Can Suge Knight beat murder rap for Los Angeles hit-and-run?
Hip-hop mogul Suge Knight has been charged with the murder of an old friend, but it may have all been a terrible accident
On January 29, Ice Cube and Dr Dre were filming a promotional video for Straight Outta Compton, the highly anticipated film about NWA - the seminal hip-hop group that brought the two stars together 30 years ago in Compton, California. Marion "Suge" Knight, the 49-year-old music mogul whose legacy is as brutal as the gangsta rap his Death Row Records helped popularise, was not allowed on the set.
Knight has been shot, gone bankrupt, sold Death Row and lived in and out of prison, even if he remained something between a myth and a legend in the history of hip hop. But one source on the film set says security turned away Knight - who is slated to be portrayed in the movie - adding that a Compton sergeant cited Dr Dre's restraining order against Knight (the pair fell out in the 1990s and haven't been close since). Others insisted they just weren't interested in the theatrics that seem to follow Knight wherever he goes.
"They didn't want no drama around the movie set," says another source close to the filmmaking, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn't authorised to speak on behalf of the production. "Let them people make their movie in peace."
The confusing, high-profile and ultimately deadly incident that ensued was anything but peaceful: Terry Carter, a record label owner in Compton and interlocutor - "his whole plan was to get Suge and Dre back together", according to David Weldon, a producer known as Rhythm D who has worked with Carter and Knight - was killed. Knight is now facing 30 years in jail for murder, but his long-time lawyer says the incident was an accident. The Los Angeles county sheriff's department says it is reviewing video evidence and interviewing people who told them the death "looked like it was an intentional act".
It sounds like yet another sordid chapter in Knight's life, where gang violence and entertainment-industry egos have intersected with unexpected consequences. But according to people with intimate knowledge of the situation, the latest high-profile episode in hip-hop lore may have been an accident: Knight, apparently in the midst of being attacked by a third man in a hamburger-joint parking lot but too weak to fight back, attempted to flee the scene, not only hitting his aggressor but running over Carter - his friend - in the process.
On Tuesday, Knight pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges in a Compton court before complaining of chest pain and being rushed to a hospital. He is due back in court tomorrow.
After the filming of the commercial at the historic barbershop Holiday Styles, the Straight Outta Compton crew broke for lunch on January 29 and headed back to their trailers on Compton's east side. That's where Knight pulled up in his red Ford F-150 Raptor.
Cle "Bone" Sloan, an actor from the movie Training Day and an affiliate of street gang the Bloods, was working site security and as a location scout assistant, according to the two anonymous sources. He and Knight did not get along, and Sloan apparently made a stink about Knight needing to leave the premises. "Suge had never got out of the car. He had talked to Ice Cube's security, and he said they could talk about it later on," says the on-set source. "Bone came and started arguing with Suge, said he should get out of there. Suge said, 'I'm already leaving.' They had an altercation."
At this point, Knight called Terry Carter who, considering his good relationship with Ice Cube, thought he could advise the best way to smooth things over. So Carter and Knight agreed to meet at Tam's Burgers, a Compton fast-food staple several kilometres away.
In a series of violent events that police say happened around 2.55pm, Knight pulled up next to Carter's Dodge Magnum just outside the car park. The two began talking through their windows, cordially and without confrontation - as don and peacemaker according to the source.
Then Sloan arrived, according to the on-set source, hopping a short wall surrounding the car park, and began punching Knight through his truck window. Knight drove a few feet away and put the truck into park. Sources familiar with both sides say they assumed Knight would emerge from his vehicle to defend himself, not retreat.
But after being treated in hospital for a blood clot in November - and being shot six times in an unrelated altercation at a party thrown by Chris Brown before the MTV Video Music Awards in August - the physical strength that defined Knight's public image has greatly diminished.
Sloan ran up to Knight's truck again and continued punching him, the source says. This appears to be when the initial police report on the incident says the argument "escalated", and Knight put his truck in reverse, "striking one of the victims" - identified by sources as Sloan, though not in the police report - to the ground.
An associate of Sloane's arrived on the scene, the source says, and was making his way towards the rear of Knight's truck. That's apparently when Knight put his vehicle into drive and ran over Sloan. (He was sent to hospital, but his injuries were not life-threatening.)
Meanwhile, Carter had got out of his car. "I guess he was trying to help Suge," says the source. "I don't know what was on his mind."
Whatever was on Knight's mind at that moment may be the key to the case. If the prosecution can prove that he intentionally drove his truck at Sloan, knowing that Carter was in the way, Knight could face ending up in jail for much of the rest of his life. Because in the next instant, he hit Carter with the right front bumper of his truck.
"When Suge took off, Terry ends up being on the right bumper," says the source. "I guess when Terry was coming up in the lot, the car hits him, knocks him down, and it just rolls over him."
Knight's lawyer, James Blatt, says his client was unaware he hit the men, insisting that video evidence would prove the incident was an accident - that it was a defensive driving manoeuvre after being attacked by four men. The Los Angeles county sheriff's department says there is no evidence of there being that many extra attackers.
Knight counted Carter as a friend. The two came up together as young men in Compton, and rose in the music industry together - Knight with Death Row, and Carter with his own Heavyweight Records.
Since at least last year, Carter had made it a mission to facilitate the reconciliation between Knight and Dr Dre, the rapper/producer who made Death Row's seminal album The Chronic. Dr Dre left the label, apparently disenchanted with the influence of gangs at the label.
Carter was not a gang member, but he had friends in local gangs and was seen as a tough but sensible interlocutor, who could bring people together. "Terry's favourite term was 'parlay' - as in, 'I'm trying to parlay something, to make it happen'," says Weldon, who spoke with Carter recently about his intentions to reconcile the beef with Dr Dre as the Straight Outta Compton filming wrapped up.
So if Carter was his friend, why did Knight flee the scene after hitting him? "I don't think Suge's actions were intended to harm Terry Carter," says Weldon. "No matter how much the media is going to demonise him, I know that they were pretty cool with each other."
Though Knight's stature in the music industry had fallen since the glory days of Death Row, which earned tens of millions of dollars in the 1990s from albums by Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, he is still a big name in Compton. Friends say Carter saw, in the potential reconciliation between Knight and Dr Dre, a chance not only to increase his own profile but to make a new kind of history.
Instead, Knight is facing his longest stay in prison since 2001, when he finished a nearly five-year sentence for a parole violation stemming from his 1996 beating of a Crips member in Las Vegas. Shakur was involved in that incident - and was murdered in a drive-by shooting shortly after. When his east-coast rival, the Notorious BIG, died about six months later, Knight was a suspect. He has long denied involvement and was never charged.
Knight has managed to bounce back from the accusations, the shootings and the arrests. But it is the death of a friend - not a rival - that may finally take him down.
Guardian News & Media