BOWIE -- While in college, Jerrod Mustaf said the controversies he encountered during his short career as a basketball player at the University of Maryland would enable him to deal with other adversities later in life.
Mustaf, 23, was recently linked to, but not named as a suspect in, the murder of an Arizona woman whose family claims was pregnant by Mustaf, a reserve with the Phoenix Suns. Earlier this year, Mustaf was charged in two separate incidents with assault, once against his fiancee and another woman and once against his cousin.
"I remember something that Charles Barkley once told me: 'That which doesn't kill you will make you strong,' " Mustaf said yesterday. "I'll be a much stronger person after going through something like this."
He was speaking publicly for the first time since being questioned by Glendale, Ariz., police following the July 22 murder of Althea Hayes. Mustaf was accompanied by his Washington-based attorney, Michael Statham, and his parents at their home.
Mustaf expressed concern for the woman's family but denied any knowledge of her pregnancy or conversations with the woman regarding an alleged $5000 offer for an abortion.
"My sympathies are with the family -- that's first," Mustaf said. "I lost a couple of loved ones this year -- my grandmother and grandfather -- so I can understand what they're going through."
Asked if he tried to contact the Hayes family after learning of the murder, Mustaf said, "Someone in her family had mentioned my name [to police as the father of Hayes' child] so it didn't make sense for me to communicate with them. I asked one of my friends back in Phoenix to send my condolences. I didn't know her family."
Mitch Kelsey, a spokesman for the Glendale police, said yesterday that the murder investigation is on-going and that no suspects have been identified.
Mustaf said he was told about the murder shortly after walking off a Phoenix-to-Washington flight July 25 -- more than two days after Hayes was believed to have died and the day after her body was found by her father. As he arrived at National Airport, he was detained by security police.
They directed him to call police in Glendale. After speaking to the desk sergeant about the Suns, he was connected with Detective Bruce Lowe, one of the department's senior investigators.
"His tone was a lot different than the first police officer," Mustaf recalled of what turned into a "30-to-45"-minute conversation. "He was on me about this and that. People ask you a lot of different questions, you don't know where they're coming from. He was trying to get at something."
Gun found at his home
Within a couple of days, Glendale police had received a warrant to search Mustaf's home in Chandler, another Phoenix suburb. After information about the preliminary investigation reportedly was leaked to Suns officials by the prosecuting attorney's office, local media organizations demanded access as well.
Included among the information in documents released by the Maricopa County Superior Court:
* Police had seized several items from Mustaf's home, including a semiautomatic chrome-plated pistol, ammunition and a safe containing photographs of women. (Statham said his client had a gun collection in a glass case in his home.)
* Relatives of Hayes had told police that she had started dating Mustaf exclusively last September, that she was three months pregnant by him and that he became angry after she wouldn't accept a $5000 offer to have an abortion. Her father told police that he didn't know she had a boyfriend. (Mustaf said yesterday she was an acquaintance, but not his girlfriend. Mustaf declined to say whether they had sexual relations).
* Hayes told an unidentified witness that she went to Mustaf's home at the player's request the day before she is believed to have died. He reportedly told her that he was "tired of playing games about the baby" and wanted to resolve the matter. Hayes spent the night at his house and he took her to her home the next day.
* An unidentified witness also told police that at about 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on the night Hayes reportedly was killed, the witness had received a call in which "Althea was talking in a low tone of voice, as if she didn't want someone close to her to hear her. Althea also sounded as if she were frightened." Two neighbors in the apartment complex said they heard gunshots at 9 or 9:30 p.m.
Mustaf's father, Shaar, said yesterday that after his son told himabout the murder investigation, the elder Mustaf went to Phoenix to speak with his son's friends. He said a few of them say they were with Jerrod at his home at the time the murder is believed to have occurred.
One of the friends, Jauhar Anderson of Washington, said yesterday, "We were having dinner and watching a movie."
While police have not named Mustaf as a suspect, Statham said that Detective Lowe requested hair and blood samples from his client last week. Statham said he would send them only if court-ordered.
"In my conversation with Detective Lowe, I said that our ability to cooperate in this investigation would hinge on their defining Jerrod's role," Statham said. "They won't say whether he was a suspect."
Mustaf will return to Phoenix for a hearing Thursday on an assault charge that was filed by his cousin, LeVonnie Wooten.
Wooten, who is from Landover, was invited to Phoenix by Mustaf last summer and was given a job in one of the player's businesses. Mustaf owns a book store that specializes in black history.
After their relationship soured last winter, they had an altercation at the bookstore where Mustaf allegedly hit Wooten with a telephone. Police records said that Wooten ran out of the store, scaled a fence and was cut by some barbed wire. He later charged Mustaf with assault. A police spokesman said: "We'll be monitoring that case closely."
Mustaf, who grew up with Wooten in Prince George's County, said of his cousin, "We had a lot of different things happen between us. We would make up and forget about for awhile, but then something else would happen. It [the altercation] was over a lot of things."
It was the first of two assault charges filed against Mustaf in recent months. In June, Psaha (pronounced Sasha) Luke, Mustaf's fiancee for the past two years and the mother of their 8-month-old daughter, and a friend, Sahar Simmons, charged that Mustaf pushed them during a domestic quarrel at the home of Shaar and Gwen Mustaf, the player's parents. A court date is set for Aug. 27 in Prince George's County District Court.
Mustaf, in his third NBA season, also had a conflict with Suns management that went from behind closed doors into the public spotlight the week before Hayes was murdered. The feud simmered during the 1992-93 season, which Mustaf spent on the injured list or deep on the bench. It erupted when the player asked to be traded.
The Suns have not made any public statements since Mustaf's name surfaced in the murder investigation, nor have any team officials contacted him. Asked if he suspected that his deteriorating relationship with the team was the cause for its lack of public support, Mustaf said: "I don't want to believe that, but when you're looking at it realistically, it has to be pointing in that direction. We had had our problems and the timing of it sort of sways public opinion to make it out that I was the bad guy. I think they were smiling in the background, hoping that something [bad] would come out of it."