Stabbing, lies, and a twisted detective: Inside the murder trial of Drakeo the Ruler
The South Central rapper faces life in prison. After a month in a Los Angeles courtroom, after countless witness testimonies and the lyrics of his own songs used against him, his fate remains murky.
Stabbing, lies, and a twisted detective: Inside the murder trial of Drakeo the Ruler Dewanne Buckmire

“Judging by my case files, I’m obsessed with rifles.” —Drakeo the Ruler, “Ion Rap Beef”

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“From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” —Ahab, Moby Dick

You can spot the Compton Courthouse from miles away. It’s a 12-story, dirty white coffin that looms above the low-slung flats, fast food strip malls, one-room churches, and pothole-strewn avenues that extend in every direction. For a while in the 1980s, Bloods and Crips with a metallic taste for revenge frequently crept into the plaza late at night and fired round after round at the windows. Now, they’re all bulletproof.

Around the time that N.W.A. unleashed Straight Outta Compton, this oxygen-less tomb acquired the nickname “Fort Compton.” It coincided with a story then circulating, about a bailiff who interrupted the proceedings to ask the courtroom spectators if any of them were armed. Shocked, no one moved; until one man produced a gigantic buck knife, which the officer tagged. He was followed by everyone else in the audience, who turned in more than 70 knives, scissors, and razors. Security measures were strengthened after that.

This martial fortification is the most logical reason why the murder trial of South Central rappers Drakeo the Ruler (Darrell Caldwell), his brother Ralfy the Plug (Devante Caldwell — who isn’t even being charged with murder but is mystifyingly on the case), and their Stinc Team brethren, Kellz (Mikell Buchanan) would be held here. Neither the defendants nor the deceased hail from the Hub City. The murder itself was committed in an industrial district of Carson. But there’s a queasy irony to the proceedings being conducted in this spiritual cradle of gangsta rap; rarely, if ever, has the sub-genre been so shamelessly and prejudicially put on trial. Where else would you attempt to crucify the best L.A. rap crew since TDE — or potentially even Death Row and Ruthless — then across the street from Compton High, where Eazy E dropped out and where Dr. Dre. recently donated $10 million to build a performing arts complex?

This isn’t the exact Compton of semi-automatic lore. The picket fence suburb that produced Dodgers great Duke Snider became infamous for “Fuck tha Police,” DJ Quik, and Compton’s Most Wanted, but now, it’s nearly two-thirds Latinx. Early one morning in front of the courthouse, two Mexican cowboys in ten-gallon hats ride stallions excreting giant clumps of dung to stink in the late spring heat. The original Louis Burger, immortalized on wax by Kendrick, sits across the street from a third-wave, independent black-owned coffee shop, where they hand roast the beans in the back. A larger-than-life photo in the window of the Shoe Palace doesn’t depict the world’s most dangerous group, but rather the actors who played them in the $200-million grossing biopic. But Compton is still just like Compton. Two Wednesdays ago, someone was stabbed in front of the courthouse. The weekend before, three were slain in the surrounding blocks.

Fort Compton shares a bleak plaza with Compton City Hall and the municipal library, where aging gangbangers and slumped out homeless bump 2Pac and Nipsey from boomboxes. A lonely bench features sun-damaged tributes to Thurgood Marshall and MLK Jr., Caesar Chavez, and Robert Kennedy. Nearby, a middle-aged black man petitions people walking past: “Do y’all need prayer?” In another corner, two Jehovah’s Witnesses gently recruit beneath a sign that reads: “Is Life Worth Living.”

Mosaics deifying judges and juries adorn the pillars supporting this brutalist tower. They’re accompanied by bronzed placards emphasizing the sober gravity of the American criminal justice system. But those high-minded ideals appear withered — if not defeated — by a half-century of mass incarceration, racially biased mandatory sentencing and crumbling infrastructure. The courthouse exudes a mood so grim that it feels like if you get off on the wrong floor, someone will handcuff you to a radiator and force you to endure electro-shock treatment and a partial lobotomy.

