Puff! Goes the Weasel

An Impersonator Witness and Alleged Testilying Redefine Rap Mogul’s Trial

I called Taylor back. He began by claiming that he worked as a bodyguard for celebrities like actor Mark Wahlberg and magician David Blaine. In fact, Taylor bragged that he was the man pictured in a published photo pulling Blaine out of an underground Plexiglas coffin after one of Blaine's stunts. Then he declared that cops may not have recovered all the guns prosecutors say Combs and Barrow used to riddle patrons and the ceiling at Club New York.

Taylor said that shortly before the gunfire erupted at around 3 a.m., he and another freelance bouncer, who had been assigned to work the crowd outside, left their posts and went to a nearby store. As they were returning to the club, he met a heavily armed man he knew to be a member of a group of backup bodyguards for Combs. "Puffy always moves with backup security that nobody knows about," he claimed. This bodyguard, he added, then ran toward a "hoopty," gangsta ebonic for an old car.

"Is everything all right?" he said he asked the bodyguard, who tossed an arsenal of guns into the back seat of the vehicle and covered them up.

"Everything's OK," the man reportedly replied coolly, then got into the car and drove away. Taylor said he and the other bouncer raced back to the club and learned about the shooting from scattering patrons. He said he did not tell his story to police or prosecutors because he was afraid he'd be subpoenaed, and that gangsta hangers-on fiercely loyal to Combs would attempt to hurt or even kill him. "I know Puffy's posse," he claimed. "I know what they can do to me."

During our conversation, Taylor said he hoped I wasn't taping him—at least not just yet, since he was still trying to decide what to do with his bombshell. I sensed he wanted me to goad him into telling his story. Suddenly he announced that he would risk being waylaid by one of Combs's alleged thugs because publicity resulting from his testimony at Combs's trial could catapult his career as a bodyguard to the rich and famous. But in the same breath, he waffled. "If I talk, none of 'em stars would hire me," he whined. "I won't get any more work at the clubs." After several more delays, he said I could use the story, but not his name. I told him that I shared his concerns, but that if he wants to attract a celebrity clientele, they would have to know who he is and where to find him. We agreed to talk further that weekend. But before hanging up, I told Taylor that, although his story would play well in the media, all that mattered to me was his safety. "Think it over and call me back in 24 hours," I suggested.

But I had my doubts about Taylor's story. Last Wednesday, during a break in Combs's week-old trial, I asked defense attorney Benjamin Brafman for comment. His forehead rumpled and his eyes rolled. "All I can tell you is that Mr. Combs did not have a gun that night," insisted Brafman, adding that he intends to call at least 35 witnesses who will testify that they never saw the popular rapper, who is not charged with shooting anyone, with a gun. Brafman sucked his teeth in disgust: Taylor's name, he said confidently, does not appear on the prosecution or defense lists of witnesses expected to testify. "I think your source has a fertile imagination—as does the prosecution," he asserted. Brafman charged that 50 people had called his office complaining that prosecutors tried to get them to lie on Combs.

I began to empathize with the embarrassment assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos may have felt after having a witness "go hostile" on him on the second day of testimony in the trial of Sean Combs and his "bad boys."

Last Wednesday, Bogdanos was forced to use the grand jury testimony of Leonard Curtis Howard to contradict Howard's testimony in court. Howard, a former corrections officer who moonlighted as a bodyguard for Combs, testified that he had seen Combs frisked on occasion when entering nightclubs. But Howard told the grand jury that he had never seen Combs searched in that situation—an important distinction, since prosecutors claim that Combs carried a gun into the nightclub and fired a shot into the ceiling. "When a witness lies as egregiously as Mr. Howard did, it is incumbent upon the [questioning] attorney to point that out to the jury," Bogdanos told Judge Solomon. He denied Benjamin Brafman's motion for a mistrial.

On Thursday, Club New York bouncer Hassan Mahamah testified that moments before the shooting, he did not see Combs with a gun. What he saw was a doting boyfriend walking toward the club's exit, hand-in-hand with Jennifer Lopez. He later saw Jamal "Shyne" Barrow reach for a gun in his waistband and begin firing into the crowd. "Puff Daddy was on the other side, holding his girlfriend," Mahamah maintained. On Friday, Tarnisha Smith, a 24-year-old nursing student, became the first witness during four days of testimony to claim that Combs had a gun. But Smith appeared uncomfortable, and seemed annoyed that Bogdanos brought up her grand jury testimony whenever she seemed unsure.

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