Monday, March 28, 2011

Remembering Notorious B.I.G.

"My son's albums, to me, are a celebration of his life." Voletta Wallace, a couple of years after her son's murder on March 9, 1997, said those words in a telephone interview about the murder of Biggie Smalls. She's proud of what her son accomplished in his short life but frustrated that his murder remains unsolved.

Fourteen years after the slaying, the music of Biggie Smalls–a k a Christopher Wallace–is as big as ever. But his murder doesn't appear any closer to being solved than it was shortly after his murder following a VIBE magazine party outside the Petersen Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, on the eve of the release of Biggie's double-disc album, ironically titled "Life After Death."

No one knows what else Biggie, a New York-based rapper who performed as The Notorious B.I.G., would have accomplished had he not been cut down that fateful March night. He was embraced by his Brooklyn community and rap fans worldwide. What we do know is that Biggie's music, after his death, topped the charts and sold millions of CDs. Like Tupac Shakur before him, Smalls is bigger in death than in life. Biggie was known for his semi-autobiographical lyrics and storytelling and his easy style of rap.

Shakur was killed in Las Vegas six months before Smalls in what some have called eerily similar drive-by shootings. Biggie and Tupac unfortunately became tragic victims of the culture of violence depicted in their lyrics.

Smalls, who died at 24 years old, had been mentoring younger rappers, including hip-hop singer Lil' Kim. On the 14th anniversary of the shooting, Lil' Kim posted her sentiments on Twitter: "On this very day a great soul was laid to rest. Now on this very day we celebrate the rebirth of a beautiful Life! R.I.P Biggie Baby."

Smalls' record producer, Sean "P Diddy" Combs, also took to the pages of Twitter to remember his friend: "Today is #BIGGIEDAY–send me all your videos, links, photos, exclusive content. ALL things BIGGIE so I can tell the world!!"

Spreading the word about her son is music to Mrs. Wallace's ears, to keep her son's legacy alive. But, while Biggie's music keeps his memory on the forefront, his mother, a single mom who worked as a pre-school teacher to support her son, holds out hope his killer (composite sketch, right) will one day be found and brought to justice. Despite the length of time without a named suspect (although a task force in L.A. has been, for several months, looking into the cold case), she keeps the faith.

"I'm not only hoping," Mrs. Wallace told me, "but I am praying that they catch the dog who killed my son. I can't wait. I know that's a trip [to Los Angeles] I'm waiting to take ... to look the murderer in the face."

Cathy Scott's book, The Murder of Biggie Smalls, is a biographical and true crime account of his life and death.

Reprinted from Women in Crime Ink

Smoke and Mirrors: The Truth About Las Vegas

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
by Cathy Scott 

Watching Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman’s indignation over recent advice by President Barack Obama to a New Hampshire audience to not waste cash in Las Vegas was reminiscent of a similarly indignant Goodman a decade earlier. 

Goodman, a former criminal defense attorney and self-described “mouthpiece for the mob,” spent 35 years defending the nation’s most notorious underworld figures. His clients included mobsters Meyer Lansky, Anthony "Tony The Ant" Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the latter two portrayed in the film Casino by actors Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro. Goodman, also in the film, played himself–a lawyer for the mob. 

So, it came as a surprise in 1999 when Goodman tried to deny the mob’s existence in Las Vegas. It was during Goodman’s mayoral run, when he issued a statement in the midst of a colorful Las Vegas trial of two reputed Mafiosi charged in connection with the 1997 execution-style murder of another gangster, Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein. The trial spotlighted the very kind of mob activity that officials, other than Goodman, had insisted, year after year, no longer existed in Las Vegas.

It started in the early 1990s, when the Nevada Gaming Commission released the first of several statements assuring the public that the FBI had forced the last of the mob out of Las Vegas in the 1980s. That was not true, of course. Goodman himself had represented Spilotro in a mob trial in the mid-1980s, shortly before Spilotro was buried alive and left for dead in an Indiana cornfield. Blitzstein was a co-defendant with Spilotro in that trial. After Spilotro’s murder, Blitzstein pleaded guilty and went to prison. He was released in the early 1990s and returned to Las Vegas, picking up where he had left off.

The 62-year-old Blitzstein ran a downtown auto-repair shop that fronted for his rackets. Authorities said he ran loan-shark and insurance-fraud racketeering operations out of the shop.

In January 1997, Blitzstein was gunned down in his town house. Federal prosecutors later contended that mob families in Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y., had ordered Blitzstein’s hit so they could take control of his business.

Then, in May 1999, Goodman, as a mayoral candidate, issued a press release declaring the streets of the city free of traditional organized crime.

"For the last 15 years," Goodman said, "there hasn't been a mob presence here."

Coincidentally or not, Goodman issued that statement from his law office, which was around the corner from the U.S. District courthouse where the Blitzstein murder-related trial was well underway. Testimony in that case, which was heavily covered by the media, related to the life-and-death saga of Herbert Blitzstein–who had been Spilotro's right-hand man–provided new details about Las Vegas street rackets. For example, the 12-count racketeering indictment handed down in the case named 10 defendants charged with offenses ranging from Mafia-related murder-for-hire to racketeering.

The trial surrounding Blitzstein’s murder, which ended with most of the defendants pleading out to lesser crimes, was the last Mafia-related trial in Las Vegas.

Blitzstein’s murder also marked the last mob hit in Sin City. But don't tell Oscar Goodman. We'll just keep it between us. 

Reprinted from Women in Crime Ink.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Who Killed Dawn Viens?

Who Killed Dawn Viens?: by Cathy Scott "This week, investigators, working with a crew of firefighters and coroner's office personnel, used jackhammers to dig up the ..."

