Former FBI Agent: How the LAPD Derailed My Investigation Into Biggie Smalls’ Murder
Former FBI Agent Phil Carson, who led the investigation into the LAPD’s alleged role in the murder of rap legend Notorious B.I.G., speaks publicly for the first time.
As the FBI agent who ran the investigation into the LAPD’s alleged role in the March 9, 1997, murder of hip-hop legend the Notorious B.I.G. outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Phil Carson knows things no one else knows. He knows what’s hidden in the heavily redacted case files released by the Bureau in 2011; he knows how it happened; and he knows who did it. And he’s never revealed any of it publicly, to anyone—until now.
Carson retired from the Bureau in September 2017, almost two decades after Biggie Smalls, born Christopher Wallace, was shot dead. Carson worked on some of the FBI’s most challenging public corruption cases, but keeping quiet about the Biggie case has, in a way, been his most difficult task.
“You have no idea,” Carson told The Daily Beast in a series of exclusive interviews. “It didn’t just eat at me a little bit—it tore me apart pretty good.”
The LAPD, “all the way up to the very, very top,” did their best to protect the dirty cops Carson believes helped orchestrate Biggie’s murder. As part of that effort, powerful forces launched what Carson described as a campaign to assassinate his own character. According to Carson, these forces included the Los Angeles Times, the City Attorney of Los Angeles, members of LAPD Chief Bill Bratton’s inner circle, and cops in the department’s famed Robbery-Homicide Division.
“I can prove to you how they not only knew what was going on, but how they obstructed this case, how they derailed it,” said Carson. “I was young enough and naive enough not to realize how big and powerful these people were.”
“I’m glad Phil Carson, whatever’s heavy on his heart, is coming forward and letting the truth be known,” said “Big Gene” Deal, a bodyguard for Sean “Diddy” Combs who witnessed the shooting and met with Carson multiple times as part of the FBI investigation. “Phil was a straight shooter. By him coming out and doing this right here, it makes me feel good.”
Carson grew up near Seattle, where he led his high school to the state soccer title. He accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Washington in 1982, where he earned a degree in business and finance. Carson and one of his fraternity brothers spent the summer after graduation backpacking around Europe.
Upon his return home, Carson decided he’d had enough of Seattle weather, so he packed up his ‘66 Mustang and drove to Southern California. There, he got his securities licenses and became a financial consultant, then a bond trader. After nearly 10 years of managing money, Carson was restless. One day, he watched The Sting and The Untouchables, back-to-back. Inspired by the onscreen exploits of Special Agents Polk, Snyder and Ness, Carson applied for a job at the FBI. In June 1997, following 18 months of interviews, testing, background checks, and a polygraph examination, Carson reported to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for 20 weeks of new-agent training.
Although he was in his early 30s and several years older than most of his classmates, Carson finished first overall in physical training and defensive tactics at Quantico, and third overall in academics. With his banking and financial background, Carson was assigned to a bank fraud squad in Los Angeles.
Having been told by Bureau veterans that the first year on the job would set the tone for the rest of his career, Carson volunteered “to be part of anything and everything.”
“If they needed another person to go to an interview, I would do it,” Carson said. “If they needed somebody to do surveillance on the weekend, I’d always raise my hand. I wasn't married, I didn't have kids. I would work 24 hours a day.”
Duly impressed, a group of more senior agents that Carson had gotten to know helped him transfer to WCC-4, a white-collar crime squad targeting public corruption.
Early on, Carson put together what he described as an airtight case against a corrupt ATF agent who was allegedly dealing cocaine in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts. He had sworn statements from sources who identified the agent in photo arrays, and the agent failed a polygraph test administered by the FBI. Still, Carson says ATF brass swept the case under the rug and transferred the agent to another region—with a promotion.
“That was the first time that I was exposed to dealing with upper management of another agency on how they protect their own,” said Carson. “And that stuck with me as I started working these other corruption cases.”
The ’90s were a dark period for the LAPD. In 1991, Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers, which led to a series of departmental reforms. The officers’ acquittal the following year helped spark the infamous 1992 L.A. riots, which led to the deaths of 63 people and forced LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’ retirement. Willie Williams, his successor and the LAPD’s first African-American chief, only lasted one five-year term. Bernard Parks, a 32-year LAPD veteran, was sworn in as the beleaguered department’s 52nd chief on August 22, 1997.
That November, a Bank of America branch in South Central LA was robbed in broad daylight by off-duty LAPD officer David Mack. Mack, who wore a dark suit and sunglasses, flashed an automatic weapon and made off with $722,000 from the vault. Mack’s salary at that time was in the mid-$50,000 range, and he owed at least $20,000 to the IRS and nearly that much in credit card bills. However, just two days after the robbery, Mack treated two of his LAPD buddies, Sammy Martin and Rafael Perez, to a lavish trip to Las Vegas, where they stayed in a $1,500-a-night suite and gambled all night. When he got back to Los Angeles, Mack bought himself an SUV, a bunch of new furniture, and put $7,000 into his bank account.
