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  • The Unsolved Mystery of the Notorious B.I.G

    Illustration by Jason Holley

    The Unsolved Mystery of the Notorious B.I.G

    The murder, the cover-up and the conspiracy

    Those who arrived as spectators at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on July 6th expecting to observe the fourth day of testimony in the Notorious B.I.G. wrongful-death suit swiftly discovered that they were on hand to bear witness to something else: history.

    In an announcement that stunned everyone who had been following the case in the media, presiding judge Florence-Marie Cooper abruptly suspended the proceedings and called a mistrial. Only a handful in the courtroom knew of the remarkable events of the previous days: an anonymous late-night phone tip; the extraordinary lockdown of a Los Angeles Police Department division; a stash of secret, incriminating documents. But the following day, Judge Cooper issued a written ruling stating that she had come to believe the LAPD had deliberately concealed a massive amount of evidence that attested to the involvement of rogue officers in the rapper's slaying.

    The implications of the judge's decision extended far beyond the mystery of B.I.G.'s unsolved murder. For months, Los Angeles' most prominent political figures and police officials, along with the city's most influential media, had been insisting that this legal claim by B.I.G.'s family was nothing more than a nuisance suit, based on an outlandish conspiracy theory that attempted to tie a group of LAPD officers -- affiliated with Suge Knight's Death Row Records and the Bloods gang -- to not only the murders of B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, but also to the origins of the biggest police-corruption case in Los Angeles history, the so-called Rampart scandal. Yet here was one of the most respected district court judges in Southern California declaring in open court that the LAPD's lead investigator on the B.I.G. murder case for the past six years had deliberately concealed hundreds of pages of documents.

    The contents of these pages not only supported the conspiracy theory, but also implicated the central figure in the Rampart scandal -- the disgraced detective who was the source of the whole sorry, sordid affair -- as one of those involved in the rapper's death.

    The judge's declaration of a mistrial provided one of those breathtaking moments when the facade of a Big Lie is peeled back to reveal the men behind the curtain. Suddenly, the central figures in this scandal were not the collection of corrupt police officers whose double-faced criminality has been the focus of both public and private investigations, but rather the people who hold the levers of control at the city's most powerful institutions.
    Back in 2000, it looked as if all the skeletons rattling around the Rampart scandal had been locked away in deep closets. But in the spring of 2001, theories that had been discarded by both the police and the L.A. media were explored by articles in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. Perry Sanders, the iconoclastic lawyer who would spearhead the wrongful-death lawsuit, first became involved in the case in June of that year. An attorney for murdered rap star Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, asked Sanders to read the Rolling Stone article. "I thought there were grounds for filing a lawsuit just based on reading the story," says Sanders. Because he takes cases only on contingency, however, the attorney had to decide whether he could justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of his life to sustain a federal court claim against the city of Los Angeles.

    Angular and fit, the fifty-one-year old Sanders is a mercurial Louisianan whose shaved head and pale eyes give him the look of a more intelligent Bruce Willis. The son of Perry R. Sanders Sr., one of the South's best-known Baptist ministers, the attorney had devoted much of his young adulthood to the music business; he performed as a guitarist and vocalist all across the Southern club circuit during his years in college and law school. By the time he passed the bar in 1982, Sanders co-owned the Baton Rouge recording studio Disk Productions, where he and two partners composed and recorded jingles for companies including Hilton and Honda. Within a few years, Sanders moved on to Nashville, working in entertainment law by day and as a writer and producer at night, then to L.A., where he was a partner in the studio West Side Sound. Eventually, he returned to Louisiana and the practice of law, specializing in environmental and civil-rights cases. He made enough money by his mid-forties that he could devote his considerable energies to whatever interested him.

    "The B.I.G. case interested me plenty," Sanders says, but he and his sometime associate, Colorado attorney Rob Frank, were at that moment embroiled in a massive environmental suit against the Schlage Lock Company. Not sure if he could afford what the B.I.G. lawsuit would demand, Sanders dispatched Frank to meet with the murdered rapper's mother, Voletta Wallace, in New York. "After meeting with Voletta," Frank recalls, "I reported back to Perry that we may or may not have a great case, but we certainly had a great client."

    Tall and bespectacled, Wallace still speaks in the lilting accent she brought with her when she moved to New York from Trelawny, Jamaica, as a young girl in 1959. She remembers Christopher not just as a world-famous rap star but also as the largest five-year-old in their Brooklyn neighborhood -- a boy who was already living with the nickname "Big" by the time he turned ten. She worked two jobs to raise him alone from the age of two, when B.I.G.'s father, a small-time Jamaican politician named George Latore, abandoned the family. To this day, she seems to be as proud of the prizes her son won as an English student at Queen of All Saints Middle School as she is of the awards he received for his rap albums.

    Before her son's murder, she says, "I trusted everyone. I trusted the Los Angeles Police Department. I had to believe that they wanted to find out who the murderer of my son was. I had no idea there were such powerful forces involved in all of this." After reading about LAPD officer David Mack's alleged involvement in her son's murder, Wallace decided to pursue a civil action. "I wasn't thinking about the world that I was taking on, only that something was not right and I have to make it right. If I have to sue them for that, I was gonna do it."
    By early 2002, Sanders had weighed what he learned from Wallace and arrived at a decision, filing a civil-rights claim in the federal district court of central California. "We knew it was a long shot," he admits.

    The lawsuit accused the LAPD of "policies and practices" that permitted officers to obtain employment with Death Row Records and enabled at least one of them, David Mack, to conspire with his friend Amir Muhammad in the murder of Notorious B.I.G. "Even then we didn't appreciate the magnitude of what we were getting ourselves into," says Frank. As it dawned on them, each attorney drew upon the other's strengths. The forty-year-old Frank, with his blond beard, slumped shoulders and self-deprecating attitude, was a skilled legal technician who handled most of the briefs and motions, but deferred to Sanders in matters of strategy and presentation. Despite his reputation as a brilliant attorney, Sanders' Southern accent and good-time grin initially made it difficult for a lot of people in L.A. to take him seriously. "Being underestimated," he admits with a sly smile, "was our biggest advantage at the beginning of the case."

    He and Frank would soon recognize, however, that the strange facts of Biggie's murder and the convoluted web of events and people surrounding it would become their greatest assets.


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