A former friend of Shaquille O'Neal alleged that gang members kidnapped… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
A gang kidnapping case three years in the making, in which investigators looked into possible charges against NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, came to an abrupt end Tuesday as a prosecutor conceded that the alleged victim and star witness had credibility problems.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar de Longoria ordered the case against seven Main Street Crip members dismissed after the prosecutor announced that his office would not proceed with the case.
The unraveling of the kidnapping, robbery and assault case over a Feb. 10, 2008, incident revolved around the purported victim in the case, Robert Ross, a convicted felon and former gang member who was a one-time friend of O'Neal's. Ross had told authorities, and later testified in court, that gang members kidnapped and beat him while mentioning O'Neal's name and demanding a sex tape of the former Laker.
Photos: Shaq through the years
Deputy Dist. Atty. Hoon Chun said Ross' testimony in a preliminary hearing and his conduct outside court had "given some cause for concern" about his believability.
"We do not have the necessary confidence in the credibility of Mr. Ross to proceed in this case," Chun said. His statement was met with loud cheers from the audience and a chorus of requests for a "motion to dismiss" from seven defense attorneys. Chun told the judge that he went to Ross for an explanation regarding his testimony and behavior and came to the decision to drop the case, but did not give specifics.
The prosecution's unusual move marked a surprise twist in the case, which thrust into the spotlight O'Neal's friendship with Ross just as the former Laker star announced his retirement after 19 years in the NBA. Ross has also filed a civil lawsuit against O'Neal and his one-time business partner Mark Stevens, alleging the two were behind the attack.
An attorney for Ross, Mark Overland, declined to comment Tuesday on the development in the case. Overland is representing Ross in the civil suit.
Representatives for O'Neal also declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In preliminary hearing testimony that lasted more than two days, Ross said he and O'Neal had had a falling-out over a record deal, after which he lied to O'Neal, saying he had a sex tape of the star and hoping to get him to pay the money Ross thought he was owed. Ross said the kidnapping occurred two weeks later.
Phone records and federal wiretaps supported parts of Ross' story, showing a number of calls between gang members at the time of the alleged kidnapping, and recording the suspects later discussing details of the incident. The phone records also showed that Stevens exchanged a "flurry" of calls with the gang's alleged leader around the time of the incident, according to law enforcement documents.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's investigation of the case, however, drove a wedge between that agency and the Los Angeles Police Department, where detectives had grown incredulous of Ross, a former informant whom they were also investigating as a homicide suspect.
The Times reported, based on internal LAPD records, that Ross was a registered informant who in 2010 was classified as "undesirable" after he gave false leads and boasted to associates that he had a "cop in his pocket." On several occasions, when he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving or stopped for alleged traffic violations, Ross told officers he was working for the LAPD, according to an internal memo.
Two LAPD detectives who had dealt with Ross had been subpoenaed to testify for the defense in the preliminary hearing this week. The detectives were expected to counter Ross' sworn testimony that he had never worked as an informant for any law enforcement agency.
Ronald Higgins, an attorney for the gang's alleged ringleader, Ladell Rowles, said Tuesday that there was never any physical evidence supporting Ross' account, and that the case "boiled down to Mr. Ross' word."
"I'm just amazed that [the prosecutor] came to this conclusion so late in the proceedings," he said. "It was obvious from the beginning that this gentleman was not credible."
Photos: Shaq through the years