Investigators immediately focused on the bank’s assistant manager Errolyn Romero, who had suspiciously ordered an abnormally large delivery of cash to the bank the day before. Cops administered a polygraph test, which Romero failed.
After nearly a month of intense questioning, Romero finally confessed to her role in the holdup and told police that the bank had in fact been robbed by her boyfriend, David Mack.
Mack was arrested in early December 1997. He refused to tell investigators who his accomplices were or where he hid the money, and was later sentenced to 14 years and three months in federal prison.
A few months later, six pounds of cocaine was discovered missing from an LAPD evidence room.
The officer who had signed for it was Rafael Perez, who had checked out the cocaine under another cop’s name. A girlfriend of Perez’s then sold the drugs on the street for him.
Investigators from LAPD’s internal affairs division began tailing Perez, arresting him the morning of Aug. 25, 1998. The jury deadlocked in his trial for possession of cocaine for sale, grand theft, and forgery. The better part of a year went by as Perez awaited retrial; cops looking into his alleged crimes managed to find further evidence that gave them even more leverage.
Perez decided to cut a deal. In exchange for a five-year prison sentence, which would mean just 16 months with credit for time served and good behavior factored in, Perez promised to tell investigators everything he knew about police misconduct within the LAPD Rampart Division. The agreement would also shield Perez from any further prosecution, and his wife, who cops said was aware of Perez’s ongoing criminal enterprise, would not face any charges.
“All they thought was Rafael Perez was going to come in and tell them how he was stealing cocaine out of this evidence locker and maybe implicate a few other cases regarding that,” explained Carson. “Well, Perez ends up dropping the bombshell about all this other corruption that had been going on in Rampart, including shooting unarmed people, planting throw-down guns as evidence, as well planting drug evidence on guys.”
It was then that the feds got involved, because, said Carson, “this is no longer just an [LAPD] internal affairs investigation. You’re talking about civil-rights violations, you’re talking about a whole host of federal offenses.”
The FBI set up a task force called the Rampart Federal Investigation Team, or RamFIT. Roughly 40 of the LAPD’s top detectives applied to join. The position meant the chosen cops would get federal credentials, a desk at the FBI office in the federal building in downtown L.A., and “a huge feather in your cap as you look to promote within the ranks of the LAPD.”
Fewer than 10 of those 40 were picked; each was then paired up with Carson and the other FBI agents assigned to the unit. There was a supervisor from the FBI at the helm, and an LAPD lieutenant who Carson says looked like Leslie Nielsen from the Naked Gun films also joined the team.
Perez had identified more than 30 other Rampart Division cops as corrupt—including his partner, officer Nino Durden. Each two-man RamFIT team was then handed a portion of the wide-ranging caseload to investigate further.
“Initially, we’re thinking that this is going to be the absolute hands-down, biggest police corruption case that this country has ever seen,” recalled Carson.
They spent more than a year digging into it all. But while many of Perez’s allegations turned out to be legit, some of the things he told investigators didn’t pan out, said L.J. Connolly, another FBI agent on the RamFIT team.
“The bottom line is, it wasn’t as big as Perez had said it was, but it wasn’t as small as we had thought, either,” Connolly told The Daily Beast. “Cases were falling apart because we couldn’t corroborate a lot of these things. So we kind of pared things down, the taskforce didn’t need to be as big as it was, and it kind of whittled down to Perez and Durden.”
Mack was already doing federal time in the Midwest; prosecutors had also secured a conviction against Sonya Flores, a former girlfriend of Perez’s who got 14 months for lying to the FBI.
RamFIT had by now been scaled down to a skeleton crew consisting of only Carson and Connolly. Over 100 convictions had been thrown out due to the cases having been illegally made by corrupt cops, and 20 officers were either forced out of the department or fired. Carson says the Assistant U.S. Attorney on the team instructed them to focus all their attention on making airtight federal cases against Perez and Durden, with the latter eventually serving five years in prison after pleading guilty in the shooting (and framing) of a gang member. They were not to look into other dirty cops at Rampart.
“I think [the thinking] was, ‘Let’s just take what we can win and go away,’” said Connolly, adding that a definite sense of fatigue across the entire city had set in at this point. “I know Phil and myself, we were very disappointed with that.”
The situation was a critical one for the LAPD, and Chief Parks very much wanted for it to end, Carson claims. Carson believes Parks wanted things to go away as quickly as possible “because he did not want this to be a big black eye on LAPD.”
It was widely known that Parks “had higher aspirations,” said Carson, noting that Parks was elected to the Los Angeles City Council after he left law enforcement. According to internal FBI documents, it was also well-known within the LAPD that Mack and Perez, who both did security for Suge Knight and Death Row Records during their off-hours, were two of Parks’ “personal recruits” into the department, and Parks made obvious efforts to protect them. Parks’ daughter Michelle was also “a known Death Row groupie,” according to the FBI’s case files.
During the first week of June 2001, while Carson was winding the Rampart investigation down, his supervisor, Gene Stapleton, called him into his office.