If you get off on the tenth floor, however, you will enter Judge Laura Walton’s crucible. You’re searched three times before you can enter. No cell phones allowed. No reading. No dozing off. No water. When I ask why, they explain that water bottles can be used as a projectile weapon, presumably to melt prosecutors. It’s here, where every morning and afternoon for the last month, they’ve marched the Stinc Team into court and forced them to silently watch while their lyrics and videos are warped into state’s evidence. By exploiting conspiracy and gang laws designed to take down the Mafia and highly organized street gangs, Drakeo faces life imprisonment for a murder and two attempted murders that no one is saying he committed. The rest of the Stinc Team remain locked up in the Men’s Central Jail and Wayside Prison, awaiting trial on a battery of charges ranging from commercial burglary to illegal weapons possession to credit card fraud. Most of the crimes are minor, but the gang enhancements of the California penal code threaten the crew with draconian sentences.

Should you be seeking a test case to examine the toxic plaque corroding the American criminal justice system, you might as well start here, where gangsta rap began, where sadistic detectives and overzealous prosecutors are colluding to demonize street-level art into something deeply sinister — a carceral scheme to ensure that the breaking wheel never stops.

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Man Down, Yell Mayday

It’s described later as an ambush. The bullets ring out from behind, from two different angles, turning a narrow and dimly lit concrete path into a death trap. About 160 partygoers frantically empty out of the function, scattering in every direction. Foreign cars peel out, screeching down Broadway. Topless women flee on foot, others are spotted wearing more chaste boudoir attire. Everyone is unsure how a “Naughty or Nice Pajama Jam” in a dingy warehouse district of Carson turned into a bloodbath. Girls got in free before 10 p.m. It wasn’t even midnight yet; December 10th, 2016.

No partygoers talk to the police. No one can identify the shooters. The principal evidence amounts to shell casings from a .40-glock pistol and a .38 revolver that the detectives find at the scene of the crime. There is darkly lit surveillance video of cars in the parking lot and two groups of men walking past each other. Faces are impossible to identify. The actual murder is not captured on tape.

Before dawn, a semblance of the facts began to cohere. A man is pronounced dead on arrival at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center: 24-year old Davion Gregory, a well-known Inglewood Family Blood nicknamed Red Bull. Five shots pierce his vital organs as he’s about to enter the party. A GoFundMe page later describes him as a “loving father, brother, uncle, son, nephew, cousin, grandson, and friend. For those that knew Davion you knew his smile and laughter could lift an entire room.” It raises $16,495 out of a $20,000 goal.

There are two others wounded: Travis Harvey-Broome, a former star wide receiver for Florida A&M, who briefly played in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants, and Kwentin Polk, a defensive back for Missouri Western State. Harvey knew Gregory from Pop Warner Football, but hadn’t seen him in years. They randomly bumped into each other in the parking lot just before the shots cracked off. Neither of the football players — nor the three friends they arrived with — were gang affiliated. Their injuries are relatively minor.

In the hospital, Harvey and Polk receive an unsolicited visit from two L.A. County sheriff’s detectives named Francis Hardiman and Richard Biddle. While they’re doped up on painkillers and nursing their wounds, Hardiman secretly records their conversation which elicits a few more bits of information. Harvey describes seeing a tall “light-skinned black guy with braids or dreads” in the parking lot. There is a vague recollection of two suspicious cars: a black Mercedes SUV and a red Mustang or Benz. They were there to see a rapper named “Jay Wood” or “J-Wood,” who I cannot find because there are 73 rappers with some variation of that name.

About a week later, Hardiman hears the name “Drakeo the Ruler” while eavesdropping on a wiretap in an unrelated gang case. Confronting the victim’s family with the information, the detective alleges that they too heard street rumors about Drakeo somehow being associated with the crime. This triggers a monomaniacal obsession with the Stinc Team, leading to a series of arrests, betrayals, and steadfast declarations of innocence — the fallout from which continues to be litigated on a daily basis in Compton. The effects and aftershocks will forever alter the trajectory of L.A. rap history.

A Prison Sending Motherfucker

Every darkly compelling story needs an antagonist and this one comes straight from central casting. If you were to create a fictional creature like Detective Francis Hardiman, it would seem too on the nose. Another factory mutant from a brutal line of flatfooted L.A. golems, extending from the bigoted Chief William Parker, who militarized the city’s police force, up through Daryl Gates, Mark Furhrman, and the CRASH Unit of the Rampart Scandal. The latter, a gang unto itself, who many still hold accountable for the death of The Notorious B.I.G.

