How the defendant spent Valentine's Day

At the Puffy trial, we get a loopy plot straight out of Hollywood. Poor Puffy gets a broken heart.

Published February 15, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Hookers! Johns! Pimps! Posturing!

My second trip into Puffydom had them all.

Here's what it didn't have: a heartbroken-looking defendant sobbing over the demise of his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, which would finally be announced later that day. Clad in a soft-looking brown sweater over a white shirt and khaki pants, Sean "Puffy" Combs actually looked supremely serene throughout the morning testimony.

Here's what else it didn't have: a lot of animal-rights protesters getting after Puffy for featuring fur in the new collection from his designer label, Sean John.

Despite repeated threats of an "ambush," there were but two furtive-looking protesters standing about half a block away from the courthouse when I arrived. One toted a handwritten sign that read, "Puffy, think. The animals in your fur got the Death Penalty." But when the activist moved toward the front of the courthouse, where the TV cameramen lurked, a policeman made him roll up his posterboard plea.

Still, PETA's presence was felt just outside the courtroom, where leather-gloved officers frisked trial attendees and poked through their bags and backpacks. The court officers told me they were stepping up security because of "what happened over the weekend" with the fur protesters.

"We don't want anyone throwing anything in the courtroom," said the guard rifling through my jam-packed purse. "No eggs or anything like that."

As I slid into the last remaining seat in the gallery, the lawyers were already arguing over the admissibility of the testimony of various witnesses. Then Puffy himself strode in, hung up his coat in a locker and seated himself in the midst of the bickering suits.

Puffy looked considerably more relaxed than he did on my last courtroom visit, as if he'd been there every day of his life, as if his mug wasn't plastered on the front of that morning's New York Post alongside the headline: "TAMPER TANTRUM: D.A. probes Puffy-case witness fix."

But if the Post story was lost on Puffy, it certainly hadn't failed to alarm his lead lawyer, Benjamin Brafman. While the court waited for the last straggling jurors to arrive in the jury room after the long weekend, Brafman seized the opportunity to, in essence, hold his own press conference.

Ostensibly objecting to the judge's gag order, which precluded him from issuing comments directly to the media, Brafman railed against the Post.

"It's like having a second prosecutor in the building," he said, not looking at the passel of scribbling press people (including Post writer Laura Italiano, who shared a byline on the day's Puffy story) seated in the gallery directly behind him. "The New York Post has done everything in its power to see to it that Mr. Combs doesn't get a fair trial."

What he'd like to tell the press, Brafman passionately declared, is that the Post's charges are "patently false." In fact, he said, if he had a mind to, he could say that that the D.A.'s office and the police department acted in ways that were unprofessional as they gathered information about the case. He could say all that and more to the press, if only the judge would agree to lift the gag order and let him.

"Isn't that what you're doing now?" the judge, Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon, pointed out. "They're in the courtroom taking down your every word."

"If a reporter wants to do a thought piece saying whether a defendant's appearance seems to support the allegations, that's fair," said Brafman, facing the judge but targeting the scribbling masses. "But an allegation that an investigation is underway -- to be permitted to do that is not fair."

What wouldn't be fair, the judge maintained, is getting into a situation where the lawyers responded to allegations in the paper every day. That would be allowing the media to try the case, rather than the legal system.

But if the judge truly objected to that scenario, he didn't seem to be doing much to avert it.

Finally, the jury filed in. And, after the judge issued them a stern warning about not reading, looking at or listening to any news about the case, the trial got underway.

A police detective with a '70s 'do and purplish-tinted glasses who had interviewed one of the witnesses in the hospital briefly took the stand. He didn't say much.

Then Puffy's weekday chauffeur, Bill Williamson, was sworn in. He wasn't on duty on December 26, 1999, the night of the incident, but he did reveal that Puffy had specifically requested to be driven in his Lincoln Navigator that night, rather than one of his two Bentleys.

Williamson also testified that the Navigator was the only Puffy car to have been outfitted with a secret compartment, which he called a "safe." (For those of you who are curious, the compartment can be opened -- only when the car is running -- by turning on the radio, then turning the rear temperature controls completely counterclockwise, then pushing in the rear window defogger and pressing a lever on the driver's seat.)

And, in testimony that foreshadowed news of Puffy's split with Lopez, Williamson said he had not seen Lopez in Puffy's company in "quite some time." How long? "Maybe a month, two months."

