailed on "Frontline," MTV, VH1, in Rolling Stone, and--more on this later--on the front page of the Los Angeles Times itself. The idea was that Suge Knight put a hit out on Wallace to retaliate for the murder of Tupac Shakur, and had a part-time security guard for his record label, LAPD officer David Mack, set it up. Mack--a narcotics-officer-gone-bad who wound up robbing a bank nine months after Wallace's murder and is now in prison--supposedly turned to his college pal Amir Muhammad, an L.A. mortgage broker with no criminal history or gang affiliation, as triggerman. Since Mack was once partners with Rafael Perez, the corrupt cop at the center of the LAPD Rampart scandal, the theory held out the tantalizing possibility that a notorious ring of corrupt cops had offed one of the nation's most beloved rappers.

Of course it was all bullshit. According to Philips' story today, the sole, solitary police source for this theory was a schizophrenic professional snitch nicknamed "Psycho Mike," and he has fully recanted in pre-trial depositions for a civil suit against the city of Los Angeles brought by Wallace's family. It was all hearsay, Psycho Mike said, and when he picked Muhammad's picture out of a photo line-up in 1998, it was a random guess.

The story should be particularly gratifying for Philips because it finally and definitively puts to rest an intramural struggle at the Times that began five years ago. The L.A. Times "broke" Psycho Mike's fabrications in December 1999, splashing Amir Muhammad's name and photograph as a suspect in Wallace's murder across Page One (a truncated version is online here). The story, by Matt Lait and Scott Glover, was sourced to unnamed former law enforcement officials and confidential LAPD documents, and said "numerous attempts by The Times to locate Muhammad through public records and a former friend were unsuccessful."

Philips, who covers the music business for the Times, thought the story looked odd, and set out to find Muhammad himself. It took him three days. Muhammad had been blindsided by the story--he had no clue, he told Philips, that the authorities were looking for him, and no idea that anybody had connected him to Wallace's murder. He certainly wasn't in hiding--he had recently advertised his mortgage brokerage business in... wait for it.... the Los Angeles Times. Muhammad was terrified--without warning, the Times had published his name and driver license photo, obtained from the LAPD, and suggested that he was gunman in the murder of Biggie Smalls. Needlesss to say, Muhammad told Philips he had nothing to do with it.

Though the Page One story offered no official confirmation or denial of the Muhammad theory from the police--reason alone, in my book, not to publish the guy's name and picture--Philips managed to get the lead detective on the Wallace case to definitively state, on the record, that Muhammad was not a suspect in the case. Philips had, without a doubt, compiled enough evidence for a retraction of the Page One story--unnamed former officials had said Muhammad was a suspect; named current officials now say he is not--but he got caught up in an internal battle he described to me at the time as "the ugliest experience I've ever had." (I know so much about this because I wrote about it for Brill's Content magazine; the story is still online, for some reason, here.)

The paper's top editors--including then-executive editor Leo Wolinsky--dug in their heels, refused to issue a retraction, and wouldn't allow Philips to characterize the initial story as wrong. It took months for Philips to get a story in the paper--in the metro section--explaining that Amir Muhammad insisted on his innocence and that, contrary to the first report, the LAPD said he was not a suspect. When it did run, in May 2000, the headline was "Man No Longer Under Scrutiny in Rapper's Death," and quoted the lead detective saying that, though they once looked at the Muhammad theory, they had dropped it and hadn't considered it for "more than a year." That is, since May 1999. Lait and Glover's story ran in December 1999. The headline was accurate: Muhammad was no longer under scrutiny. What the story didn't point out explicitly-and this is no fault of Philips'--was that he wasn't under scrutiny in December 1999, when the L.A. Times said he was on the front page.

Philips treads that terrain delicately in his piece today: "In December 1999, The Times published a front-page article reporting that Knight, Mack and Muhammad were among the possible suspects in the slaying. A Times article six months later quoted an LAPD detective as saying that Muhammad was no longer a suspect."

Shortly after the May 2000 story, former LAPD detective Russell Poole came forward as Lait and Glover's source for the Page One story, and said they'd got it wrong--Poole did believe the Muhammad theory that the story promoted, but said his superiors wouldn't let him pursue it. That's why he quit and leaked to the Times. Among the "confidential documents" that Lait and Glover relied on were reports that Poole wrote supporting the theory, and that his bosses ignored. So what he'd hoped would be a story saying that the LAPD was refusing to pursue credible evidence pointing to the Muhammad theory turned out to be a story saying the LAPD was pursuing the Muhammad theory. Which they weren't.

And what credible evidence was Poole, the lone peddler of the Muhammad theory, relying on? The testimony of Psycho Mike.

Congratulations, Chuck.