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As Associates Fall, Is 'Suge' Next?

Investigators say there's a hit out on Death Row founder Knight. The rap music mogul dismisses the notion.

August 01, 2003|Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writer

Someone is gunning for Marion "Suge" Knight.

The head of Death Row Records grew famous glamorizing gang violence. He called his artists "inmates." His company logo depicted a hooded convict strapped into an electric chair. His producers grafted violent lyrics onto driving rhythms, punctuated by shotgun blasts and wailing sirens.

That was make-believe mayhem. Now, Knight is being stalked by the real thing.

A string of gang shootings has claimed the lives of eight people since 1997, including four of the rap entrepreneur's closest associates. Investigators believe the killers' ultimate target is Knight himself.

In the most recent slaying, gunmen ambushed Wardell "Poochie" Fouse, a longtime Knight confidant, on July 24, firing 10 shots into his back as he rode a motorcycle in Compton.

Previous victims include Knight's best friend and chief bodyguard, who was gunned down at a gas station in Compton, and the creator of the Death Row logo, who was shot dead near a fried-chicken stand in South-Central L.A.

All the killings remain unsolved. Police suspect that at least three were ordered or carried out by a pair of gang members pursuing a vendetta against Knight. One is a former Death Row bodyguard whom Knight fired.

"If I was Suge Knight, I'd be worried someone was out to get me," said Sgt. Fred Reynolds, a gang investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "When so many people so close to you get killed, it's no coincidence. If I was in his shoes, I'd be looking over my shoulder everywhere I went."

Knight, 37, said he intended to do no such thing. He dismissed the idea that his life was in danger but in terms that conveyed resignation more than defiance.

"I don't believe anyone is hunting me. But even if they were, so what?" Knight said over dinner at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in late May. "The only guarantee a man has in life is that you are born to die. I'm from the ghetto, where black men get killed every day.

"It's like Jesus. Anyone who reads the Bible knows Jesus was no punk. He didn't hide from nobody. The threat of danger didn't stop him from doing what he had to do. That's how it is with me too. I fear no man. Only God."

Knight was arrested in late June on charges that he punched a parking lot attendant outside a Hollywood club. He has been in jail since then. And Thursday, a state parole panel deemed the incident a violation of Knight's parole from an earlier assault conviction and ordered him to serve 10 months in prison.

Through much of the 1990s, Death Row was the nation's No. 1 rap label, home to the biggest hip-hop stars, including Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg.

Knight strutted into award shows draped in gold chains and diamond medallions, puffing on Cuban cigars. He mugged with celebrities and chief executives for magazine covers. He was backed by some of the biggest names in corporate America, including Time Warner and Seagram Co.

Today, all that seems a distant memory. Shakur is dead. Dre and other Death Row artists have long since defected. The label has not introduced a new star in seven years. Knight's latest release, the movie soundtrack "Dysfunktional Family," didn't even register on the national pop charts.

Knight, who has five children from different relationships, owes the Internal Revenue Service $6 million in back taxes. One bank has threatened to seize Death Row's headquarters over delinquent mortgage pay- ments. Another has repossessed Knight's 90-foot Hatteras yacht. Staples Center revoked his luxury box over missed lease payments.

Death Row's Beverly Hills headquarters, which once teemed with employees, artists and their entourages, is silent and mostly empty now. In May, the building was raked by gunfire in the middle of the night, causing no injuries but leaving a bullet-pocked facade.

At the height of his fame, Knight embraced more than the imagery of gang violence. He surrounded himself with gang members and tried to become a player in their world. In so doing, police investigators and gang members say, he became entangled in their feuds and unwittingly made himself a target.

Bodyguard No. 1

The first to fall was Aaron "Heron" Palmer.

Palmer, a bodyguard for Knight, rolled up to a red light in Compton in a black Toyota 4Runner just before sunset on June 1, 1997. He was on his way home from a Death Row party at Gonzales Park, where a dozen employees had gathered to play touch football.

As he waited for the light to change, a blue van pulled up behind him. Two men jumped out, fired a flurry of shots and sped off. Palmer, 30, died at the scene.

"When Heron went down, we were all like, 'Whoa! What's going on here?' " said Bobby Ladd, a former Compton gang investigator now with the Garden Grove Police Department. "Until that moment, nobody ever had the nerve to take out anyone in Suge's inner circle. This was no ordinary murder. Someone was sending a message."

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