Williamson also testified that he had never shown Mr. Combs, either of his co-defendants, Jamal "Shyne" Barrow and Anthony "Wolf" Jones, or Ms. Lopez how to open the compartment.

You'd think Williamson's revelations would make him the most exciting witness of the morning, but no. That honor goes to George Pappas, whose testimony had the courtroom on the edge of its seat.

Pappas, a smallish man with a pencil-thin moustache and a shiny forehead underneath thinning brown hair, identified himself as a construction worker from Queens who occasionally drove a car for one Anthony Nastasi.

He looked like he'd just walked off the set of "The Sopranos."

On the night of the shooting, Pappas testified, he had just dropped a woman off on 7th Avenue, bought himself a coffee and pulled over onto 8th Avenue between 43rd Street and 44th Street to wait for his next pickup.

He'd been sitting there about 10 minutes when he heard squealing tires and sirens and felt something hit the front of his car. He looked up to see a silver Lincoln Navigator with the window down and a glimpse of a hand being pulled back inside the car. He could not identify, he later testified, if it was a "light-skinned female hand" or not.

He watched as the car sped off, a police car hot on its heels. How close? He couldn't really say. "I'm not too good with distances," Pappas said.

When he got out to inspect his car, Pappas discovered a gun on the ground about a foot away from his fender. He picked it up, wrapped it in a towel and put it in his trunk.

Did he turn it in to the police? No. He took it to his boss, Nastasi.

Why? Tony "knows people in law enforcement" who could take care of it without asking too many questions. Pappas "didn't want to be involved in it whatsoever," he said, adding that he's a "private person."

Did he have any idea the gun may have been linked to Sean "Puffy" Combs? Yes. He heard about the Club New York shooting soon after he found the gun and "me and Tony put two and two together."

Pappas said he handed the gun over to Mustafi on a corner in Queens, sometime after sunrise but before noon the next day. Nastasi assured him he'd take care of it, and Pappas assumed that would be the last he'd hear of it.

But a few days later, he found himself at a restaurant in Queens, facing the D.A., who was persuading him to testify before a grand jury. Pappas did testify, but reluctantly and only identified by his first name.

Why all the secrecy? Why the reluctance?

Brafman's gaze met mine as he walked toward the podium to cross-examine Pappas, but his eyes revealed nothing of what was to come.

"Isn't it true," he asked Pappas, "that Anthony Nastasi is basically a pimp?"

"Isn't it true," he fired, "that you were basically driving hookers to meet their johns?"

Brafman proceed to ask Pappas a string of questions about whether he got paid in cash for driving these women around, whether he always declared it on his tax returns, where he dropped the women off and what they were doing there?

Surely, he knew that his friend Anthony Nastasi was a government informant?

Although poor Pappas did his best to insist that his employer ran a "legitimate business" and that he was not involved in anything illegal, his humiliation at the hands of Puffy's lawyer was complete. The courtroom titters grew so loud -- particularly in the press section --- that the judge had to admonish spectators to "laugh to themselves" if they needed to laugh.

Later, after the jury had been dismissed for lunch and the lawyers began to argue again, I began to mull the TV-plot absurdity of it all.

The "Sopranos" writers couldn't have written it better themselves.

"Just because Mr. Brafman says it's so doesn't make it so," the D.A., Matthew Bogdanos, warned. But who was he warning?

Not the jury: They weren't in the room.

Not the judge: Certainly he knew that.

No, he was warning the press.

Soon, Brafman stopped grandstanding about poor Mr. Pappas and returned to grandstanding about the gag rule.

He still wanted permission to say that the New York Post's expose was "a baseless, false story."

"But you're saying it now," said the judge.

Not good enough, Brafman replied. "We live," he said, "in a TV age." The Post story would be all over the evening news, he said, and he needed permission to deny it to the cameras.

The judge said he'd think about Brafman's request. But Puffy's people may have had a better way of keeping the press from harping on the witness-tampering story.

Minutes later, news hit the wire that Combs and Lopez had split -- and that was the big Puffy news of the evening. Puffy's people may have angered PETA with their affinity for fur, but they have apparently learned one key thing: There's more than one way to skin a cat.

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Miss something? Read yesterday's Nothing Personal.

By Amy Reiter

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