No closure after more than half a decade?
The murder of hip-hop icon Jam Master Jay — which took place on October 30, 2002 — is still unsolved, and as another year passes without any significant breakthroughs in the case — no new evidence, fresh leads or confessions — hope of finding the killers fades a little more. You would think that the brutal murder of one of the most beloved figures in hip-hop in a high-profile crime that shocked the nation would have produced at least a couple of suspects by now.
But, sadly, like the murders of two other rap icons — the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur — years after the crime, all we're left with is rumors, speculation and a maddening lack of closure for friends, fans and family.
"It's a shame that we're still at this juncture," said Derrick Parker, a former NYPD investigator and author of "Notorious C.O.P.: The Inside Story of the Tupac, Biggie and Jam Master Jay Investigations from NYPD's First 'Hip-Hop Cop.' " "Homicides like this happen all the time in the streets, but this case is different because of who Jay was."
At the time of his death at age 37, Jam Master Jay (born Jason Mizell) had already achieved worldwide fame as the turntablist and founding member of Run-DMC, arguably the most influential hip-hop group of all time. Jay elevated the cut-and-scratch to an art form and helped define DJing as we know it.
With so much time since his murder, some observers fear the case may be going cold. "I see very little chance of this ever being solved," said Ethan Brown, author of "Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler" "Even if there is a break in the case and they make an arrest and it goes to trial, you could easily destroy the credibility of the witnesses."
Indeed, after six years, Jam Master Jay's murder has become more about the witnesses than the victim and about an investigation that has seen differences of opinion over everything from motive (was the murder drug-related or was it a personal dispute?) to methodology (did NYPD detectives fail to provide adequate protection for key witnesses?).
Many observers think witnesses might not be doing enough to help solve the crime. Compounding that problem is the view that the authorities have not been aggressive enough in pursuing persons of interest in the case, including Ronald "Tinard" Washington, a convicted armed robber currently in prison on an unrelated charge who was staying with Jay's sister and cousin in Jay's mother's home at the time of the murder and who had clashed with Jay.
Another major roadblock to solving the crime is the turmoil between Jay's family and Randy Allen, the DJ's close friend and business partner, whom some suspect knows more about the murder than he has been willing to discuss publicly.
"Imagine your best friend getting killed right in front of you," said a source close to the investigation who prefers to remain anonymous. "How do you not say anything? How do you not tell the police?" Criticism has also fallen on receptionist Lydia High, who identified Washington as one of the gunmen who entered Jay's 24/7 Studio on the night of the murder but who police failed to arrest.
Questions about trust and truthfulness among Jay's inner circle are raised in a new documentary on the DJ's life and legacy, "Two Turntables and a Microphone," directed by Guy Logan and produced by Jam Master's cousin, Stephon "Phonz" Watford. The film premiered in June at the Hollywood Black Film Festival and is executive-produced by 50 Cent.
"I wanna say thank you to 50 Cent for being a part of this documentary that's coming out with his album [Before I Self Destruct] that's about the life of Jam Master Jay," Russell Simmons told MTV News. "It reaffirms his legacy for his family. It's helpful. It's good the industry still recognizes him. His influence was profound, like [Jay discovering] 50 Cent. ... Jay's life is something I definitely celebrate."
In addition to his alleged role as an accessory in the Jay case, prosecutors have also gathered evidence of Washington's alleged involvement in the 1995 murder of Randy "Stretch" Walker, an associate of the late Tupac Shakur.
Everyone who has weighed in on the case — from investigators to journalists, fans and family members — agrees that one of the biggest hurdles has been trustworthiness and the willingness of the witnesses, including Allen, to tell the truth to police. One of the sad ironies of the case is that these witnesses were also friends of Jay's.
There was hope that Washington might provide a break in the Jam Master Jay investigation when, in 2007, he was convicted for a string of robberies unrelated to Jay's murder. This year, as Washington was awaiting sentencing in that case, federal prosecutors tried to negotiate an agreement with him to provide evidence in the murders of Jam Master Jay and Randy "Stretch" Walker in exchange for a lesser sentence on the robbery convictions.
Washington, however, refused to cooperate. "In order to make a deal with the feds, he would've implicated himself in these other murders," Parker said. "That could mean life in prison — or even worse: the death penalty." Parker speculated that federal prosecutors might have taken too hard a line during the cooperation negotiations. "I think the feds were looking for a slam-dunk case, and sometimes you just have to take the foul shot. And if Tinard's not willing to cooperate, you can be sure there's someone else out there who is."
In "Two Turntables and a Microphone," Jay's childhood friend Runny Ray, JMJ artist Onyx and onetime business partner Darren "Big D" Jordan give separate interviews that say all signs point to the individuals in the room.
And, with Washington behind bars, attention has turned once again to the three eyewitnesses who were with Jam Master Jay inside the Merrick Boulevard recording studio on the night he was murdered. High, the studio receptionist and Allen's sister, identified Washington as the accomplice but also denies seeing the face of Jay's killer. Over the past six years, Allen and High have given (to the press and to the police) different — and sometimes conflicting — accounts of what happened in the studio that night, casting further doubt on their testimony.
"Enough is enough," Allen said in response to allegations that the people in the studio are responsible for stalling the case. "If you're not involved with the intentions to solve the murder of Jam Master Jay, then it doesn't even matter to me."
The second eyewitness, Uriel "Tony" Rincon, has rarely spoken to the press about Jay's murder, but in January, he sat down with MTV News correspondent Tim Kash for his first in-depth, on-camera interview about what he saw and heard the night of October 30, 2002. Rincon described how he and Jay (both avid video game players) were sitting on a couch inside the studio playing "Madden NFL" when the gunmen entered. In that same moment, Rincon said, his cell phone rang.
"I lean over to pick up the phone, and I just hear fast footsteps," Rincon recounted. "I hear Jay say, 'Oh sh--,' and I hear the shots, and that's when I got hit in my leg. It was basically two shots — one which had hit me and the second one that had hit Jay." During the interview, Rincon revealed the two small scars in his thigh marking the entrance and exit points of the bullet.
Although Rincon was physically closest to Jay when he was shot, he said he never saw the killer's face. "He was wearing something dark-colored with some kind of hood," Rincon recalled. "But again, all I saw was the back." Rincon added that he was "almost positive" that Jay himself saw the face of his killer.
The third eyewitness is Allen, who, in several interviews with MTV News has described how he chased the perpetrators from the studio but never saw their faces. "There's people running, and I'm looking for a familiar face, a face that didn't belong, but I didn't see any faces like that," Allen told MTV News in November 2007.
The testimonies of Allen and other members of Jay's inner circle have not placated those who believe that Jay's close friends know the killer, and — in the interest of protecting that individual and, by extension, themselves — are reluctant to name names.
As another year passes with Jay's friends still at odds with one another and with investigators, the potential for a breakthrough in the case becomes less likely. "The more time goes by in a criminal case such as this, the harder it is to get a conviction," Brown said.
"It's disheartening," said the source close to the investigation. "Your friend gets murdered, and so you run and hide? I don't care if you hate the cops. It's not about the cops. It's about being a stand-up citizen."
For full coverage of the Jam Master Jay case, see the Jam Master Jay Reports.