“He tells me he’s got good news: one of the Rampart officers that was on our radar screen was just busted trying to buy 10 kilos of cocaine from an undercover DEA agent down in San Diego,” said Carson.
That was LAPD Officer Ruben Palomares, and it meant Carson’s investigation into departmental corruption would now be able to continue. Palomares and a crew of friends, relatives, and other dirty cops “were wearing their police uniforms and they were finding out where drug deals would happen or where there would be a bunch of money and dope and they would go to these locations as police officers—even though they weren’t really doing their job—and steal this stuff. And there was nothing the crooks could do because you can’t go to the police and say, ‘Hey, uh, two LAPD officers just came in and stole 20 kilos of cocaine from me.’”
“We found out Ruben was getting these locations from a childhood friend he grew up with named David Barajas,” said Carson. “Barajas had married into the Sinaloa Cartel family and finding out from [his wife] Michelle where all these big dope deals were going down, where there would be like, half a million dollars or 50 or 100 kilos of cocaine. He would pass that information on to Ruben and then Ruben would put together his crew and they would go ahead and hit these places.”
On June 15, 2001, the LAPD was placed under the supervision of a federal monitor. It was only the fourth time in history that an American police department had been put under Justice Department control, and LAPD was the biggest one by far.
Rogue cops working in partnership with one of the deadliest Mexican drug cartels constituted a situation that could eclipse even the Rampart scandal in size and scope. Carson, now partnerless, was assigned to investigate the Palomares drug-and-robbery ring with detectives Roger Mora and Steve Sambar of the LAPD’s Professional Standards Bureau.
One day, Carson was in his office talking on the phone to Mora and Sambar, discussing a home invasion robbery in which “probably the biggest drug dealer in L.A.,” a Santana Blocc Compton Crip named Freddy “Baby G” Staves, was the victim.
Mike Elliott, another FBI agent in the office, overheard Carson’s conversation. Elliott had been monitoring Staves on a previous federal wiretap with his old gang/drug squad and intercepted Baby G talking about three LAPD officers who ransacked his house, bound him in duct tape, and tortured him. There were two kids in the house when it happened.
“They stole a large amount of money and these drugs and in particular he talks about a gold-plated revolver that they stole,” said Carson. “I’m like, ‘Holy Shit, that’s one of the home invasion robberies that I’m looking into regarding this case.’ Pretty amazing Mike heard me and we figured it out.”
Carson tried to get Staves to talk, but he wouldn’t say a word. Eventually, he got his hands on a copy of the police report from the robbery and saw that one of the two children in the house was Staves’ niece, who accused one of the cops of groping her during the break-in.
“I went back and told Freddy, ‘Look, this is what one of these police officers did,’” Carson explained. “‘If you want to help me put this guy away, you need to come clean.’ That’s all it took.”
Staves was in jail when Carson needed him to testify. Once he secured a commitment by Staves to testify at trial, Carson still needed to get Palomares to give up the others in his stickup crew. But like Staves, Palomares tried to ice Carson out.
“What finally got him to cooperate with me is when I finally convinced him that his common-law wife… who had kids with him, was banging another LAPD officer,” explained Carson. “And I told him, ‘Hey, look, Ruben, it’s cool if you don’t want to cooperate with me, but just understand you’re going to go to prison for the rest of your life and someone else is going to raise your kids, and is going to walk your daughter down the aisle, and in the meantime he’ll be sleeping with your wife every single night. Or you can cooperate with me. It’s your call.’”
Palomares led Carson to Jesse Moya, a dirty LAPD cop still on the job. When Carson approached Moya to cooperate with him on his investigation, he says Moya told him to “fuck off.” Two weeks later, Moya’s lawyer called Carson and asked if he had enough evidence to convict him or was simply bluffing to get him to cooperate. More than enough to put him away for many years, Carson replied.
“I said, ‘Look, I hate going after other cops. I’m a cop. I don’t get any enjoyment going after these guys, but it’s my job. I don’t have a choice.’ And I told him, flat out, ‘Your client is guilty and I can prove it. I don’t get any satisfaction out of that, but trust me—if he comes to the table first, I will do my best to get him a favorable deal.’ And then all the dominoes start falling into place.”
In April of 2002, Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, his widow, Faith Evans, Biggie’s two children and one of their legal guardians filed a $400 million civil lawsuit against the LAPD, Chief Bernard Parks, and the City of Los Angeles, for wrongful death and federal civil rights violations.
“Defendant Parks intentionally, willfully and recklessly delayed and stopped the investigation as soon as it became apparent officers employed by the Los Angeles Police Department were involved in the murder,” the suit alleged. It also named Amir Muhammad as the one who carried out the murder.
Seven months later, former NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was brought in by Mayor Richard Riordan to replace Bernard Parks as chief of the LAPD. The following year, Bratton recruited an old friend of his, Michael Berkow, to join LAPD as the head of the department’s Professional Standards Bureau. Berkow, who began his career as a cop in Rochester, New York, and had most recently served as chief of police in Irvine, California, was given a mandate to clean up all corruption and misconduct throughout the LAPD ranks.
