B.I.G. trouble at the Los Angeles Times

Two Times reporters covering the LAPD scandal named a suspect in the murder of rap star Biggie Smalls. Then a colleague's story said they were wrong. Could both stories be right?

Published October 16, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

Former police detective Russell Poole's first attempt to go public with his chilling tale of how the LAPD covers for corrupt cops placed him at the center of a media firestorm. But months later the full story has yet to be told.

In November 1999, shortly after he resigned from the LAPD, Poole met with Los Angeles Times reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait and told them his story: how the LAPD refused to investigate dirty cops, from Kevin Gaines to David Mack to Rafael Perez. He told them about Mack's possible ties to the 1997 killing of rapper Biggie Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G.). And most importantly, he told them about the suppression of a 40-page report he had written about corruption at the Rampart Division. He gave them a copy of that report. At the time, Poole didn't want to be quoted or go on the record. He gave Glover and Lait his information and documents and told them they should look into it.

Without having Poole on the record, Glover and Lait could not report his allegations without independent corroboration, which they set out to obtain. After some digging, and with the documents Poole provided them, they soon had enough to do a piece on one part of Poole's story -- the murder of Biggie Smalls. Their Dec. 9, 1999 front-page Times story reported that Amir Muhammad, a friend of officer David Mack, was a suspect in the rapper's killing.

Poole was flabbergasted: In fact, he'd told them the LAPD wasn't looking for Muhammad -- because of his ties to former police officer Mack. There was also nothing in the story about his troubles getting the LAPD to investigate dirty cops like Gaines, Mack and Perez, or the suppression of his 40-page Rampart report.

Scott Glover and Matt Lait would not comment about their conversations with Poole, citing a policy of source confidentiality. But Lait insists that the L.A. Times would not have published the story if the reporters had not confirmed, independently, that Muhammad was an active suspect. Their LAPD sources, he says, indicated that Muhammad had not been eliminated as a suspect. They also learned that Muhammad's photo had been shown to witnesses of the rap star's shooting after Poole was off the case.

After their Biggie piece ran, Glover and Lait were chided by Poole for not telling his whole story. The reporters told him they were still working on it, seeking independent corroboration for his allegations. By late March, Poole had taken his story and documents to the Los Angeles district attorney's office. Realizing his claims against the LAPD would become public eventually, he called Glover and Lait and told them he would go on the record. Still, the reporters were not ready to go with the story. "We wanted to nail it all down," says Lait.

Then, on May 3, 2000, the Los Angeles Times ran another piece by business reporter Chuck Philips. Philips, who covers the music industry, reported that detectives on the Biggie case did not in fact consider Muhammad a suspect when the Times ran its original story. Amir Muhammad, who was located by Philips, said he was a mortgage broker who had nothing to do with the murder. He did not, however, speak with police investigators. He described himself as an old friend of Mack's family and godfather to his children, who visited him in jail just after Mack was arrested for the December 1997 bank robbery.

The initial Times story was in fact very carefully worded. It didn't say investigators were currently searching for Muhammad, but it implied they were, by reporting that he was "among the suspects" and that he had not yet been found. The story stated that some investigators had retired and that the current investigators would not comment for the story, and that "different detectives have not always agreed on which investigative path to follow or on which of the open leads might be more productive."

Brill's Content ran an online piece about the rancor that erupted at the Times between Philips, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Glover and Lait, who are gunning for that prize with their Rampart coverage. It was described as a "turf war" and a "cockfight," filled with charges and countercharges. Times executive editor Leo Wolinsky acknowledged the conflict, but insisted, "The initial story was not a mistake, it was not wrong, so we have nothing to correct."

New Times, a local alternative weekly, ran a story that portrayed Amir Muhammad as the innocent victim of a media lynching by the Times. "The Times plastered Muhammad's face and name on the front page on the strength of the undeveloped theories of a disgruntled former cop," New Times stated, voicing the LAPD's spin on Russell Poole.

"Anyone who was placed in my position would be disgruntled," counters Poole. "I left because the department literally wanted me to lie and keep things from the D.A.'s office."

Meanwhile, the media commentators all missed the real story: Both Times articles may have been correct. And Poole's untold story was the bridge between them. The LAPD hadn't eliminated Muhammad as a suspect; but they weren't looking for him either.

Glover and Lait continue to stand by their initial story. They point to the fact that the LAPD confirmed it to the Washington Post the day after it ran. Only later, the reporters insist, did the department revise its position. But it is still a mystery why the LAPD would confirm Glover and Lait's story to the Washington Post, and later dispute it to their Times colleague Chuck Philips.

Sources agree that police have still not talked to Amir Muhammad, but there are conflicting accounts as to whether that is due to his refusal to be interviewed, or a lack of interest by investigators. Over time, it appears to have been both. According to Philips' story, Muhammad's attorney contacted police shortly after the initial Times piece and was told his client was not a suspect, but they would like to ask him a few questions. But the police never followed up on that request.

By the time Philips' story came out in May, however, Muhammad reportedly didn't want to talk to the LAPD. "Several attempts have been made to meet with him through his attorney," says Steve Katz, the LAPD's current lead investigator on the Biggie case, "but each time we set up a meeting he doesn't show up." Katz describes Muhammad as "someone who we need to talk to," but not an active suspect. Katz would not comment on Russell Poole's allegations. Calls to Muhammad's attorney, meanwhile, were not returned.

The Times finally reported Poole's allegations after they were detailed in Poole's lawsuit, filed Sept. 26. Its reporters had the task force detective on the record, with documents as far back as last March, but they say they had reasons for sitting on the story. They insist they were not deterred by media criticism or, as some critics suggest, by political pressure from upstairs at the Times, which has a history of avoiding controversial stories on civic leaders until after they surface elsewhere. "The day I'm told I can't go after a story will be the day I quit the newspaper," Scott Glover scoffs.

In fact, the two reporters, who have produced an impressive volume of Rampart scoops since they broke the scandal a year ago, have hardly been gentle with the police chief. Parks regularly excoriates them and their work on the LAPD Web site. Adds Lait: "We're not ignoring Poole's story. It's not a dead issue for us."

Nor will it likely be anytime soon for the LAPD.

By Jan Golab

Jan Golab is an award-winning freelance journalist who has been writing about the LAPD for Los Angeles and other magazines since 1982. He is the author of "The Dark Side of the Force: A True Story of Corruption and Murder in the LAPD." He is working on a book on the LAPD Rampart scandal.


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