Knight at his first arraignment in Compton over the hit-and-run death of Carter, Compton Courthouse, Los Angeles, 3 February, 2015
If you could count the cost of a man's reputation, for Suge Knight it would be $25m. That's how high his bail was set for charges stemming from the incident at Tam's Burgers in Compton, Los Angeles, on 29 January this year. There are four in all: the murder of his friend Terry Carter, 55; the attempted murder of the actor Cle "Bone" Sloan, 46; plus two counts of hit and run. There's also the aggravating factor of his having been out on bail at the time (a further half million) for the separate alleged crime of stealing a paparazzo's camera last September.
There's no question that he killed Carter. The security video from Tam's car park shows Knight in his red Ford F-150 Raptor truck ploughing into Carter head-on, rag-dolling his body under its wheels. But the standard bail for these charges in California is $3.34m. Judges may raise it if they consider the accused especially dangerous and/or a flight risk. But even mob boss John Gotti Jr's bail was only $10m, as Knight's attorney protested in court. In Knight's case, the flight risk is mitigated by the fact he turned himself in, and also by his fame; it's harder for celebrities to slip out of the country. So, his bail is largely a comment on the perceived danger he poses. By that token, Judge Ronald S Coen finds the former CEO of Death Row Records over twice as dangerous as the former head of the Gambino crime family.
Knight's notoriety has always preceded him. His public image is of a cigar-chomping, head-stomping, gang-affiliated thug from "Bompton", the C replaced by a Bloods-friendly B. As gangsta rap gathered pace in the early Nineties, Knight became the genre's most menacing incarnation. At 6ft 4in and over 300lbs, he was perfectly cast for both white suburbia's nightmares and black ghetto lore. The legends and rumours kept coming: how he hung rappers off balconies; strong-armed producers out of contracts; employed gangbangers and crooked cops; ordered beatings; carried out beatings; figured in the deaths of both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls; ran Death Row like the mafia, and still today, swaggers about town, shaking people down and checking their pockets. It's an image Knight has seldom shrunk from. Rather he has revelled in it.
But the legend doesn't fit the man walking into court today, 13 April, on the ninth floor of the Criminal Courts Building in downtown LA. Shuffling in from the left, his feet clanking with shackles, he looks weak, older than his 50 years, with a greying beard, thick-rimmed glasses and a limp. The preliminary hearing is the stage where the judge decides whether there's enough evidence to go to trial at all. There's only a slim chance there isn't, but still Knight's supporters are hopeful: and this is another part of the scene that doesn't fit his brand. His camp consists of one attorney, an old friend from school, and a close-knit family – his elderly parents, Maxine and Marion, two older sisters, Karen and Charlinda, and his pretty fiancée Toi-Lin Kelly. It doesn't scream organised crime. But before Knight even sits down, Karen is kicked out of court for waving. She couldn't help herself. Court is the only chance she gets to see her brother. In addition to his huge bail, Knight has also been denied all contact outside of his attorney. The fear is that he might use his family to pass messages and intimidate witnesses.
"I've never seen anything like this before," his attorney Matthew Fletcher tells me before the hearing. A gravel-voiced bulldog of a defence lawyer from Long Beach, the blue collar town south of LA, Fletcher is a charming brawler and no stranger to the words "objection: argumentative".
"They're denying him access to his support system. Trying to break his will," he says. "And it's an issue of fairness because I can't mount a proper defence without bringing in reconstructionists and investigators. They've even denied him access to his own doctor."
This last point is no minor detail. Knight's medical issues are acute. Last August, he was shot six times at the 1 Oak nightclub in West Hollywood leaving him with a blood clot on his lungs, among other complications. He has severe glaucoma: in March, he told the judge he was blind in one eye, and had 15 per cent vision in the other. Then there's his diabetes which, left untreated, makes him sweat profusely and pass out. It happened once in his cell downtown, where he was found out cold on the floor. And at his bail hearing, in a dramatic moment, he collapsed over the table to gasps from his family. It wasn't the $25m that did it, but a lack of insulin. That was the fourth time he was removed from court for medical reasons since this case began. His risk of collapse is so high now that at a subsequent appearance (for the robbery charge), court security strapped him into a wheelchair and pushed him in like Hannibal Lecter. Fletcher described the treatment as "abject humiliation".