Moya agreed to wear a wire for Carson, whose two LAPD colleagues, Mora and Sambar, worked under Berkow. It was widely known that Berkow was part of Bratton’s inner circle, and was well-versed in containing bad press and managing potentially damaging stories. According to Carson, Berkow wasn’t happy when he discovered Moya was going to help the FBI root out further corruption among LAPD’s ranks.
“When he found out that I got Jesse to cooperate, he brought in Jesse and told him, ‘You’re going to have nothing to do with this,’” said Carson, who said he got a call from Moya later that day telling him he wanted to call off their deal.
“He says, look, I’m going to lose my job,” said Carson. “And that’s when I told Jesse, ‘Lose your job?! I said, ‘Dude, you’re going to federal prison. Losing your job is the least of your concerns. I’m just trying to minimize the amount of time you’re going to do.’”
Moya changed his mind back again and told Berkow he was going to assist Carson and the feds, after all.
“Well, that pissed Berkow off to no end,” said Carson. “He wasn’t gonna have some FBI agent coming into the LAPD and telling him how to do things.”
Nineteen defendants were eventually charged with participating in the robberies. Moya, who was released from prison in 2010, did not respond to requests for comment.
As the Palomares case wound its way through the court system, Carson was at home one night absentmindedly flipping through the channels when he landed on a VH1 documentary about the still-unsolved Biggie Smalls murder. It didn’t relate to any of the corruption cases Carson had been pursuing—or so he thought.
“Honestly, I did not really know anything about Biggie Smalls,” said Carson. “But while I’m watching, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hold on a second here. This is all interconnected. These are all the same guys.’”
Carson realized that the tactics used in the Biggie Smalls killing—a highly choreographed, paramilitary-style operation utilizing police radios and maneuvers that suggested an intimate familiarity with law enforcement—couldn’t have been the work of one person. Certain aspects mimicked parts of the jobs pulled off a few years earlier by David Mack, Rafael Perez and Ruben Palomares. Carson also knew that Mack and Perez had close ties to Suge Knight and Death Row Records.
“I know what kind of investigator Phil is, and if Phil tells you he knows who did it, he knows who did it. I’d bet my house on it,” said L.J. Connolly, who had by then transitioned into a counterterrorism position within the bureau.
Carson wrote up a detailed synopsis of how everything fit together and brought it to his supervisors, who agreed that he was on to something and told him to open up a case.
Two years had passed since anyone inside LAPD Robbery-Homicide had done any work on Biggie’s killing. Carson said he was able to review the “murder book,” or the complete case files, and “that is when I realized that no further investigation had taken place—it was a cold case for them.”
Carson went to Berkow and said he’d like to work with Mora and Sambar again. Berkow agreed, and Carson said the arrangement was approved by Chief Bill Bratton. Carson was slightly wary of Berkow after the Moya situation, but Mora and Sambar were two of the LAPD’s best and Carson decided it was worth dealing with Berkow to have them back on the team.
The trio’s first order of business was to fly to New Orleans to meet with Perry Sanders, the lead attorney representing Voletta Wallace in her $400 million wrongful-death suit against the LAPD and City of Los Angeles.
Berkow signed off on Mora and Sambar’s travel plans, and the three investigators got permission to travel to New Orleans for a second meeting with Sanders. The FBI paid all of Mora and Sambar’s expenses, which the LAPD didn’t have the budget for.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield was at this meeting; it was then that Sean Combs’ bodyguard, Big Gene, identified Amir Muhammad, also known as Harry Billups, as the person who killed Biggie. It confirmed statements other witnesses who were there the night of the murder had previously given to police, naming Muhammad as the shooter.
Carson returned to L.A. where he, Mora, and Sambar brought LAPD brass up to speed on the latest developments.
“As we started giving briefs to Berkow and some of the other higher-ups there, they’re going, ‘Holy shit, these guys are really making this case,’” said Carson.
Berkow, who now heads the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, flatly denied this version of events.
“I don’t recall any of that,” Berkow told The Daily Beast. “I recall Phil’s presentations on the Palomares case, which were very, very well done and comprehensive, but I don’t recall anything about Christopher Wallace. I wasn’t even really aware that Phil was working the Biggie Smalls case. I think there’s a lot of conspiracy theorists out there around this, and I think what’s important is to separate fact from fiction.”
But Carson provided details of these alleged meetings and he was told by at least two FBI supervisors that Berkow had called them on “numerous” occasions, asking them to shut the case down. Carson said he also attended meetings with LAPD brass during which they weighed the pros and cons of solving the case before them, including the reputational and financial risks involved. According to Carson, the cops weren’t shedding any tears for a “four-hundred-pound-black-male-former-crack-dealer-rapper that’s dead.” And proving an LAPD connection to the killing wouldn’t do the department any favors.
Carson said Berkow knew that the LAPD couldn’t withstand another corruption scandal, especially one as wide-ranging and high-profile as this one was shaping up to be. But Carson also doesn’t think Berkow was necessarily acting alone.