There is something creepily unsettling in Hardiman’s persecution of the Stinc Team. It’s so bizarre that it invariably recalls the slick sociopaths of the twilight imagination, as though he oozes out of one of those eternal noir archetypes, the corrupt perfidy of Captain Dudley Smith from L.A. Confidential or a double-dealing rival of Phillip Marlowe. A living reminder of what Raymond Chandler once wrote: “Police business is a hell of a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men.”

To Drakeo, Detective Hardiman resembles a more modern bête noire: Mr. Burns. At first, I thought that was a little overwrought, but the more time I spent in the courtroom, the comparison became inescapable. The small scaly hands and sickly gleaming bald skull, the slight hunchback and scheming deliberation. He looks like he subsists on overripe grapefruit and serpent eggs swallowed whole. He seems to relish quoting the word “nigga” out loud, exuding the greasy vengeance of a man who would block the sun or steal candy from a baby on a larf.

It’s Hardiman, who retaliated to Drakeo’s Instagram tirades against him by convincing a judge to banish the rapper to K-19, an ultra-maximum form of solitary confinement where usually only cop killers and the most hardened career criminals are kept. His badge is sanctioned by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, a distinctly different organization from the more notoriously malign LAPD, but no less historically destructive. During the 1970s, the county jails were largely run by a neo-Nazi gang of sheriffs who called themselves “The Vikings.” An ACLU report from 2012 concluded that “the long-standing and pervasive culture of deputy hyper-violence in Los Angeles County jails — a culture apparently condoned at the highest levels — cries out for swift and thorough investigation and intervention by the federal government.” In addition to your run-of-the-mill grotesque deputy brutality, the ACLU said that the abuse included the rape of inmates by police officers.

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Until 2014, the County was controlled by Lee Baca, a Republican ex-Marine, sentenced in 2017 to serve 36 months in federal for conspiring to obstruct an FBI investigation into abuses in Los Angeles County jails. Last year, The Los Angeles Times reported on a nefarious “secret society” of LA County sheriff’s deputies, in which all members sported tattoos of skulls with cowboy hats. The article highlighted that “the revelations have ignited concerns among watchdog groups and county officials that a toxic subculture has once again taken hold in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — or was never rooted out.”

Just a couple weeks ago, the County agreed to pay $7 million dollars of taxpayer money to the family of a 31-year old Compton man who was murdered in cold blood while fleeing from sheriff’s deputies on a foot chase in 2016. They blasted up to 15 rounds, hitting him six times. The cops claimed he was pointing a gun at them, but naturally, no weapon was found. Neither deputy was punished, and one still stalks the Compton streets. The election of new sheriff Alex Villanueva was supposed to help eradicate this poisonous mentality. Instead, he’s reinstated suspended deputies accused of abuse and attacked critical journalists on Twitter.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of decent hard-working officers among the nearly 10,000 sworn-in deputies, but rather to point out that Hardiman is by no means an aberration. He’s a cop known for his aggression and ruthlessness — who has largely avoided press scrutiny during his quarter century behind the blue shield. But two incidents stand out. The first came when he was a young cop in the Hawthorne Police Department. Responding to a domestic call from a wife worried about her drunk and suicidal husband, Hardiman and his then-partner emptied seven rounds into the chest of 38-year old Freddy Soza — a few feet away from his 12-year old son. Hardiman and his partner claimed he had been walking towards them with a large knife. In a Los Angeles Times report from 1995, Soza’s wife said “they shot him because they didn’t care [and because he was Latino].They saw him as a nobody.” It was a national story in Soza’s native Chile, where the press indicted what they believed to be inherent racism

To an outsider, Hardiman’s primary contribution to local police culture has been his dubiously legal use of jailhouse informants or “cooperators,” as he calls them. Both he and his former partner Biddle have sidestepped judicial “technicalities” like Miranda Rights by planting ex-gang member snitches all over Southern California’s jails and prisons. Technically, it’s illegal to do after a suspect has been formally charged, but they’ve exploited a loophole where the law permits them to do it during the window between when someone is in custody and when they’re brought before a judge.