Knight with his then-defence attorney David E Kenner, far left, at his first arraignment on muder and attempted murder charges
Big men fall hard, but Knight especially. At his height, he helmed the fastest growing hip-hop label in history. Since it launched in 1991, Death Row's sales have exceeded $750m, but Knight was in prison by 1996, on a five-year stretch for a parole violation (he took part in a brawl). And everything fell apart. He's since lost his fortune, his company and his credibility in the industry. He has been shot twice, sued repeatedly and knocked clean out on more than one occasion. And he has lost what public sympathy he once had. There was a time they'd march for Knight. Before he went down that first time, fans and supporters would gather outside the courthouse with "Free Suge Knight" signs. Now, there's no one, just mocking comments online, variations on the theme of "karma's a bitch".
And yet, this time, Knight might actually deserve support. He's on his third strike, which in California means that if he's convicted of anything, he faces 30-to-life. And at this critical time, it's not clear that he's getting a fair shake. He may even be a victim, of his own hype certainly, but also of a police investigation that, at this stage, seems more determined to nail him than those who have made brazen attempts on his life – two in a period of four months.
At Tam's, for instance, Knight was clearly assaulted. The video shows that as he pulls into the parking lot, Bone attacks him, punching through an open window. (You can watch it all on tmz.com if you have a mind to.) It was a continuation of an argument that started earlier that day on the set of a promo video shoot for Straight Outta Compton, a movie about rap group NWA. Bone tries to drag Knight from the car, as other men close in, so Knight lurches his truck into reverse, knocking Bone over, and after a brief pause, steps on the gas, running over Bone's legs and crushing Terry Carter, who is approaching the front of the vehicle. The prosecution claims the pause (four seconds) is long enough to prove premeditation.
The defence claims it isn't and anyway, Knight was clearly fleeing for his life, with good reason as the rest of the video shows. Once Knight's vehicle departs, a man pulls a gun-shaped object from Bone's body on the tarmac. Furthermore, phone records indicate Terry Carter had called some of these men to Tam's, and he called Knight, too. The men are gang members and they were waiting for Knight when he arrived.
"It was an ambush!" Fletcher exclaims. "Suge was assaulted! And last I checked, if you carry out a felony and someone dies in the course of that felony, then you're guilty of felony murder. The DA should have charged Bone with Terry's murder. But instead, Bone got immunity. That's how badly they've got it in for Suge. Just look at the history. He's been shot, beaten up and assaulted in broad daylight, and the one thing that all those cases have in common? Not a single prosecution. It's open season on Suge Knight!"
The bail motion is Exhibit A of how the deck is stacked. It was filed by district attorney, Cynthia Barnes, a young prosecutor whose affable demeanour belies her appetite for a fight. Offering Knight's rap sheet as well as a heap of allegations spanning decades – over 300 pages in total – she warned the judge that "his past behaviour has given us a very clear message: 'I will not follow the law. I do not care about human rights. I will beat a woman. I will beat a man. I will do whatever I want'… To be honest, I do not think any bail is enough for him."
No doubt, the litany of charges paints an ugly picture, one of Knight as an extortionist collecting "debts" through threats as in this text cited in evidence: "U have kids just like me so let's play hardball you bitch ass nigga". The image is supported by some videos on tmz.com: Knight punching a guy outside a club (2012); Knight punching a guy at a pot shop (2014). But for the most part, Barnes' filing is just allegations in police reports, largely unsworn, anonymous and unproven. The most serious of them all, that he extorts $30,000 per visit from out-of-town rappers and athletes who come to Los Angeles, is based on a claim by a detective, Richard Biddle, that he "heard some rumours" from an anonymous source in the music industry.
Knight's legend is overwhelming him. Accusers file police reports because they're afraid, they know his reputation. The police treat their allegations seriously, because they, too, know Knight's reputation. And as the reports pile up, the DA presents it to the court as, look at this guy's reputation! Naturally, we assume that these allegations can't all be groundless, after all, where there's smoke, there must be, if not fire, then at least Big Bad Suge, puffing on a cigar, like a cartoon villain.
"It's a sad commentary on our system," Fletcher says. "The $25m was based on accusations, innuendoes and urban myth. And that stuff is supposed to end at the courtroom door."
