ATLANTA (AP) — An Atlanta rapper was shot dead in a car outside a hospital where his fiancee was due to give birth in what prosecutors say was an elaborate murder-for-hire plot involving gang members, a former Russian mobster and a basketball star.
Melvin Vernell III — known as Lil Phat — was killed after he stole 10 pounds of marijuana, prosecutors said. They've indicted five people in the plot, including another rapper they say belongs to an Alabama-based gang, a former Russian mafia member turned informant and a college basketball standout from California.
Vernell, who was 19 when he died, stole the drugs from Decensae Xavier White, a San Francisco State University point guard also known as Griz, and Gary Bradford, a rapper who goes by El Dorado Red, prosecutors said. Angry and seeking revenge, the pair hired Deandre Washington and Maurice DeWayne Conner to kill him for $10,000, prosecutors said.
Washington and Conner were able to find Vernell at the hospital on the outskirts of Atlanta using GPS coordinates given to them by White and Bradford, who had gotten the information from Mani Chulpayev, who runs a business leasing expensive luxury cars and had rented out the car Vernell was driving the day he died, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys flatly deny that version of events.
At the June 13 bond hearing for four of the five men accused in Vernell's death, prosecutor Sheila Ross and defense attorneys painted dramatically different portraits of the men accused in the case.
Chulpayev, 38, was convicted in the late 1990s on charges related to his involvement in Russian organized crime and then became an FBI informant, his original lawyer in the current case, George Plumides, said. Plumides told ABC News in May that Chulpayev's FBI handler asked for and received from Chulpayev gifts of cash, jewelry, tickets to sporting events, hotel rooms and the use of luxury cars.
The FBI's Atlanta field office has said the agency took immediate action to address those accusations and that the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General had initiated an investigation.
Plumides, who withdrew from the case after Chulpayev's June 13 bond hearing after prosecutors objected to a perceived conflict, said the FBI agent tried to keep local police investigating Vernell's death away from Chulpayev. But that actually complicated things for him because Chulpayev was eager to talk to police to clear his name in the matter and offered multiple times to take a lie detector test, Plumides said.
Chulpayev rented out luxury cars and had GPS trackers on them so he can repossess the car quickly if the person failed to make a payment, Plumides said. Getting such expensive cars requires capital, and White had invested in Chulpayev's business, which is how White had the tracking information — not because Chulpayev gave it to him to kill Vernell, Plumides said.
Vernell had leased six cars from Chulpayev over an 18-month period, Plumides said.
"Why would you kill the goose that laid the golden egg?" Plumides asked during the bond hearing.
Ross said White was "the setup man," the one with a direct connection to Chulpayev, and who conspired with Bradford to have Vernell killed. White is not a gang member himself but he associates with gang members, like Bradford, Ross said.
White's lawyer, Bruce Harvey, showed the judge television footage of his 25-year-old client's standout performance during the most recent basketball season at San Francisco State University, called him "a success story" and quoted a letter from White's coach calling him a "model citizen" he'd like to hire for his coaching staff.
Bradford is a member of a violent street gang known as the Bang Get Money mafia, or BGM, out of Montgomery, Ala., and has previous convictions, Ross said. The 34-year-old says in a video, "If you cross the BGM, we will kill you," Sandy Springs police Detective J.T. Williams testified at the bond hearing.
But lawyers for Bradford, who said he has had his name legally changed to Salim Sonko, said their client is a rapper with a registered company called BGM and all the tough talk in his songs and the violent imagery in his videos are just part of his image. Bradford's lawyers called numerous witnesses, including his mother and fiancee, who described him as a devoted father to his young son who suffers from autism.
Deandre Washington, who lives in Montgomery, is also a member of the BGM gang with a prior murder charge that was dropped because of a lack of cooperation from witnesses, Ross said. He's the one who pulled the trigger and fatally shot Vernell, she said. Montgomery police arrested him after discovering the warrant out of Atlanta when they responded to a call from Washington's girlfriend, who said he had hit her during an argument.
During the bond hearing, his lawyer Jill Polster described Washington as an unsophisticated 23-year-old with a 9th-grade education and very little money. He lives with his girlfriend's family and knew Bradford casually, having worked with him at a music studio from time to time, Polster said.
At the bond hearing in last month, the judge granted bond only to White. The other three remain in jail.
The fifth defendant, Maurice Conner, was in jail in Alabama and didn't appear at the June bond hearing. Ross pinned him as the one who drove Washington from Alabama to Atlanta and brought him to the hospital where she said he shot Vernell. It wasn't immediately clear whether he had a lawyer.