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Are some groupies so obsessed with Sean “Puffy” Combs that they would do anything, even lie their asses off, to be part of the rap mogul’s sensational gun-possession and bribery trial?
Leonard Taylor did.
“And I am so sorry,” confesses Taylor, a wannabe bouncer and hip hop junkie who had told me he worked at Club New York on the night of the shooting and weaved an intriguing tale about “club brawlers,” a fifth column of bodyguards who ride shotgun for Combs. “I was just looking for publicity,” he adds wryly. “I lied.” Puff! Goes the weasel.
It’s the kind of damaging lie that could help send Combs, 31, to prison for 15 years.
In the Combs case, it seems that Leonard Taylor is not the exception. Following a dramatic fifth day of testimony on Monday in state supreme court in Manhattan, more allegations of testilying appeared to redefine the way the public and the jury view the case against Combs. Veteran courtroom watchers have concluded that there are witnesses on both sides who will testilie—some to convict Combs, others to protect him. In court Monday, hawkish defense attorneys failed to shake shooting victim Natania Reuben, 30, who was the first witness to say she saw Combs fire a gun. Reuben was shot in the face.
Under a blistering cross-examination by Combs’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman, Reuben, who owned a beauty salon in Crown Heights, acknowledged that she filed a $150 million lawsuit against Combs and others because of her injuries. Brafman later told Judge Charles Solomon that the suit gave Reuben a motive to lie. He also challenged Reuben’s credibility in other ways, asking her whether she had ever been arrested in Ohio, whether she had been a welfare cheat in New York, and whether she had defrauded the television show People’s Court in a case she brought against her landlords. Reuben answered no to most questions, and the judge sustained objections to others. Brafman said he will call witnesses who will testify that Reuben had said that if Combs is convicted, she will be a rich woman.
During the lunch break, Combs’s publicists distributed to reporters a videotape of Reuben’s appearance on People’s Court, along with a talking-points guide to debunking her alleged lies. Some of the points:
In another twist last week, key witnesses—the ones prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos hoped could put a smoking gun in Combs’s hand—suddenly marched into court and changed their stories. One, whose security outfit has a contract with Combs’s record company, had never once seen Combs carry a weapon, while another, citing failed memory, wasn’t too sure a black object Combs allegedly had in his hand was a gun or a cell phone.
The Grammy award-winning rapper and CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment—rap music’s hottest label—was arrested on December 27, 1999, after he fled the hip Times Square rathskeller with his girlfriend, actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, when shots rang out. Combs and bodyguard Anthony “Wolf” Jones are charged with gun possession and bribery for offering Combs’s driver $50,000 to take the rap for a gun police allegedly found in a Lincoln Navigator that Combs and Lopez had been hustled into. Police recovered another gun that was thrown out the window of the SUV. Cops and prosecutors say Combs’s protégé, rapper Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, shot and wounded three people at the nightclub after an argument in which a club patron threw money at Combs. The 21-year-old Barrow faces three counts of attempted murder in the case. One of the victims, Robert Thompson of Fairfield, Connecticut, testified last Thursday at the trial in state supreme court in Manhattan that Barrow shot him.
It is against this backdrop that Leonard Taylor concocted his lie. “I didn’t understand the severity of what Puffy was facing until I watched the news on TV today,” Taylor told me in a phone conversation on Thursday afternoon. I’d called to ask him about the testimony earlier that day of bouncer Hassan Mahamah, who said he did not see Combs with a gun before the shooting broke out. Taylor emphasized: “I didn’t understand the severity of what I was doing.”
The brief message he left on my answering service at the Voice was that his name is Leonard Taylor, and he was calling to give me exclusive rights to a story. He said he was a bouncer at Club New York early that morning when Sean Combs and his entourage arrived to party: He knew a lot that has not been told about what happened. He left a phone number.
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.
Smith testified she saw “a lot of commotion,” heard someone say “something about money,” and “then money was thrown” at Combs. She then heard four or five shots and saw Barrow turn and run out of the club, with Combs and Lopez following in his wake. Bogdanos then focused on Combs, seeking to shore up the felony weapons-possession charge against him.
“Did you see anything in his hand?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes, I did,” Smith replied. “Something black.”
“When you saw it, what did you believe it to be?”
“A gun,” Smith said. “At the time that’s what I thought I saw.”
Brafman wasted no time ripping into Smith, questioning how the witness, who is five feet tall, could have seen anything when Combs was surrounded by a phalanx of brawny bodyguards. Smith told Brafman that when she heard the shots, she ducked below the bar’s counter and had an asthma attack after she was trampled by the panicked crowd. She said she was taken by ambulance to St. Clare’s Hospital. At the hospital, before speaking to police and while she was medicated, she rehashed the incident with friends who had accompanied her to the club. Brafman asked whether Smith’s recital of events to police and the grand jury had been more influenced by her discussions with friends and what she heard and saw on television than by what she had actually seen. “It was a combination of both,” she responded.
Brafman stood in front of the jury box and assumed the position that Smith said Combs had been in relative to her position. He then challenged her to tell him what he had in his hand, but she could not. “Could you see exactly what was in his hand?” the lawyer demanded.
“No, I couldn’t,” she said. “I guess not. Whatever I saw was black.”
Brafman reminded her she had told the grand jury that Combs had a gun. “Well, that’s what I said in the grand jury, and if I change my testimony now I’ll perjure myself,” Smith said.
Almost a week after my conversation with would-be impersonator witness Leonard Taylor, I was not sure he’d told me the truth about his lie. Maybe Taylor really did see one of Sean Combs’s “club brawlers” ditching guns, but now was freaking scared that he’d opened his big mouth. If Taylor had given me a false name, why was he so eager to confess? If Leonard Taylor is his name, why would he risk tarnishing it? Besides Taylor’s conscience, who could have gotten to him? I had no way of verifying his story, real or imagined.
Additional reporting by Samuel Maull of Associated Press