The judge looks at the clock, it's 8:40am. The doors to the chamber are closed. There is whispering and the shuffling of papers and seats. And the first witness is called: Cle "Bone" Sloan.
I couldn't talk to Knight for this story. And none of the public figures or artists associated with him at various times would comment – Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Kurupt, Daz, Bobby Brown, Jodeci, Mary J Blige, DJ Quik, Warren G, Jimmy Iovine, Jerry Heller... it's a long list. Sometimes their reps would laugh and call me naive. One producer confessed he was afraid. "In Suge's world, they can touch you if they're locked up or not," he said.
But there are those who have known Knight personally for decades, business confidants, family members, the mothers of his four children. Some are in court every day, others are currently estranged and spoke to me without his blessing. But nevertheless, they all independently tell a similar story, that Knight isn't the person we read about. The thug image is a mask he once found profitable, and which gave him privacy. But now the mask has stuck and become his undoing. Suge Knight, they tell me, is neither an angel nor a demon. Yes, he has hit people, he has that in him, but he is also a charismatic and generous soul, intelligent and flawed; more complex than you think.
"He's not a street tough, he's a wannabe," says Virgil Roberts, a former mentor to Knight from the early days of Death Row. "He created an image, but in terms of the mentality, the hardness? He doesn't have it."
Roberts was once president of Solar Records, one of the biggest soul labels of the Eighties with acts like Midnight Star and Shalamar. In its early days, Death Row was based in the Solar building in Hollywood, and Knight looked to Roberts for guidance. They're still in touch.
"Suge is a black boy from Compton who went to college," he says. "That makes him one of the top two or three per cent. And those kids have a lot of grit and determination. It's grit that makes you successful."
Knight came from a stable, loving home. His parents are still together, the family is close-knit. His mother Maxine worked in a factory and his father, Marion Sr, was a university janitor. "Sugar Bear", as his mother called him, was a good kid and an excellent athlete. While his friends were out selling dope, he was at Sunday school. And when he made it to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on a football scholarship, his coach there said, "he wasn't a problem guy at all. You didn't see that street roughness in him."
Football, however, wasn't his calling: his only flirtation with the NFL was part of a strikebound season with the LA Rams. He first worked as a bouncer and then as a bodyguard for artists like Bobby Brown and later the rapper The DOC, one of the founding members of NWA. In this way, he broke into the music industry, first as a minder, then a manager, protecting his artists physically and then contractually. Part of his early fame in the industry was his ability to get artists better deals from record companies, negotiating contracts for Mary J Blige and Jodeci, among others.
Mario "Chocolate" Johnson was one of his first clients and remembers Knight as "real clean-cut. No cigars, no liquor, no candy bars". Johnson had written most of Vanilla Ice's first album – including the monster global hit "Ice Ice Baby" – but not been paid, so Knight stepped in. The first legend of his hard man reputation was born, the tale of him hanging Vanilla Ice off a hotel room balcony. "It never happened," says Johnson. "I was there."
The fiction started with Vanilla Ice who told the story on NBC TV, only to later admit he'd made it up. When I called him, he changed the story again: "There were a couple of white guys there with guns, kinda Goodfellas looking…" But the truth is mundane; a lawsuit was filed, a judgment reached. Roberts asked Knight why he didn't debunk the myth, and he said, "Why would I? It's good for my reputation!"
The second cornerstone of Knight's legend is the strong-arming of Eazy E (Eric Wright) in April 1991. Wright was the brains behind NWA and ran Ruthless Records with business partner Jerry Heller. He'd created a multi-platinum phenomenon that was instantly iconic and enormously influential. No other group had shown the authorities the middle finger with quite such relish. But there was discontent in the ranks. Ice Cube had left in 1989, complaining about his royalties (Cube and The DOC were the group's principal lyricists), and producer Dr Dre felt he was also being ripped off by Eazy E and Heller. Dre was looking for a way out when The DOC introduced him to Knight. Soon after, Dre was recording The Chronic, his first solo album, for Knight's fledgling label Death Row. All he needed was to be freed from his Ruthless contract. According to a lawsuit Wright filed later, Knight and a bunch of goons with baseball bats held him captive in the Solar building and said if he didn't sign the release he'd be killed, and his mother, too. But as Dick Griffey, the founder of Solar Records, said in the documentary Welcome To Death Row (2001), "I wasn't there, so when E said that me and Tommy Mottola were in the room with bats and pipes, he's obviously a liar!" The matter was solved like most commercial disputes. Money was paid, Dre was released.
