Nine years after the slaying of rap star Biggie Smalls, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton has launched a task force of senior homicide detectives to hunt down the killer, a rare show of force for a cold-case murder with no new evidence.
The beefed-up Los Angeles Police Department probe comes in the wake of a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles by the rapper's mother, Voletta Wallace, and other relatives. Whatever new evidence the police turn up could bolster the city's contention that LAPD officers played no role in the rapper's death. Wallace maintains they did.
Biggie Smalls was gunned down March 9, 1997, after a music industry party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in the Mid-Wilshire district. The 24-year-old rap star, born Christopher Wallace and also known as Notorious B.I.G., was waiting at a stoplight in a sport utility vehicle when the killers pulled up in a dark Chevrolet Impala, opened fire and sped off.
The murder has spawned a cottage industry of books, documentaries and magazine articles exploring possible conspiracy theories involving Wallace and Tupac Shakur, the other leading rap artist of his generation, who was shot to death in Las Vegas six months earlier. No one has been charged in either killing.
The leading theory being pursued by the LAPD task force involves the possibility that Wallace was killed by a member of Compton's vicious Southside Crips gang as part of a bicoastal rap feud linked to Shakur's death, law enforcement sources said.
Another theory involves allegations that Wallace was killed in retaliation by a Blood gang member hired by rap impresario Marion "Suge" Knight, owner of Shakur's record label, the sources said. Knight denies any involvement in the murder.
Investigators are also closely examining a home video taken moments before Wallace was killed.
The Wallace family lawsuit alleging LAPD involvement had sputtered in court last year but gained new life after U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper declared a mistrial in July 2005, ruling that a detective had deliberately hidden transcripts of an interview with a police informant alleging LAPD involvement in the murder.
A new trial is set for early next year.
After Cooper's ruling, Bratton ordered a review of the LAPD probe, which had languished for years.
Bratton immediately removed Det. Steven Katz, the lead investigator on the case, who said he had overlooked the transcripts in a desk drawer.
Bratton installed a new captain, Kyle Jackson, to take over the probe and replaced Katz with a team of six veteran homicide detectives. The chief provided the task force with an office, budget and a computerized tracking system to organize the messy 72-volume "murder book."
This month, investigators fanned out across the nation, meeting with gang experts, contacting informants and interviewing witnesses from Compton to Brooklyn, reinstating a $50,000 reward for anyone who can provide information that leads to a conviction.
Bratton and other LAPD officials declined to comment, citing sensitivity to the pending Wallace family lawsuit.
City Councilman Jack Weiss, head of the council's Public Safety Committee, applauded the LAPD effort.
"It's very good that Bratton has brought renewed focus to this case," Weiss said. "Hopefully it will lead to identification of the actual killer or killers. At a minimum, it should provide some definitive reasons to rule out the more outlandish theories that have evolved over the years."
The Wallace family argues in its lawsuit that ex-LAPD officer David A. Mack conspired with Knight for the contract killing. The family contends in the suit that Mack arranged for a college friend, Southland mortgage broker Amir Muhammad, to carry out the ambush.
Muhammad was arrested Wednesday by Department of Motor Vehicle investigators on unrelated perjury charges connected to his possession of four false identifications. He was released on $50,000 bail.
Mack, Muhammad and Knight, owner of Los Angeles-based Death Row Records, have long denied any involvement in the slaying.
The hypothesis that the three conspired to kill Wallace was first advanced in 1998 by then-LAPD Det. Russell Poole, a junior investigator in the robbery-homicide division who worked about a year on the Wallace probe. He is expected to testify as an expert witness on behalf of the Wallace family when the wrongful-death lawsuit returns to trial.
Poole began scrutinizing Mack after he was arrested in December 1997 on suspicion of bank robbery. Mack was later convicted of robbery and is serving a 14-year prison term.
Poole did not interview Mack or Muhammad and he did not produce any evidence to support his theory. He quit the police force in 1999 after a series of disputes with his superiors about the direction of various investigations, including the one into Wallace's murder.
Seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages, the Wallace family and its attorneys continue to advance Poole's theory.