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'Gangsta' Rap Label Executives Acquitted

Murder Inc.'s Irving and Christopher Lorenzo are cleared in a money-laundering case.

December 03, 2005|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

Two rap music moguls known for their gangster images and gun-sporting artists were acquitted Friday in federal court in New York on charges that they used their record label as a front to launder $1 million for a convicted drug lord.

Irving "Gotti" Lorenzo and his younger brother, Christopher, the president and vice president, respectively, of "gangsta rap" label Murder Inc., had faced as many as 20 years in prison on allegations of laundering money for Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff.

The trial proved to be one of the year's biggest events in hip-hop music, attended by some of rap's top stars.

Showing up to support the Lorenzo brothers were Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Russell Simmons, Ja Rule and Ashanti, the latter two bestselling artists once signed to Murder Inc. Last year, the label changed its name to The Inc. in an image makeover.

After attending the trial one day, Ja Rule called the case "a war against hip-hop."

Friday's verdict ends a three-year effort by five law enforcement agencies to build a case against the brothers, whose offices were first raided in January 2003. Last January, when indictments against the Lorenzos were announced, one FBI agent told reporters that "they don't call it gangster rap for nothing."

Authorities alleged that the brothers were intimately linked with McGriff, who became famous during the 1980s as the leader of the Supreme Team street gang that ran a crack cocaine business out of a Queens, N.Y., housing project. McGriff is scheduled to stand trial in March on drug and murder charges.

The jury in the Lorenzo case returned acquittals after two days. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in New York did not return calls seeking comment.

"We did it! We did it!" an elated Irving Lorenzo said as he was carried from the courtroom by his lawyers.

After the trial concluded, jurors asked to speak with the Lorenzos and the brothers' family and attorneys

"One woman juror said, 'I love you, Irv,' and hugged him, and both of them broke down crying," said Gerald Shargel, Christopher Lorenzo's attorney. "Another juror said, 'I would never let anything happen to you boys.' "

The verdict capped a three-week trial that occasionally veered into such minutiae as the size of shoe boxes in which drug lords stash cash. After a prosecution witness testified that he had seen McGriff give Murder Inc. executives a shoe box stuffed with $70,000 in small bills, Shargel presented him with 7,000 fake paper bills. Shargel asked the witness to put them inside a shoe container, but he couldn't.

The following week, Anthony Castiglia, a New York police detective, showed jurors that he had fit 7,400 $1 bills into an oversize shoe box, saying that "the standard urban attire" of drug dealers included shoes coming in wider and deeper boxes.

At other times, prosecutors asked to play jurors songs by Murder Inc. artists that celebrated drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs. Prosecutors also unsuccessfully sought to enter evidence they said linked McGriff and the Lorenzos to the shooting of rap star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson.

In May, a judge had ruled that the brothers must be tried separately from McGriff.

The government relied largely on testimony from convicted criminals, such as Jon Ragin, who spent years selling flat-panel TV sets and other electronics he and associates purchased with credit cards manufactured in Ragin's living room.

Ragin testified that the Lorenzos helped McGriff launder drug profits by financing "Crime Partners 2000," a straight-to-video movie co-written by McGriff.

On cross-examination, a defense attorney challenged Ragin's credibility while seeking to bolster the brothers' image by getting Ragin to admit that he once worked as a pimp.

"The jurors realized these were two hardworking and talented young men who came from very little, from a decent family, and who were charged with crimes supported only by false testimony from criminals and lies," Shargel said.

Prosecutors ultimately focused on financial details, such as trying to prove that Christopher Lorenzo in three months bet more than $1.5 million in laundered funds on sports.

Defense attorneys countered with a forensic accountant, their only witness, who testified that the gambling money came from long-standing savings accounts.

"We proved these boys never needed any improper money," Shargel said. "You'll see them making music and getting on the charts again soon. Talent always wins out."

Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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