Snoop, Dre, Tupac and Suge on the cover for Vibe mag, February 1996
Then there's the story of George and Lynwood Stanley from July 1992. Lynwood was tying up the phone at Solar studios, despite Knight's orders. He pulled a gun, and forced the brothers to strip to their boxers in front of all at the studio. When they protested, Knight shot into the wall, and warned them not to go to the police, or there'd be hell to pay.
"So they walk out onto Hollywood Boulevard and stop the first police car they see," Roberts says. "I asked them later, why did you go to the cops, were you afraid? And they said, 'Nobody's afraid of Suge. He's a buster! If he didn't have the gun we would have beat his fat ass in the building.'"
Knight ended up with 60 months' probation, and Solar was sued for damages. If anyone had hell to pay, it wasn't the Stanley brothers. But Knight's myth kept growing, and he loved it. Roberts remembers him at his desk, puffing on a cigar, laughing, "Ah, Virgil. Isn't it great? Everyone's afraid of me!"
It was a Faustian pact. There was profit in letting these myths circulate since a little fear didn't hurt at the negotiating table, and for a gangsta rap label, a mobster image was a form of marketing. So, as Death Row exploded, and suburban white kids started throwing gang signs and talking about "indo smoke", Knight, too, embraced gangsta rap culture, the world of the kids he wasn't allowed to play with as a youngster. He became the most extreme example of how this controversial genre could lead a well-raised young man astray.
Knight went all in. Suddenly everything in his life turned to red, the color of the Bloods - his suits, his office, the home he grew up in, the swimming pool of the home he bought that Robert De Niro lived in while filming Casino. Knight bought a Las Vegas nightclub called 662 (which spells MOB on a telephone keypad, for Money Over Bitches). He appeared on magazine covers, snarling and puffing his cigar. He menaced journalists with a piranha tank in his office. He became the face of the label.
"It was a fantasy for Suge," Roberts says. "He so wanted to be this feared mogul that he started playing that role. And you know how the hunter gets captured by the game?"
His girlfriend at the time, Stormey Ramdhan, makes a different analogy. The mother of two of his sons, now aged 19 and 12, she was with him from 1993 to 2009, his longest relationship to date. "His image is just marketing that went bad," she says. "It was like a brushfire you couldn't put out."
Of Knight's many mistakes at Death Row, the gravest of all was his decision to hire actual gang members fresh out of prison. He saw it as enhancing Death Row's street credibility while giving back to the community, but it invited in chaos and violence. Beatings were routine. Engineers remember studios being used as dog-fighting rings. True to its name, Death Row came increasingly to resemble prison. And Knight encouraged it. By some accounts he was afraid not to. He had to keep up appearances around these thugs. But it led to the flight of his artists, the scrutiny of law enforcement, even the FBI, and ultimately, the demise of the company.
The death knell sounded when Dre stopped working at the label in 1995. The master-producer had never felt comfortable around gang members, so he stayed home. And Jimmy Iovine, at Interscope, saw the opportunity. He offered Dre a new label, Aftermath, a felon-free environment, and Dre walked. Knight saw his departure as a knife in the back. Not just because of Dre's musical talent, but because he saw him as his brother in arms. Hadn't Knight freed him from his Ruthless contract? Wasn't Death Row a dream they were building together?
For Knight, Dre's defection is a defining emotional scar which, say Ramdhan, Roberts and others, hurts to this day, right up to the tragedy at Tam's. There's even a woman between the two, singer Michel'le Toussaint, one of Death Row's soul acts. She was with Dre first, then Knight, bearing a child for both men. But notably, she has spoken in public about Dre beating her, while Knight was "a protector, a hugger, a gentle giant."
