LOS ANGELES – The mystery of who gunned down Notorious B.I.G. (search) — and why — has frustrated and fascinated the hip-hop world for eight years.
With FBI and police investigations failing to net even a suspect, a swirl of theories implicated corrupt cops, gang hits, bicoastal beefs — or all three at once. None have been provable, so far.
The case finally is in court, as a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the New York rapper's family against the city of Los Angeles and its police department. On Tuesday, a nine-person jury was selected.
The panel is expected to at least get a peek inside the so-called murder book showing whom the Los Angeles Police Department (search) interviewed and which leads were followed.
Both sides also presented opening statements, and B.I.G.'s mother Voletta Wallace (search) dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as an attorney recounted the night of her son's death.
Christopher Wallace (search) was killed shortly after midnight March 9, 1997, on a Los Angeles boulevard after someone in a dark sedan fired seven shots into his sport utility vehicle while both cars were stopped at a light. Wallace was heading to a hotel following an awards show after-party.
The suit claims LAPD officials covered up a former officer's involvement in the slaying and ignored a systemic problem of potentially dangerous moonlighting. The family claims a number of off-duty officers were associated with gang members while providing security for Death Row Records (search), home of Wallace's West Coast rival, Tupac Shakur (search).
Shakur was slain on the Las Vegas Strip six months before the 24-year-old Wallace was killed, and the two are forever linked in hip-hop culture.
Both savored the good life but were obsessed with death. Shakur flaunted bullet wounds and rapped of dying young. Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls (search), titled his 1994 debut "Ready To Die" and posed for the cover of his posthumously released second album, "Life After Death," leaning on a hearse dressed for his own funeral.
Wallace was discovered by then-rising producer Sean Combs (search), now known as P. Diddy (search). Combs groomed the baritone rapper for a mainstream audience through dance-happy samples, guest spots on R&B songs and even a collaboration with Michael Jackson.
But a dark rivalry was forming outside the spotlight. A murky series of conflicts erupted in the mid-1990s between Combs' New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment (search) and Los Angeles-based Death Row, led by Marion "Suge" Knight (search).
It began after Shakur survived a 1994 shooting at a New York recording studio; Wallace and Combs had been nearby and Shakur blamed them for it. Assaults continued as each company purportedly linked up with rival street gangs — Bloods (search) for Death Row, Crips (search) for Bad Boy.
A Knight bodyguard was killed in September 1995 after a confrontation with Combs and others at an Atlanta party. In December of that year, a man named Mark Anthony Bell was beaten and tortured at Knight's home by men seeking Combs' home address, according to an affidavit filed by an LAPD detective and released by Wallace's family Monday.
And then there was the war of words. Shakur boasted on record of having sex with Wallace's wife; Wallace released songs with seemingly veiled references to Shakur's 1994 shooting.
According to the Wallace family lawsuit, both record companies began hiring off-duty policemen as bodyguards. The suit describes several instances in which police investigating assaults involving Bad Boy or Death Row employees arrived to find off-duty officers on the scene.
One officer, David Mack (search), is at the heart of the lawsuit.
According to a theory advanced by former LAPD Detective Russell Poole — who's scheduled to testify — Mack arranged for his college roommate Amir Muhammad (search) to kill Wallace on Knight's behalf. But Knight, who has served time in prison for assault and weapons violations, is not named in the Wallace suit. A lawyer who has represented him, Milton Grimes, did not return a call seeking comment.
Muhammad and Mack, who is now serving a 14-year sentence for bank robbery, have repeatedly denied having anything to do with the killing. The judge dropped both from the suit this month.
Perry Sanders, a Wallace family lawyer, said circumstantial evidence will show Mack "used cop tools" such as police radios to help plan the shooting and that the LAPD is liable "for allowing officers to be doing off-duty work, for allowing them to associate with people they shouldn't be associating with."
Several key witnesses have weakened the family's case by backing away from previous statements in recent interviews. Sanders said Monday they were among several reluctant to testify for fear of retaliation.
"All of a sudden, people get amnesia," he said. "Amnesia is a funny thing. It can't be cured in the courtroom."
Attorney Marc Harris, representing Mack, dismisses the case as "a house of cards" with lying witnesses parroting theories offered in books and movies. The trial is expected to feature jailhouse informants who have linked Knight and Mack to Wallace's slaying.
"You will hear a lot of hearsay and supposition from incredible witnesses, unreliable informants," attorney Vincent Marella, representing the city, told jurors Tuesday. "There won't be any believable evidence that will substantiate the theory that you heard."
It's unclear whether Knight or players in the hip-hop industry will be called. Combs has given a deposition, but Sanders said it's unlikely he'll testify.
"I'm completely supportive of the family and will always be supportive of the family," Combs said in an interview.
The trial will be split into three phases and could last up to a month.
First, jurors must decide whether Mack was involved in the killing and acted using his authority or skills as a policeman.
If they find he was, they'll then consider whether the LAPD and the city should be held responsible for the off-duty officer's actions.
In a third phase, jurors would award damages. The family is asking for an unspecified amount but can present evidence showing Wallace's potential earnings far exceeded $100 million, Sanders said.
In his two albums, which Nielsen SoundScan says together sold nearly 8 million copies in the U.S., Wallace appears to have foreseen the tumult that's followed his death.
On the final song of "Life After Death," Wallace warbles through the chorus: "You're nooobody til sooomebody kills you."