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FBI probes rap star's '97 killing

Seven years after the killing of rap star Notorious B.I.G., the FBI is investigating allegations that a rogue Los Angeles police officer orchestrated the slaying with rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight, according to court documents and law enforcement sources.

The FBI is pursuing a 6-year-old theory that then-Officer David A. Mack, acting at Knight's request, arranged for Amir Muhammad, Mack's friend and college roommate, to ambush the rapper outside the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

Over the years, the LAPD has offered conflicting assessments of the theory, which police at one point took seriously. Documents show that LAPD detectives are now focusing on an alternative theory that centers on a Houston rap entrepreneur.

Mack, Knight and Muhammad, a Southland mortgage broker, have long denied any involvement in the 1997 killing.

"I have stated from the outset that I have nothing whatsoever to do with any of this," Muhammad, who also uses the name Harry Billups, said in a telephone interview Thursday from his attorney's office. "I've done nothing wrong. I don't have anything to hide."

Knight, founder of Death Row Records, also rejected the allegations.

"I don't know David Mack or Amir Muhammad. I've never met them," he said by phone from Mule Creek State Prison, where he is serving time for a probation violation. "The FBI has never contacted me, but I'm glad they are looking into all of this stuff. I hope they solve it."

Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, was gunned down just after midnight March 9, 1997, in front of hundreds of people who had just left a music industry party at the Petersen museum. The Brooklyn rapper was sitting in the passenger seat of a sport utility vehicle at a red light when a lone assassin in a dark Impala pulled up in the neighboring lane and opened fire.

The killing occurred six months after rap star Tupac Shakur was fatally wounded in a drive-by attack in Las Vegas.

No one has ever been charged in either killing.

Early on, detectives speculated that the murders may have stemmed from a rivalry between East Coast and West Coast rappers. Before their deaths, Shakur and Wallace had been feuding, and a rivalry between their record labels, Los Angeles-based Death Row and New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment, had escalated into a series of assaults and shootings.

Each label used gang members for protection, and police investigated the possibility that both killings were committed by members of Compton's Southside Crips gang.

The theory now being investigated by the FBI was first advanced in 1998 by then-LAPD Det. Russell Poole.

According to Poole, Knight had Shakur killed because the rap star was about to leave his label -- and Knight then had Wallace murdered to make it appear that both slayings were the result of a bicoastal rap feud. Poole contends that Knight may have used corrupt police officers to help carry out both murders.

Mack, onetime partner of disgraced former LAPD Officer Rafael Perez, came under suspicion after he was arrested in December 1997 for robbing a bank. He was later convicted and is serving a 14-year prison term.

Mack owned a black Impala similar to the car used in the Wallace slaying, and a witness reported seeing him at the scene. Informants told investigators that Mack may have provided security for Knight. Both men grew up in Compton.

Poole began scrutinizing Muhammad, who was a classmate of Mack's at the University of Oregon, after learning that he had visited Mack in prison in December 1997. Several months earlier, a jailhouse informant had told detectives that Wallace's killer was a Southside Crip who went by a Middle Eastern name, possibly "Amir" or "Ashmir" -- and that his true name might be Abraham or Kenny or Keeky.

A driver's license photo of Muhammad resembles a police sketch of Wallace's killer based on witness descriptions. One witness told police he saw a man who resembled Muhammad outside the Petersen museum the night of the shooting.

Muhammad, in the phone interview, said the account was unfounded. "Anybody who says they saw me there that night or that I had anything to do with this is a liar," he said.

Poole resigned from the LAPD in 1999 after disputes with his superiors about the direction of various investigations, including the one into Wallace's murder.

Since then, Poole has promoted his theory of the Wallace slaying in newspaper interviews and books and through appearances on documentaries and TV shows. He has endorsed a screenplay treatment of it that is being shopped to Hollywood studios. Actor Sylvester Stallone has discussed portraying Poole in a movie.

Poole also joined forces with Wallace's mother, Voletta, who filed a wrongful-death suit against the city of Los Angeles two years ago. The suit contends the LAPD covered up police involvement in the rapper's killing.

The case is scheduled to go to trial July 27 in federal court in Los Angeles, with Poole testifying as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. Lawyers in the case have taken depositions from Poole and other police officers tied to the Wallace investigation. In those depositions, which have been sealed under court order, officers disclose details about the FBI probe.

The FBI's interest in the case was sparked by a TV special on the Wallace killing aired on the VH1 cable channel last summer. An FBI agent who saw the show later contacted attorneys for the Wallace family, who alleged that witnesses were afraid to talk to LAPD detectives about the case, documents show.

The FBI has interviewed several witnesses at the suggestion of the Wallace family's lawyers. Depositions suggest that agents have reviewed Muhammad's mortgage payments and phone records and conducted wiretaps, trying to link him to Mack.

The FBI recently conducted surveillance of Muhammad in San Diego and, sources said, wired an informant in an attempt to elicit incriminating statements from him. The effort yielded nothing, according to court documents and people familiar with the case.

An FBI agent recently tried to interview Mack at the federal prison in Alabama where he is serving 14 years for the 1997 bank robbery. Mack denied having anything to do with the Wallace murder, according to court records and sources.

The FBI declined to comment on the investigation. Documents indicate that the bureau is coordinating its work with the LAPD's Professional Standards Bureau, which looks into alleged police misconduct.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Berkow, head of the bureau, said Friday: "This is a joint FBI-LAPD investigation, and the LAPD is cooperating 100%."

Court documents, however, show that LAPD robbery-homicide detectives are focusing on a possible Texas connection to the Wallace slaying unrelated to the Poole theory.

Police have interviewed the owner of a blue 1996 Bentley that they suspect played a role in the shooting. Since September, police have traveled several times to Houston to interview witnesses and pursue leads about potential new suspects -- including a Houston rap entrepreneur and his friend who were allegedly near the crime scene on the night of the shooting, records show.

So far, Police have produced no evidence tying the Bentley or either man to the killing, sources said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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