At the time, Knight offset the loss of Dre by focussing on Tupac. And 'Pac was the perfect catalyst for Death Row's last days, the dying flare of the match. Dre left because of the violence, but 'Pac was attracted by it. Like Knight, he romanticised gang culture and Knight loved him for it, calling him his little brother. But it was Tupac who put him in prison, more than anyone else. Just hours before he was shot in Las Vegas in September 1996, Tupac had started a brawl at the MGM Grand Hotel. And in footage of the mêlée, Knight is seen coming in from the edges and getting in a couple of kicks. Roberts considers those kicks as just an attempt to save face. But for the court, it was a probation violation. He was given nine years and served five.
Tupac and Knight, 1996
Knight pleaded with the judge that day. He said he felt like Frankenstein. "It gave me chills," Ramdhan says. "Because that's how his life has been. He's been built up to be this monster. And now they're tearing him apart."
Prison changed him. According to Ramdhan and Knight's adopted son Danny Boy, a singer on Death Row (both of whom visited him regularly while inside at this time), incarceration made him harder and colder, more like the man he'd been pretending to be. His sense of betrayal festered: not only Dre but other artists had let him down. Snoop Dogg was now publicly blaming Knight for 'Pac's death. And accusations whirled that he was also responsible for Biggie Smalls' death in 1997, ordering the hit from inside prison. No charges have stuck in either case, but Knight's name still carries that stink.
While he stewed in prison, his company fell apart. He couldn't control it and the people he'd hired – never his strong suit – were incompetent. Money went astray; artists were unpaid. By the time Knight got out, he had enemies everywhere, and he couldn't contain his anger. He would rant in interviews, calling out everyone who had wronged him – Jimmy Iovine, Doug Morris [ex-CEO of Universal], and above all, Dr Dre, whom he derided as a bitch, a fag, a sissy.
"He was jealous," Ramdhan says. "Aftermath was successful and Dre still had a relationship with Jimmy, but he [Suge] had been blacklisted." Knight degenerated into the aggrieved ex-mogul who had fallen from relevance, trying desperately to recreate his prime. But his subsequent labels didn't come close. Hip-hop had moved on and Knight's peers with it: Puffy and Russell Simmons run empires; Iovine is a billionaire and Dre thereabouts (thanks to Apple buying Beats by Dre headphones for $3bn). But Knight is still out at night, the oldest man at the club, still talking about "Bompton" and real Gs, telling the TMZ cameras who is and who isn't a motherfucking bitch.
The attacks started at around the time Death Row fell into fiscal chaos. In 2005, it was sued successfully by one Lydia Harris, who claimed she'd co-founded the label with Knight in 1989; her award of $107m forced the label into bankruptcy. A few months later, Knight was shot in the leg at a Video Music Awards party hosted by Kanye West in Miami. (His thigh was shattered and replaced with a metal plate, hence his limp.) It was a crowded venue, with scores of witnesses, but no arrest was made, a pattern that has become familiar. He still has a bullet fragment in his skull since driving the car for Tupac on that fateful Vegas night in 1996. There has been no arrest in that case, either.
A further attack, in May 2008, hurt his reputation more than anything else. A barber named Greg knocked him unconscious for three minutes outside an LA nightclub; pictures of him lying there were posted online. Greg became a 'hood celebrity, interviewed on YouTube, the Buster Douglas of Compton. Sources close to Knight insist he was actually hit on the back of the head with an iron bar. But still no arrest. And Knight never returned to break his legs. Some gangsta.
According to Toi-Lin Kelly, that incident opened the floodgates. The word was out: Big Bad Suge could be beaten up in public, without repercussion. And he quickly became a target, a badge for younger thugs to build their own names. A year later, Knight's jaw was broken by two members of the singer Akon's camp while leaving a club in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"It started a wave," she says. "We never have security when we go out, but I've been in so many positions where I have to talk him down. People try to provoke him."
Like Ramdhan, Kelly is an attractive, indomitable woman, only younger, at 32. She has an MBA and runs a gym in the San Fernando Valley called Mint. When we meet in her office, she's eager to set the record straight. "He doesn't go around bullying people you know," she smiles. "He doesn't drink blood for breakfast!"
The picture she paints is one of a man trying to claw his way back, and meet his responsibilities. He has eight children by six women, including a boy of 5 with Kelly, called Legend; two boys with Ramdhan, Suge Jr (19) and Sosa (12); and a 12 year old girl Bailie, with Michel'le. And money hasn't been easy. They still live in Beverly Hills, but Knight has to take consultancy gigs where he can, promoting a smoking papers brand, or making introductions in the music industry. The Malibu mansion is long gone. His hopes are set on a couple of projects about his life and times – a Showtime documentary by Southpaw director Antoine Fuqua and a book. "I can't remember the title," says Kelly. "Something like My Pain is Your Gain. No, American Knight-mare?"