Said Carson, “I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that somebody was basically telling Berkow, or Berkow’s just deciding on his own, ‘I gotta stop this thing.’ And that’s when he goes ahead and inexplicably suddenly takes Roger and Steve off the case completely.”
“We’re just too low on resources,” Carson said Berkow told him.
Berkow disputed any suggestion that he or anyone else inside the LAPD had ulterior motives, and declined to address many of Carson’s claims.
“I’ve spent 40 years doing police work and I’ve never seen a cop worrying about the financial hit the city’s gonna take in such a way to damage their own integrity,” Berkow said. “The idea that somebody would compromise an investigation because the city, in some future civil suit, might lose money is completely ridiculous.”
A newly hired FBI agent, Jerry Jaeger, started helping Carson run down leads. Carson and Jaeger flew to New York City to interview witnesses who were at the Petersen Automotive Museum on the night of Biggie’s murder: Combs, his bodyguard Big Gene, and Biggie’s cousin, rapper Lil’ Cease. Carson said he personally interviewed Combs.
“I told Sean Combs that I believed that Biggie wasn’t the intended target of the hit, it was actually him that was the target,” said Carson. “That got his attention.”
During this period, Carson had also been meeting with LAPD Detective Steve Katz, who was the keeper of the so-called “murder book,” or case files, in the Biggie killing. However, Carson was never allowed to view the files alone, and couldn’t make any copies. Over time, he noticed that key evidentiary photographs were missing from Katz’s file.
Michael Robinson had been a confidential informant for the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department since 1994. A one-time Lantana Blocc Compton Crip and Black Guerrilla Family associate, Robinson was extremely well-connected on the streets of L.A.. Through his brother, an alleged contract killer, Carson said Robinson had previously become acquainted with Amir Muhammad, the alleged triggerman in the Biggie murder.
Muhammad, who had gone to the University of Oregon with now-disgraced cop-turned-bank robber David Mack and was the godfather to Mack’s two children, insisted that he was nothing more than a simple mortgage broker and swore he had nothing to do with any of this. But Carson thought Muhammad knew more than he let on. Muhammad had been the first person to visit Mack in jail after he was arrested, and gave guards a phony address, social security number, and phone number when he signed himself in, according to FBI records.
Robinson, whose street name was “Psycho Mike,” wasn’t actually psychotic. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had severe learning disabilities, said Richard Valdemar, Mike’s former handler with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. But Valdemar said in a telephone interview that Mike’s illness was well-controlled with medication, and was highly reliable.
According to FBI documents, “several” confidential informants pointed to Mack and Muhammad as having been directly involved in the Biggie murder. Carson claims Psycho Mike told him that at a party in early 1998, Muhammad told him that he was the one who shot Biggie Smalls.
Carson convinced Psycho Mike to wear a wire and try to elicit another confession from Muhammad. No one from LAPD was on the team at this point, and Carson said Berkow declined an offer to have someone join them for this operation.
The plan was to stage a meeting with Muhammad in Chula Vista, a few miles south of San Diego, where he lived. In December 2003, just before Carson was about to head down with Psycho Mike, Berkow resurfaced and demanded the LAPD be part of the operation. But Psycho Mike didn’t trust the LAPD, saying they were complicit in Biggie’s murder, and said he wouldn’t cooperate if they were involved. Carson said this made Berkow extremely upset. He insisted that he be briefed on everything that happened, and forced the FBI to put transmitters in Psycho Mike’s pockets so they could listen into the meet in real-time. Carson said he briefed Berkow along with Lt. Al Michelina of the Robbery-Homicide Division.
“These transmitters that we used absolutely sucked and they weren’t gonna be able to hear anything anyway, which is exactly how we wanted it,” Carson said.
With that squared away, Carson and Psycho Mike caravanned down to San Diego with fellow FBI Special Agent Tim Flaherty. Psycho Mike drove a white Mercedes the FBI used for undercover jobs. Carson and his partner were in another unmarked vehicle that couldn’t be mistaken for a cop car. They checked into a hotel and Carson tailed Muhammad for a few days, trying to establish his daily patterns. He wanted to engineer what the FBI calls a “bump,” in which Psycho Mike would run into Muhammad in a “chance” encounter at the gym, the mall, or some such.
But they couldn’t get a solid bead on Muhammad’s regular hangouts, so Carson formulated an alternate plan: Psycho Mike would simply show up at Muhammad’s home and try to engage him in conversation about what happened the night of the Biggie murder. Psycho Mike drove to Muhammad’s place off Telegraph Canyon Road in the white Mercedes; Carson and Flaherty followed at a safe distance and parked a block away. It was approximately 8:30 pm.
When Muhammad answered the door, he appeared to recognize Psycho Mike, who brought up Biggie’s killing and got Muhammad talking. Although Muhammad didn’t reveal anything incriminating during the conversation, it was obvious that he and Psycho Mike weren’t strangers to one another. After a few minutes, the conversation ended and Psycho Mike drove away.
A few hours later, after discussing the situation with his wife, Muhammad called the police, saying he thought the visit from Psycho Mike was “odd.” Chula Vista officer Fred Rowbotham showed up and took a report.
