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Past may hold keys to freedom

A singer behind bars since 1994 says he can now prove innocence.

January 16, 2007|Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writer

He was an R&B singer who had scored a nationwide hit with "My Girl." He performed around the country, drove luxury sedans and owned a palatial home in Calabasas.

Then, suddenly, Waymond Anderson was an accused murderer. Police in bulletproof vests surrounded his black Mustang on Jan. 29, 1994, and handcuffed him as his wife and 6-year-old son watched.

At the trial, prosecutors persuaded a jury that the entertainer known as "Suave" was a ruthless drug dealer who had torched a home near the USC campus, killing a man to avenge an unpaid drug debt. Anderson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder.

Now, after nearly 13 years behind bars, he has asked the state Court of Appeal to throw out his conviction, contending that new evidence shows he could not have committed the crime.

Two witnesses who identified him at the trial as the arsonist have given sworn statements saying that they lied under pressure from police.

Anderson's defense team has also produced travel receipts and sworn witness statements that indicate he was in Jackson, Miss., visiting his sister at the time of the killing. One of that state's most revered preachers is among those who swear they saw Anderson in Mississippi that day.

"I had nothing to do with this murder -- and the police know it," Anderson, 40, said during a recent interview at Corcoran State Prison south of Fresno. "My son was 6 when they locked me up. Last year, he graduated from high school. Have you any idea how long that is? I've never even seen the Internet."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls, who prosecuted Anderson, declined to discuss his court petition. But she said she remained convinced of his guilt.

"I have complete confidence in this verdict," she said. "There was overwhelming evidence that the defendant did it and that he had the motive to do it."

*

A downward spiral

Anderson grew up around Western Avenue and 39th Street in South Los Angeles. Raised by his great-grandmother, he sang in a church choir, wrote songs and orchestrated R&B arrangements in the "new-jack-swing" style in his home studio.

In 1985, Anderson, then 19, signed a recording contract with Capitol Records. He released three albums for the label and struck it big in 1988 with "My Girl," an update of the Motown hit.

Beneath the veneer of stardom, his life was a mess. Anderson acknowledges that he sold and used drugs, carried guns and cheated on his wife. This hidden side of his life explains why he would have killed a man over a drug debt, authorities say.

The deadly fire occurred in a converted garage on West 40th Place inhabited by a shifting assortment of junkies.

On the morning of Sept. 18, 1993, a tall, ponytailed drug dealer burst through the door, looking for two addicts who owed him money -- "Punch" and "One-Arm Will."

Failing to find them, the man splashed gasoline around the dwelling, twisted a newspaper into a torch and flicked his lighter, witnesses told police. A drug addict named Robert Wellington was killed in the ensuing blaze.

Several weeks later, police tracked down One-Arm Will. He was carrying a business card with a 10-digit phone number scrawled on the back.

The number, it turned out, was for a cellphone registered in Anderson's stage name, Julian "Suave" Scott.

Detectives included Anderson's picture in an array of photos they showed to witnesses, including Wellington's brother, Willock Garcia. Garcia, who was badly burned in the fire, identified Anderson as the arsonist, police reported.

Patricia Tidmore-Ellison, a heroin addict who lived near the murder scene, also implicated Anderson. Detectives said she identified him from a photograph as the ponytailed man who showed up at her door an hour before the fire, holding a handgun and a grenade and demanding to know the whereabouts of Punch and One-Arm Will.

More than three years passed between Anderson's arrest in January 1994 and the start of his trial. During that time, he had a mental breakdown in prison and was transferred to Patton State Hospital, where he was deemed mentally incompetent for a period.

He escaped from the San Bernardino facility at one point and was recaptured two weeks later. He remained in the mental hospital until his trial began in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1997.

Without fingerprints, DNA or other physical evidence linking Anderson to the crime, prosecutors relied largely on the testimony of Tidmore-Ellison and Garcia.

In addition to identifying Anderson as the ponytailed man, both witnesses said they saw a black Ford Explorer leave the scene of the crime. A vehicle fitting that description was registered in Anderson's name.

Prosecutors said cellphone data provided further proof of his guilt. A detective testified that around the time of the arson, a call made on the phone registered in Anderson's name was relayed by a cell tower near the crime scene.

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