But she really wants to talk about the shooting at 1 Oak in West Hollywood last August, an attempt on Knight's life that remains an open investigation for the LAPD, so it's hard to verify her version. If what she says is true, however, it foreshadows the incident at Tam's in a couple of key ways. In both incidents, Knight was called to a place and then attacked, and the investigating detectives in both cases – Richard Biddle and Barry Hall – appear to have detained the victim, Knight, rather than the aggressors.
Knight in a club with Kanye West, whom he sued over the 2005 VMA shooting
It was another VMA party, hosted by Chris Brown, and Knight had been called there, Kelly says, by the comedian Katt Williams, whom he was tour managing. Already this night seems doomed, with three of the most trouble-prone celebrities in LA under one roof. Brown is infamous for assaulting former girlfriend Rihanna. Williams is reportedly bipolar and has a considerable rap sheet. It was Knight's job to keep him in line, and it wasn't working. (A month later, he and Williams would be accused of stealing a female paparazzo's camera.)
According to Kelly, Knight showed up at the club because he wanted to speak to Chris Brown anyway. A couple of days earlier, he'd heard that an associate of Brown's had ordered a hit on him, following an argument at a studio three weeks before. Knight had paid Brown a visit to offer advice about Brown's association with gangbangers, specifically the Fruit Town Bloods. Knight and Brown have been friends for a long time. But an argument erupted with this associate, and Knight is said to have hit him. Now there was a price on his head. (Sources close to Brown confirm a fight took place, but not that Brown was there, or that there was any "hit". According to insiders, the associate is apparently no longer connected to Brown.)
At 1 Oak, Knight discussed the situation with Brown. As he left his table, shots rang out. He was hit six times. Had he not turned his body to one side, he might have died.
"The cops know who did it," Kelly says. "When Suge was in hospital, they came and showed us the security video on a laptop, and it's as clear as day. They had 37 cameras in that club. You can see what people are wearing, their faces. You see everyone duck, except for two men, who are both looking for Suge, to see if he'd been hit.
Then a third man runs past, takes the gun from the shooter and leaves. The cops even told us the shooter's name. And they told us later, that they found him hiding out in a high-rise downtown. They were keeping him under surveillance for 45 days and he only ever came out to go to the corner store, or to pay for delivery food. So they nabbed him one day, and asked, why are you hiding? He said, 'Oh, Suge thinks I shot him, so he might be looking for me.' And he had a gun on him. It wasn't the weapon that was used in the shooting, but he admitted to being armed that night, too, because he was working as security. The cops said, 'where's the gun?' he said, 'I don't have it anymore.'"
It's impossible to confirm as the LA Sheriff's Department won't comment on any ongoing investigation. But in an interview with Knight after the incident at Tam's, investigators blamed the lack of an arrest in that case on Knight's lack of co-operation – even though the shooter had been identified by name. Virgil Roberts remembers getting a call from Knight asking for money some months later. "He said he could definitely pay me back because the club was going to settle," he says. "He said you could see on the security cameras that they let the shooter in the back door." (The club and Knight's civil attorney have both refused to comment.)
So this is what Knight's attorney and family believe: the cops know who shot Knight, and they know where to find him, but still no arrest. Instead, Knight stands trial for murder. And testifying against him, is the same investigating officer, Richard Biddle.
Cle "Bone" Sloan hobbles into court, wincing in pain. It's been 10 weeks since the carnage at Tam's where he suffered two fractured ankles, tore some ligaments and required 17 stitches in his head. But it isn't his injuries that account for what happens next. No sooner has he sworn to tell the whole truth, than he claims not to recognise Knight, sitting 15 feet from him in bright orange robes.
"I know Mr Knight, but that doesn't look like Mr Knight," he says. "It just doesn't look like the guy that was out there."
It's a game gang members play. To keep their rep, they make a show of not snitching. Knight is no different; he has often said he wouldn't tell the police who Tupac's killer was if he knew: "It's not my job. I don't get paid to solve homicides." And now Bone is singing the same tune. "I will not be forced to tell on anyone," he says. "I don't want that smell on me."