In 2014, the operation briefly blew up on them when a lawsuit exposed their secret weapons, two ex-Mexican Mafia ratas who promised unsuspecting prisoners that they would help them get off the Mafia’s kill list in exchange for confessing their crimes. Hardiman and company spent your taxpayer dollars on lavishing the snitches with cash, birthday cakes, and Del Taco on demand. In 2016, Biddle was accused of planting an informant next to Suge Knight’s cell with the express purpose of manufacturing false testimony to be used against him.

It’s this strategy of surreptitious informants, psychological warfare, and outright falsifications that they’ve used to build the case against Drakeo and the Stinc Team. A haunting miscarriage of justice that plays out daily in Walton’s courtroom. For most of last week, Hardiman took the witness stand for the prosecution, unspooling his self-describing “plotting and scheming.” When the defense cross-examined him later during the trial, asking him about bragging on a recording about being “a prison sending motherfucker,” he smiles wanly and responds: “That sounds like something I’d say. I’ve sent a lot of people to prison.”

Real life murder trials are not Law and Order. For every nail-biting courtroom moment, there are several hours or days of dull testimony intended to exhibit a level of procedural mastery that lulls the jury into believing that these “experts” must know what they’re talking about. In the case of Hardiman, he attempts to flex to the jury about owning his first firearm at age seven.

“I’ve had guns my whole life…a lifelong interest in guns,” Hardiman tells the yawning, half-empty room. Most days, the middle section usually consists of Drakeo’s mother, aunt, and siblings and the family of Buchanan. In the right seating section are the all-white members of the District Attorney’s office and Gregory’s kin. The jurors are culled from a relatively balanced cross-section of L.A. demographics: roughly a third black, a third Latinx, and a third white, with one Asian man. The median age is somewhere in the late-40s.

“I’ve read hundreds of books on guns and probably thousands of articles,” Hardiman continues in a flat Wiggum whine, a voice devoid of bass, all treble. “I’ve been to gun and firearms museums in both the U.S. and Europe.”

This is who we’re dealing with: a pink man wearing floppy suits that look like they come from the DMV couture line, whose vacation detail includes visits to weapons museums on two continents. Fantastic.

His unctuously friendly interlocutor is the deputy district attorney and lead prosecutor, Shannon Cooley, the red-headed scion of LA’s former D.A. Steve Cooley — a Republican infamous for throwing the book at Wynona Ryder and losing the Robert Blake case. Her grandfather was an FBI agent who spent his career chasing Russian communists in L.A. Her father advocated a ban on medical marijuana and vowed to defend Prop. 8, a 2008 ballot measure that outlawed gay marriage in California. In her late 30s, his daughter has a predilection for sensible pant suits, hugging the victim’s family in front of the jurors, and cynically exploiting any opportunity to blur the lines between rap and real life. She walks in every day with “Compton Hardcore Gang” written in marker on the roller that carries her files. Cop is a defect of the blood.

If there’s supposed to be the illusion of distance between the D.A. and the detectives, there is no demonstrative separation here. Hardiman crosses the wooden barrier to confer with the prosecution frequently and without warning. For all practical purposes, this is his case. The result of 30 months of zealotry, over 70 search warrants, another 70 interviews, and 5 hard drives worth of “evidence.” Over the first month, he takes the stand over a half-dozen times, with more testimony alleged to come. He attempts to sway the jury with his Dragnet routine, but often comes off as a dissembling liar when he refuses to admit basic truths that might not bolster his case.

“There were four factors that I knew after the night of the murder,” Hardiman tells the prosecutor. Then he ticks off his fingers: the ballistic evidence of the .38 and .40, the black Mercedes and the red coupe, the light-skinned guy with dreads, and the mention of Drakeo on a wiretap.

“So I turned to the greatest crime fighting tools on earth: Google and social media.”

Ain’t You From The Stinc Team?

About three weeks ago, the producer JoogFTR was arrested and forced to serve several days in Men’s Central Jail for a few petty misdemeanors. The member of the Hit Mob production crew recently produced “Vintage and Adventurous,” the reigning contender for L.A.’s song of the summer. He also made the minimalist beat for “Ion Rap Beef,” which may boast Drakeo’s best verse (“They’re gonna’ have to find a suitable picture for Fox-11). But as soon Joog arrived, the deputies wanted to talk about something else.