The next morning, Psycho Mike showed up at Muhammad’s house again and rang the doorbell. As before, Carson parked his car away from the immediate area. This time, Muhammad didn’t answer the door and called 911. Rowbotham showed up about 10 minutes later, after Psycho Mike had already left once and come back to try again. Rowbotham took Psycho Mike aside and out of Muhammad’s earshot for questioning.
Psycho Mike quietly explained that he was involved with an FBI undercover operation, and gave Carson’s cell number to a skeptical Rowbotham. Carson confirmed everything was legit, and asked Rowbotham to release Psycho Mike. He also asked Rowbotham to go back to the house and get a positive ID on Muhammad, but someone else answered the front door this time. However, Rowbotham spotted Muhammad in the reflection of a mirror inside, hiding behind a partially opened door.
“Someone shows up at your door wanting to talk to you about being involved with a murder, and all of a sudden a police officer shows up and you’re not involved in anything like that, of course you’re gonna talk to them, like, ‘Yeah, what the hell is going on?’” said Carson.
Rowbotham told the person in Muhammad’s house that he was going to escort Psycho Mike out of the area. A short time later, Psycho Mike went back and stuck a business card in Muhammad’s door with a 310 phone number written on the back.
About 90 minutes later, Muhammad went to the San Diego District Attorney’s office and told an investigator named P.J. Harn that Rowbotham hadn’t resolved the situation with Psycho Mike to his satisfaction and wanted to file a complaint against Rowbotham. Muhammad also gave Harn the plate number of the white Mercedes Psycho Mike had been driving, adamant that he had no idea who Psycho Mike was.
The white Mercedes undercover car was registered under a fictitious name, which Harn said Muhammad hadn’t recognized. Carson said to tell Muhammad that the car had recently been sold and the paperwork was still in transfer, which was why Psycho Mike’s name wasn’t yet on the title. When Harn explained this to Muhammad, he became angry, saying he knew Harn was lying to him because he had already gotten the plate run by someone he knew at LAPD.
The DA’s office immediately contacted Rowbotham, who in turn called Carson. Carson gave him some additional background on Muhammad, including the fact that he used to go by the name “Harry Billups.” But when Harn asked Muhammad a short time later if he ever used that name anymore, Carson says he was told Muhammad “turned pale, his jaw dropped, and Harn knew something was up.” Suddenly, Muhammad had nothing further to say other than that he thought “someone at LAPD is a snitch,” and lost all interest in filing his complaint against Rowbotham.
“Make of that what you will,” said Carson, who still can’t figure out why Muhammad got so unnerved by the question. “Changing your name is a legal thing to do, it has nothing to do with filing a complaint against somebody. It’s no reason to have a complete change of heart on everything.” (When asked for comment for this story, LAPD spokesperson Joshua Rubenstein offered, “Unfortunately we have no comment on this.”)
An article later appeared in the Los Angeles Times exposing the operation and “completely diming out Michael Robinson as the source who’s wearing a wire,” Carson said. It had been written by reporter Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who reportedly had a longtime relationship with Suge Knight and Death Row, and at one point was slated to co-produce a documentary on Suge for Showtime.
“Depositions suggest that agents have reviewed Muhammad's mortgage payments and phone records and conducted wiretaps, trying to link him to Mack,” the March 2004 article said. “The FBI recently conducted surveillance of Muhammad in San Diego and, sources said, wired an informant in an attempt to elicit incriminating statements from him. The effort yielded nothing, according to court documents and people familiar with the case.”
“I mean one and one is two,” Muhammad said in a deposition that June. “And when someone is at your door that you don’t recognize or know, and you later read that that had taken place you summarize [sic] that that’s what that was.” (Muhammad did not respond to requests for comment.)
In an FBI memo written by Carson at the time, Valdemar, Psycho Mike’s handler, said it was “unbelievable how bad Phillips and the LA Times is trying to disprove Robinson and the theory that Amir committed the murder.”
Carson was extremely concerned about the leak, but more immediately, he feared the clues in the Times article would lead to Psycho Mike being widely outed as a snitch. For his part, Muhammad said he never attended a party with Psycho Mike nor did he ever make such a confession. Although Psycho Mike was given round-the-clock police protection, things were relatively quiet until June 2005, six months after the FBI closed its investigation, when another piece in the Times by Philips identified Psycho Mike by name.
The subsequent attempts on Mike’s life began almost immediately. He was shot at by a gunman with an AK-47 (Psycho Mike’s granddaughter was hit instead), cut across the face with a razor, and his front teeth were knocked out. According to Richard Valdemar, an assailant even brought up the Times article during one attack. Valdemar said he stashed Mike in a number of safehouses around LA—mostly abandoned homes taken over by HUD that were in various states of disrepair.
“I was having to brief Berkow on what was going on throughout the case,” said Carson. “That’s when I went to my bosses—and this is after he had already pulled [detectives] Roger [Mora] and Steve [Sambar]—and I said, ‘Why am I telling this guy anything?’ Because at that point we thought maybe he was passing information on to Chuck Philips.”