His rep on the streets may be fine, but in this courtroom it's shot. Not just because he started the fight at Tam's and was almost certainly armed, but because he lied to the police, repeatedly and with relish, days after the incident. This was before he realised that a security video would expose him. "I might have, what's the word, embellished," he says. "Because I knew I was responsible, too, and Terry was dead. Maybe I tried to shift some of the blame."
He wipes a tear from his eye. He's an actor. An actor and a Blood, that's his niche. He made a name in the gritty Hollywood movies Training Day (2001) and End of Watch (2012), and has since become the guy movie producers call when they need ghetto authenticity. Either as an actor or a consultant, he's the liaison between Hollywood and the 'hood. For Straight Outta Compton, Sloan was brought on as security to harmonise the relationship between the movie set and local gangs. He hired fellow Bloods to work with him; he involved "the community". And one of the people who joined him, was Terry Carter, an alleged gang member, who ran a car dealership.
The Hollywood movie is one of the ways that counterculture is embraced, even brought to heel, by the mainstream. Artists that scare the horses become national treasures in time. Ice Cube of "Fuck tha Police" fame now stars in family comedies, and big studio pictures like The Doors (1991) and Walk The Line (2005) conferred posthumous golden status on former wildmen like Jim Morrison and Johnny Cash. But Straight Outta Compton is already tarnished. The tragedy at Tam's is a reminder that the world NWA revealed of Crips, Bloods and drive-bys is as extant today as ever. Only in this story, the tensions are also embodied in the characters themselves, Compton's most hallowed names, Suge Knight and Dr Dre, and also Sloan, the so-called "non-active" gangbanger who was employed to keep them apart.
It all started when Knight chose to visit the set in South Central where they were shooting a promo video for the movie. He should have stayed outta Compton. He was in Century City at the time, with Kelly and Legend, out west in the safety of "white world" as he calls it. But he had a bone to pick. His likeness had been used in the movie and he wanted to be paid. As soon as he arrived, he saw Kebo, head of Ice Cube's security. "First thing he said," says Kebo, "was, 'I come in peace. I didn't come down here to start no problems, that's why I came by myself. I want to request a meeting with Cube and it don't have to be today.' He was not out of control, he was not irate, he was not hostile."
LA Sherrifs' patrol cars seal off Tam's Burgers where Terry Carter was run down
Knight's arrival on set, however, caused a ruckus. When word reached Dre, according to Sloan's interview with police, his bodyguards went into lockdown. Kelly describes Dre as a, "really fearful person. Like our dry cleaning guy, he happened to tell Dre he delivers to us, too, and he was immediately fired, 86'ed out of the gated community and everything." (Attempts to confirm this with Dr Dre were unsuccessful.) It was Sloan's job to keep Knight away from the set. So he approached Knight's truck and the men exchanged words. A high school exchange, the way Sloan explained it: "I said, 'Man, you always acting like a bitch." He said, 'You the bitch'." And then it escalated."
There was no altercation this time. There were LA sheriffs on hand, who told Knight to leave. And he did. "He didn't resist or talk shit or crazy," says Kebo. "He just got in his truck and left." Kelly says he called her as he got on the freeway, he was coming home. But then Terry Carter called him, and it appears Knight turned around. Terry was an old friend, one of the few Knight would allow around his kids. If Terry told him to go to Tam's to straighten things out, then he would go. He was alone, unarmed, and according to Fletcher, on his way into a trap.
"We know that Bone was told to handle the situation, he's testified to that," says Fletcher. "We know that Bone hired a bunch of gang members – Jimmy Chris, Knob [Dwayne Johnson] and Marv Kincy. We know from phone records that Terry called a bunch of people. He called Knob twice, after Suge left the set. And Knob called him twice. And then Terry called Suge. And we know by the time Suge got there, they were all waiting for him. Knob, Jimmy Chris, Bone and Marv. Suge was going to be 'handled'".
