NEW YORK — What does the attempted murder of 50 Cent have to do with the allegations of money laundering brothers-in-business Irv and Christopher Gotti are being tried for? It's a question defense attorney Gerald Shargel wanted answered Monday afternoon (November 21) during the trial's third full day of testimony.
Dozens of supporters and journalists packed into Judge Edward Korman's courtroom in Brooklyn federal court — Ja Rule, who appeared last week, was a no-show, but, bizarrely, the recently bat mitzvahed Amber Ridinger (see "Ja Rule, Ashanti Torah The Roof Off At Girl's Bat Mitzvah") and her parents were there. And they got an earful of 50 from government witness Jon Ragin.
The Gotti brothers, whose real names are Irving and Christopher Lorenzo, were the subject of a years-long federal investigation that concluded earlier this year with their arrests on money-laundering charges (see "Irv Gotti Pleads Not Guilty, Released On $1 Million Bond"). On Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Haran accused them of running a covert money-laundering operation via hip-hop label the Inc., and prosecutors contended that the brothers routinely accepted cash from convicted crack dealer Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff's drug-dealing enterprises and then cleaned the illegal profits through film and music projects (see "Prosecutor Alleges Drug Ties To The Inc. In Gotti Trial Opening").
Ragin, a self-admitted pimp, is testifying as part of a plea deal he orchestrated with the federal government in exchange for leniency at the time of his sentencing on money-laundering and credit card fraud charges. He's pleaded guilty to both charges and, according to the prosecution, bilked banks, credit card companies and retail stores out of more than $1 million. During a round of questioning that occurred without the jury present, Ragin, a friend and former business associate of McGriff's, told the court he'd had several conversations with McGriff about 50 Cent.
Ragin said the conversations initially revolved around 50 being a problem — a nuisance who, before his 2000 shooting, made a habit of disrespecting the Inc.'s biggest name, Ja Rule, on mixtapes. McGriff had told Ragin he'd had several meetings with 50 and told the rising rap star to stop targeting Ja and the Inc. in his rhymes. Several verbal agreements were made between the two, but 50 never held up his end of the bargain, Ragin recalled.
On May 24, 2000, Ragin — who's in the Federal Witness Protection Program for reasons not related to the Gotti trial — said he received a call from McGriff, who said he had "hurt 50." McGriff wanted to speak with Ragin, and a meeting was set up in a Brooklyn garage. Ragin told the court McGriff sounded "rushed" on the phone, and when he asked him "what was up," McGriff told him, "We got him" — a reference to 50 Cent, Ragin later learned.
"He described how he caught him coming out of his grandma's house," said Ragin; 50 got in a car, "and they shot him many times at close range. They thought he was dead, because there was lots of blood."
Ragin said McGriff wasn't the gunman, but that one of his two underlings, who had ties to the Inc., was. The witness recalled seeing them in the garage during the meeting, scrubbing their hands with rubbing alcohol to remove any traces of gun powder. Ragin then said that, years later, the attempted murder of 50 Cent would serve as fodder for jokes around the Inc. offices.
"They'd joke about the way 50 was squirming [in pain] in his car and putting up his hands to stop the bullets" that kept coming, one after the other, he explained. The year before 50's shooting, his track "How To Rob ..." was a huge radio hit; the song was to appear on 50's Power of the Dollar, an album he recorded for Columbia that has never been released. The shooting occurred two months after 50 was stabbed at New York's Hit Factory recording studio — also something the prosecution tried to show, via text messages they claim were exchanged between Irv Gotti and McGriff, was Inc.-related.
One message, which the prosecution said was authored by Irv, said "F--- half a dollar. Me and my n----s kill for fun. Got that? Murder for fun." Another exchange, sent soon after the 50 shooting, claimed the label heads got 50 twice, with the stabbing and then the shooting. Yet another followed just hours later; Irv Gotti, according to the prosecution, text messaged someone to "turn on the radio" to listen to the news of 50's shooting.
"Why wouldn't anybody in the hip-hop world be interested in 50 Cent being shot?" asked Shargel, who said 50's shooting has nothing to do with the trial. Bringing the issue up before the jury, he surmised, "could be outcome determinative. 50 Cent is at the height of his popularity. This is an explosive issue. The jurors will know 50 Cent," and hence, might be prejudiced against the Gottis when determining their verdict. Korman refused to allow jurors to hear such testimony. For his part, 50 Cent has long maintained that a man named Darryl "Hommo" Baum was the gunman; Baum was killed three weeks after the 50 shooting.
Haran had argued that testimony about the shooting would help prove motive in the money-laundering case.
Ragin also discussed his business dealings with McGriff. The two produced a straight-to-DVD 2001 film called "Crime Partners," starring Ice-T and Snoop; the Inc. and Ruff Ryders helped finance the film, and Irv Gotti orchestrated a $1 million distribution deal with Island/ Def Jam for the soundtrack. The rest of the film was largely funded by McGriff, who once paid crew members and some of the actors with cash — all small bills, Ragin explained.
Before the courtroom action took a turn toward 50, the prosecution welcomed New York Detective Anthony Castiglia, who tried to counter the cross-examination damage left last week in Shargel's wake. The defense attorney referenced the grand jury testimony of Thursday's witness Donnell Nichols, a former Murder Inc. intern, who had said he once saw $70,000 in small bills delivered to the Gottis' offices in a shoebox; Shargel then produced a shoebox with 7,000 fake bills. He asked the witness to fit them into the shoebox, but Nichols couldn't.
On Monday Castiglia said he carried out an experiment over the weekend to determine if $70,000 in cash could fit in a shoebox. He had more success, cramming $74,000 into an Adidas box. Castiglia used $1 bills, with $2,400 from his own account and the rest on loan from the Federal Reserve. Shargel was quick to point out that no one has testified just how big the alleged shoeboxes, filled with money, were. "We're all guessing," he said.