Carson said he obviously wouldn’t have blown his own informant’s cover, and that Berkow was the only one outside of the FBI who knew the full details of what Carson was doing.
“Chuck Philips used to call and ask questions like all the other reporters,” Berkow maintained, insisting he had “no idea” how Philips might have found out about Muhammad and Psycho Mike. “It’s a little bit crazy. The idea that I would leak an informant is offensive. I certainly don’t know where this idea came from that I was friends with Chuck Philips.”
Philips was unable to be reached for comment, and even his close associates didn’t seem to know where to find him. A former colleague of his at the Times said, “Sorry, but neither I nor other friends of Chuck’s actually have any working contacts for him right now.”
During this time, Voletta Wallace’s civil suit proceeded apace. Carson had maintained contact with Perry Sanders, Wallace’s civil attorney, in an effort to glean additional information about the case he might be able to use. Sanders’ office was able to interview potential witnesses, either friends or co-workers of Biggie’s, who wouldn’t speak to the FBI.
FBI agents are allowed, even encouraged, to interact with civil attorneys if they might have information pertinent to an investigation. But it was, as always, a one-way street, according to Carson—agents don’t share details of their side of the case. The reason civil lawyers would cooperate is simple: if the FBI makes its criminal case, the civil suit will theoretically be that much easier to win.
Carson’s meeting with Sanders was approved by the chain of command and fully documented, plus Mora and Sambar had accompanied Carson each time. A 2003 FBI memo explained that Sanders agreed to make a copy of his entire case file for the Bureau. LAPD Chief Bill Bratton also had been briefed on the arrangement, it said.
Sanders had a number of former Los Angeles cops and sheriff’s deputies working for him as investigators, all of whom were on the list of witnesses expected to testify for Wallace’s side in the civil trial. Unbeknownst to Carson, Sanders had added his name to the witness list, as well.
As is standard procedure, the witness list was submitted to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office; upon seeing Carson’s name on it, they called an emergency meeting with Carson and his bosses. On the morning of September 15, 2004, Luis Li, chief of the city attorney’s criminal branch, showed up at the FBI Los Angeles Field Office. Li told Carson and the gathered FBI brass that if he was subpoenaed to testify as a witness, the FBI needed to quash it.
“In the meeting, Luis Li said that if I were to testify in the civil suit that the LAPD stands a 50-50 chance of losing a $400 million dollar lawsuit and that the LAPD cannot afford that,” said Carson. “And I told everybody, ‘Hey, look, I never knew I was going to be on any witness list. I don’t want anything to do with this.’” (Li and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
The city attorney was in fact actively trying to make the case go away, said Carson. Not only were the financial ramifications too much for the city and the LAPD to bear, but another corruption scandal would almost certainly exclude the LAPD from participating in any joint task forces with the FBI and other federal agencies, which supplemented LAPD’s operating budget and strengthened its investigations immensely.
In January 2005, federal prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence for indictments against David Mack, Amir Muhammad, and LAPD for allegedly having orchestrated the Biggie murder, and the FBI quietly shut down its case.
At the beginning of March, Chuck Philips called Carson at his desk. He said he knew the FBI investigation had ended a couple of months earlier, and asked Carson for comment. Carson said he couldn’t talk about it and referred Philips to FBI press officer Cathy Viray.
Philips called Viray and informed her that he had a new article in the works which painted Carson as a rogue and irresponsible agent and that his sources said the FBI abandoned its case because of improper contacts between Carson and Voletta Wallace’s legal team.
Feeling backed into a corner because FBI regulations didn’t allow Carson to respond to the accusations, Carson pleaded with FBI Assistant Director in Charge Rich Garcia, the big boss in L.A., to set the record straight.
On the afternoon of March 9, 2005, Garcia, Carson, Viray, FBI attorney Steve Kramer, and an assortment of top FBI officials had a 90-minute conference call with Philips during which Carson’s FBI bosses described him as a model agent and explained in no uncertain terms that Carson’s perfectly proper interactions with Sanders had nothing to do with the investigation being shut down.
Two days later, Philips’ article was published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. His version of the conference call bore little resemblance to the one Carson remembered being part of.
“FBI officials conducted a review of the investigation—and shut it down in January—after learning that Agent Philip J. Carson had discussions with lawyers for Wallace’s mother, Voletta Wallace, and had been subpoenaed to testify in her wrongful-death lawsuit against the city,” the story said. Philips further claimed that sources told him, “FBI officials were concerned that Carson might have been influenced by the Wallace lawyers and that his contacts with them could embarrass the bureau.”
“Finally my bosses are kind of seeing the picture here,” said Carson.
Assistant Director Garcia wrote a letter to the publisher of the Times on official FBI letterhead, demanding a retraction and enumerating the various alleged falsehoods in Philips’ article, including the fact that Carson’s contacts with Sanders were irrelevant as far as the Bureau was concerned. The Times said it stood by its story and said he was free to write a letter to the editor for possible publication. Carson asked about suing, but Department of Justice lawyers said such a case would be nearly impossible to win.
