WASHINGTON — Brian Lee Tribble, home again after a one-night stint in the county jail, sat on the front porch with his family one day last week, playing with a streaky-black pit bull, a breed of dog often raised to fight and to maim other dogs.
"Their reputation is worse than what they deserve," said Tribble, the owner of three such dogs--Assassin, Lady Devour and Tan Man--who nuzzled him affectionately the day after he posted $75,000 bond on charges of drug possession and distribution in connection with the death of his friend, Len Bias, the former University of Maryland basketball star.
"But people only know what they hear," he said, smiling and politely refusing to answer other questions.
If there was a touch of irony to Tribble's words, he wouldn't admit it. If there was a hint of fear about his plight, he wouldn't show it. And if you think Tribble, who has pleaded not guilty, is going to explain how he became caught up in the investigation of Bias' death, forget it.
Trying to understand the world of Brian Tribble, the 24-year-old who prosecutors say supplied the cocaine that killed the All-American forward, is a little like peeking into a kaleidoscope, an exercise in gleaning images from an odd collection of police reports, family tales, childhood memories and a din of whispers heard over the last few weeks.
There is a sharp image of a handsome, intelligent boy growing into the man who would be the first in his family to enter college. There are moments of transition, a motorcycle accident in 1982 and a move into his own apartment in 1985, where the edges blur.
There is the dizzying whirl of the last two months that has made his high school portrait--the same photo that his mother keeps in a special place at home--something akin to a police mug shot that is flashed across TV screens and seen in national magazines.
"I'm so disgusted," his mother, Loretta, said in an interview at her Northeast Washington home last week. "I totally believe Brian. I wouldn't be able to make it through if I didn't."
Bias, 22, died June 19, two days after he had been selected second in the National Basketball Assn. college draft as the top pick of the Boston Celtics. His death was quickly linked to cocaine, and investigators recovered 12 grams of the substance from his car.
Tribble, a one-time Maryland student whose voice was recorded when he called for emergency medical help for Bias that morning, was indicted July 25 by a grand jury that charged him with possession of PCP, a hallucinogen; possession and distribution of cocaine, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Charges of cocaine possession and obstruction of justice also were lodged against Terry Long and David Gregg, Bias' teammates who law enforcement officials have said were with Tribble and Bias in Bias' dorm room when Bias collapsed.
But prosecutors say it was Tribble who brought drugs into the room, and he has emerged as the pivotal character in the investigation and in the larger story of how a basketball star and an alleged drug supplier became friends.
Tribble's name has surfaced in connection with a series of surprising twists in what remains a mysterious death. Last week, in a Bladensburg, Md., apartment, investigators found a safe that was stolen during an armed robbery the morning Bias died.
Investigators believe that the safe was Tribble's and have received statements that it had contained $60,000 in cash and $100,000 worth of cocaine, according to sources. Police have identified one of the two women who lived in the burglarized apartment as Julie Walker, Tribble's girlfriend.
Tribble was born on June 9, 1962, the youngest of four children brought up in the modest home of Loretta Tribble, a homemaker, and her husband, Thomas, a jazz drummer turned furniture and upholstery cleaner.
Their small frame house is still the family homestead for Sunday dinners, summer cookouts and birthday parties for Priscilla, 30, Gloria, 27, Tom Jr., 26, and Brian, 24.
Brian Tribble grew to be the kind of boy who, with his brother, Junior, helped his mother by washing the kitchen floor and cleaning the refrigerator. His sister, Gloria, when asked about him last week, pulled out a family photo album. "He was a doll with little dimples," she said. "When you looked at him, anything he'd say or do would be fine."
Neighbors described Tribble as a witty yet serious child who would shovel snow or cut grass without pay and as the brightest spot in what one neighbor called a wonderful family.
"He was the sweetheart of the neighborhood," recalled Annie B. Valentine, a neighbor who moved there nearly 25 years ago. "He was always offering to do things. And he still chats with me."