At the hearing, Bone is evasive. "I can't recall," he says. But even so, an explanation emerges for why he was at Tam's at all, three miles from the movie set, and it's riddled with problems. He told police he made a wrong turn on his way to another film location nearby: "We were about to move the whole company. We were setting up stunts. We had these professional riders, they was gonna be riding next to Dre, doing wheelies and shit." Bone claims he noticed Knight's truck and saw Knight talking to Terry. So he crept up on them. As he told police: "I just popped out like a jack-in-the-box. Like 'let's do it'. I opened his door. And he snatched it back. And I punched him in the face. And that's how it took off."
But the video shows that Knight was the last one there. He wasn't talking to Terry Carter at all; he pulled in and was immediately attacked by Sloan. And this wrong turn Sloan took was not one or two, but 11 blocks from the alleged filming location. Furthermore, at least three other men were there – did they happen to make the same wrong turn as Sloan at exactly the same time? And if they were at the wrong location, why did they get out of their cars and hang around until Knight arrived? Had a hit been ordered on Suge Knight?
But perhaps most damning of all is the account that Marv Kincy, one of the men at the scene, gave to police in his interview. (Despite the evidence of interview transcripts, Kincy insists he has never spoken to police.) He maintained Knight didn't run anyone over intentionally. That the aggressor was Bone, a well-known hothead with connections to the Fruit Town Bloods (the same gang Knight believes is implicated in the shooting at 1 Oak). He also told police that Bone had arrived at the scene at the same time as Jimmy Chris, a man who had a long standing beef with Knight. So, after Knight was attacked, and reversed his truck, knocking Bone down, he would have noticed Jimmy Chris running towards the scene. "Suge would know he wasn't a friend," Marvin said. That was when Knight powered forward and escaped, killing Carter.
In her effort to defend Sloan's account, DA Barnes suggests the gun-shaped object Jimmy Chris removes from Sloan's body and puts in his waistband is actually a walkie-talkie. This is a core argument for the prosecution. And Detective Biddle concurs. Never mind that Sloan told police he left his walkie-talkie in the car. As Fletcher assails him with incredulous questions ("Have you ever seen people put a radio in their waistband?"), Biddle looks increasingly irritated. And yet, he expects jurors to believe that when a gang member is run over, the first instinct of a fellow gang member is to rush over before the paramedics arrive, and remove his... walkie-talkie?
"I don't carry a gun!" Sloan protests, overselling the line. "I'm an award-winning film-maker, I got to get my reputation here! Why would I take a gun to work?"
It's a great question. Also: why were they at Tam's Burgers in the first place? Why was Knight called there? And why is Suge Knight on trial and not Sloan?
After two days of preliminary hearing, the judge drops one of the hit-and-run charges and cuts Knight's bail to $10m, mere Gotti levels. For a few days, the word from Knight's camp was that his friend Floyd Mayweather Jr would put up the cash, but it hasn't happened and a Mayweather spokesperson has denied any such offer was ever made. Still, Knight has now been granted the right to see close family. His sisters cheer when the news comes. It's something. Knight's reputation may still be a burden, but maybe the tide is turning.
One can never discount a man who built an empire from Compton, who has survived bullets, prison and bankruptcy. But Knight has a battle ahead. His health is suffering. A fundraising website with a goal of $500,000 for his defence has so far only engaged public support to the tune of $2,102. He has had numerous issues with his attorneys; since the incident, he has changed lawyers four times. On 29 May, as this issue neared deadline, Matthew Fletcher was fired and replaced by Thomas Mesereau, who succesfully defended Michael Jackson against child molestation charges in 2005.
But hope springs, nevertheless. Virgil Roberts sees him beating the case and reinventing his life with a Tyson-like redemption tour. "I can see Suge on a Vegas stage telling stories." Kelly, however, is hesitant to look far ahead. "We're taking it one case at a time. It's hard. But Suge is always in good spirits, joking around. He stays strong for the rest of us."
The antechamber to Court 101 on the ninth floor of the CCB is cramped and dark, a place people slip out to whisper behind their hands. On the day of Knight's arraignment, Kelly and Matt Fletcher are doing just that, before the court is in session. Then the doors open and there's Knight, surrounded by four grave-looking sheriffs, and they've got him in a wheelchair. But he looks delighted. The happiest face in this dark room.
"Why are you sitting, you can't stand?" Kelly asks.
"Oh hell, yeah," Knight laughs. He gets up, almost catching his ankle chains on the wheelchair. "I can dance!"