At the end of his rope, Carson decided to meet with Philips—with Garcia’s permission—so Philips could “put a face with the name and see that he’s ruining an agent’s career.” Carson and Cathy Viray met Philips at a downtown coffee shop near the Times building early the next morning. While they were eating, Garcia called, having just heard from an angry Mike Berkow that they were with Philips. Carson, disgusted, was now more certain than ever that Philips and Berkow were exchanging information. He and Viray got up and went back to the office.
Philips called Carson incessantly for the rest of the day. He said he had something he needed to show Carson, and begged him to come back. The next day, Carson finally agreed and met him before business hours.
“He takes me into his office and he plays me three or four cassette-tape recordings of conversations between himself and Mike Berkow,” said Carson. “Every one of them was basically, ‘What’s your next article? How are you portraying Carson?’”
Carson said he heard Berkow tell Philips in one of the recordings that he needed to “make sure” Carson was personally discredited so he wouldn’t be believable on the stand if called to testify in Voletta Wallace’s civil case.
“I was stunned,” said Carson. “I was in shock when I got done listening to those.”
But there was more. Philips then showed Carson photographs he had from the night of the Biggie homicide at the Petersen Automotive Museum—the same photos that Carson had previously noticed were missing from the murder book in Steve Katz’s office at LAPD Robbery-Homicide.
Seething, Carson got up and left without another word.
The Wallace family’s civil case finally came to trial on June 21, 2005. Three days into the proceedings, Perry Sanders announced that he had received an anonymous tip that LAPD Robbery-Homicide Detective Steven Katz was hiding crucial, previously undisclosed evidence in his desk drawer.
Berkow claimed this happened on a Friday, and he immediately put a team together to search the Robbery-Homicide offices all weekend to make sure there wasn’t any other evidence that hadn’t been properly submitted to the court. He insisted this was the extent of his participation with anything related to the Biggie Smalls case.
“I gave immunity [to cops] from minor procedural violations. We told people, ‘Hey, we just gotta get all this stuff together,’” Berkow said. “The result of that was a follow-up operation called Operation Transparency that Professional Standards did to collect material from throughout LAPD and provide it to Robbery-Homicide. That was my involvement.”
Two weeks later, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper declared a mistrial. In a deposition, Katz said he hadn’t turned over the evidence to Wallace’s lawyers because he forgot he had it. But Cooper didn’t buy it, saying Katz’s claim “defied credulity.” In a news conference, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton said Katz’s “oversight” would be investigated by the department. (Katz did not respond to requests for comment.)
Mike Berkow left the LAPD under a cloud in 2006 after admitting to a three-year affair with a female sergeant under his command. He then became chief of the Savannah, Georgia PD, leaving in 2009 to join Bill Bratton at Altegrity Security Consulting, a private firm where Bratton had just become CEO.
Chuck Philips claimed he was fired by the Los Angeles Times in 2008 after it was discovered that he had used fake FBI documents as evidence for one of his articles. He maintained a blog for a while, but it went dark in 2012.
After his investigation came to an end, the FBI sent Phil Carson to Iraq, where he and his old partner L.J. Connolly were tasked with rooting out corruption within the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. In 2009, Carson received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service, the Justice Department’s highest honor.
David Mack now works at a green energy company in Southern California. The $722,000 from the 1997 bank robbery has never been found; Mack never gave up his two accomplices. Mack’s LinkedIn profile does not include his nine years of LAPD service. Rafael Perez now works as a chauffeur; his clients have included Al Gore and Harvey Weinstein. David Barajas served ten years in prison. Ruben Palomares, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges, found god in prison and is now a minister.
“Unfortunately, I am unable to provide you with any assistance in your endeavor,” Palomares said in an email. “I was unaware that the department stopped the FBI probe.”
Michael “Psycho Mike” Robinson died of a heart attack in 2006. He was 49. According to Richard Valdemar, the FBI covered Robinson’s funeral expenses.
“Mike was a hero, in my opinion,” said Valdemar. “He was a very brave guy.”
When Jesse Moya was released from prison, he called Carson to ask if they could meet for lunch. Carson respectfully declined, saying that while he thought Moya was “a good dude who just got caught up with the wrong people,” the optics of an active FBI agent hanging out with a convicted former cop would simply be too risky. Moya now runs a martial arts clothing company in California.
Phil Carson now works in the executive security and investigations field. He lives on the West Coast.
In 2007, the Wallace family filed another lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, this time for $500 million. It was set aside on procedural grounds; the Wallaces refiled in 2008. In 2010, Judge Jacqueline Nguyen dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, meaning it can be filed again. With the new evidence now being brought to light by Phil Carson, maybe it will be.
Big Gene, who was devastated by Biggie’s death and never came to grips with the fact that no one was ever held accountable for it, told The Daily Beast, “Justice delayed is not justice denied,” adding, “I have to say to myself, ‘God looks out for fools and babies.’ And I guess he’s looking out for this fool.”