Thursday, March 03, 2011

'The Millionaire's Wife'

On a rainy morning in the fall of 1990, a gunman, in broad daylight, caught up with George Kogan as George walked home from a Manhattan Upper East Side market. The shooter pumped three slugs into his back. Seven hours later, George was dead.

From the start, the prime suspect was the estranged wife of George Kogan, because, in part, George had $4 million worth of insurance on his life, and Barbara was the beneficiary. Yet, it would take nearly two decades to solve the murder. George, who had turned 49 the month before the killing, was gunned down as he approached the lobby doors of his East 69th Street apartment building, where he lived with his young girlfriend.

Manuel Martinez, an attorney with a small law practice who mostly handled eviction cases, once represented Barbara and eventually was charged and convicted of hiring a hit man to kill Barbara’s husband. It 's a love triangle and a hit-for-hire, and the story fascinated me.

It's also a sad story, because, in the end, everyone lost, including George's two sons, who were in college at the time of the murder, and who lost their father to murder and, ultimately, their mother to prison.

Nineteen years long years after the death of her husband, Barbara Susan Kogan was indicted for the murder of her husband, but not until she had spent every penny of the insurance payout, the last of which went toward her defense.9I’ve spent the last year piecing together this book. It’s titled THE MILLIONAIRE'S WIFE: The True Story of a Real Estate Tycoon, his Beautiful Young Mistress, and a Marriage that Ended in Murder. And while it is my eighth book, it is one of the toughest I’ve ever written.

True crime books, my friend and colleague Kathryn Casey recently reminded me, are not easy to write. As a journalist, I’ve been trained to chase the story, go to the scene, find sources, get documents, land interviews--anything and everything to flesh out the story. True crime books take real perseverance, especially in cases that are about to go to trial and when those on either side of the case are skittish about talking.

I was scheduled to interview Barbara, with her attorney, before her arrest. But, soon after, a warrant for her arrest was issued and her attorney instead arranged for her surrender. It was disappointing, and, while difficult, I love a challenge, plus I was lucky.

After I went on a radio show and talked about the case and after posting or two an article updating the case on Women in Crime Ink, family members on both sides of the case contacted me. I also was able to speak several times with the deputy district attorney as well as three defense attorneys. And a generous reporter who had covered the crime 19 years early shared with me what he recalled. And a doorman at George’s building, where George had been killed nearly two decades earlier, was particularly helpful and walked me through the crime scene. Several people at the courthouse were helpful as well, as were a couple of NYPD police officers. And E.W. Count, a crime writer in New York City, on two occasions became my eyes and ears in a Manhattan courtroom.

For the research part of books, I approach them in the same way I do news stories--digging for clues, links, and, especially, documentation and confirmations via paperwork and those I interview. For every book, I invariably contact mortuary personnel and verify college degrees with universities; this case was no different. Thank goodness the records were fairly easy to find, despite the passage of time. Fact-checking our own stories is part of the deal.

For newspaper and magazine articles, I got into Lexis-Nexis to pull up the original articles and, at the same time, stumbled on some relevant federal court documents. Early on, writer/author Sue Russell
pulled a couple of articles from Lexis-Nexis for me. After that, I did pay-as-you-go searches (a great service for research). The one thing, however, I could not find was George Kogan’s obituary. I knew there had to be one, and, ultimately, getting creative with search words (“slaying” instead of “murder” worked in this case), I found it. It was a real prize, because it was loaded with the detail I had been looking for--when and where George was buried, who officiated, who attended, and who did not.

When it came to police and court records, that got tricky. As soon as Barbara appeared in court, I filed a Freedom of Information Act form; it was ignored. So, with the help of attorneys, a defendant’s family members and a journalism student working on a class paper (and whose professor was friends with the defense), I was able to get the complete court files, trial transcripts, copies of depositions, a transcript of a surveillance telephone conversation, statements from witnesses from the scene of the crime, a list of witnesses and evidence, and a roster of jurors.

Then, the reading began. I pored through documents. It became a matter of learning who the characters and players were--and there were lots. Because two defendants were charged three years apart, it made the story more complicated. So I tried to boil it down and tell the story chronologically, as it had unfolded.

Deciding where to start a book is always a challenge. With The Murder of Biggie Smalls (a k a Notorious B.I.G., I began with Biggie, at age 15, sitting in a Brooklyn police precinct, crying for his mother after an officer detained Biggie and a friend for questioning to see if they were witnesses to a murder in a Bed-Stuy neighborhood. To me, that scene at the precinct spoke volumes about Biggie, whose real name was Christopher Wallace. He was not the street thug, like Tupac Shakur, who came of age on the mean streets of the Jungle housing project in Oakland, Californai. Biggie, conversely, was a mama’s boy, and his mother was a school teacher who sent Biggie to Jamaica every year to spend the summer with his grandfather, an ocean away from Brooklyn.

In Murder of a Mafia Daughter, after I went to victim Susan Berman’s Beverly Hills home, in Benedict Canyon, and met a neighbor who’d been the one to alert police that something was awry next door, I began the book with the neighbor awakening to Susan’s dogs running loose, on Christmas Eve morning, in his front yard.

With the Kogan case,  after traveling to New York City several times, the way the killer stalked George as he made his way home from a neighborhood market became a vivid picture to me, and I began the book with the morning he died.

I love the cover of this book, because it captures the feel of that fateful morning. So, it is with pride and pleasure that I give you, the reader, a sneak peek at the cover of The Millionaire’s Wife, released here, on Women in Crime Ink. When the book comes out later this year, I’ll give you a heads up.