“When I got there, a deputy came to my cell and said, ‘aye, come here….ain’t you from the Stinc Team?’

I said no.

He said, ‘I know you run with Shoreline Mafia though!’

I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

The Individuals Involved in “Chunky Monkey”

The “Chunky Monkey” video opens with Ralfy the Plug and Kellz wearing Planet of the Apes mask, sipping on 7-11 coffee, and talking to Drakeo on the phone. The Ruler is displeased. They’re in Claremont, over an hour away. They swear he can get here in 15 minutes. The scene fades to black. “1 Hour Later” flashes onto a title screen.

Swerving onto a gravel lot, the foreign whip crasher arrives in a black Mercedes SUV. The hook comes in over the paranoiac nervous music supplied by Ron-Ron the Producer: “Stupid, we keep the chunky monkeys / Niggas get to trippin’ in the club, we go donkey.” It’s the only acceptable kind of mixed metaphor, one that pays subtle homage to Boosie. They pour up. Ralfy smokes a blunt. They point an arsenal of guns at the camera. Banana splits are gobbled, goofy dancing ensues.

In short, it is a regular street rap video. That kind that could come from Baton Rouge or Detroit, Orlando or Oakland, give or take the subtropical vegetation, simian flair, and the sloping California pronunciation of “weirdo.” At least until the last verse when Drakeo incinerates the beat while barely raising his eyebrows. As deceptively and effortlessly innovative as any rapper breathing, his bars are a slithering labyrinth of cryptic allusions and sarcastic hexes on enemies. It’s obtuse to outsiders, say a jury trying to make sense of what exactly they’re watching. But to those indoctrinated to the cult, it’s a new rap language — a paranoid strain of gangsta rap, devoid of affiliation, steeped in luxury goods and hieroglyphic slang. A form of dangerous prophecy, and is if to cement that hyperbole, Drakeo starts off the verse: “The Mosely, I’m who they really want.”

Drakeo foreshadows his own future; an anxiety that isn’t remotely unfounded. The video is released in mid-October, 2016, six weeks before the Gregory murder. The only major L.A. gangsta rapper to be neither Blood nor Crip, Drakeo was a flashy and highly coveted target on the streets. During the month that “Chunky Monkey” was released, his cousin was robbed, and Drakeo and two other members of the Stinc Team (Ketchy the Great and 2Shitty) were all shot at in separate incidents.

For the last half-century, the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department ruthlessly patrolled South Central, pale weaponized ghouls who thought nothing of deploying the batter-ram to destroy entire apartment buildings, “sending a message” to gang members and leaving behind “LAPD Rules” and “Rollin 30s Die” graffiti in the ruins. So there’s no point in even bothering to ask why the Stinc Team wasn’t about to pop up at the precinct and ask 12 for help in apprehending the shooters.

As for “Chunky Monkey,” the video currently has over 1.1 million views, but it’s clear that at least a thousand of them come from Hardiman. This is why it’s being shown in court to the 12 members of the jury, who are mostly baffled by what exactly a murder has to do rappers going full Dr. Zaius. Of course, it’s also obvious that prosecutors are hoping to terrify the jury into believing that there is no difference between real life and rap videos. It doesn’t appear to work. Drakeo later calls me and asks me if I noticed juror #7: “He was really bopping to it.”

For the obsessive detective, the “Chunky Monkey” video is a Rosetta stone that unlocks his theory.

“After watching the video, it provided me with information that matched the four factors discovered at the crime scene,” Hardiman says on the stand, flashing his embalming fluid smile.

The clip features Drakeo pulling up in a black Mercedes Benz similar to the one spotted before the shooting. There is Kellz pointing a .40 Glock pistol at the camera. There is Ralfy pulling back his jacket to reveal a loaded .38 revolver. Towards the end, you see Daveion “Solo” Ervin, a non-rapping member of the Stinc Team, who happens to have dreads. Hardiman runs one of the serial numbers of the Glock through an automated firearms system and claims that the model matches the ballistics of the evidence found in Carson. From here, things began to unravel.

Without his knowledge, the detectives begin to stalk Drakeo. They obtain warrants from telephone companies to obtain the cell numbers and addresses of members of the Stinc Team. They watch the “Bully Breaker” video, which Hardiman alleges helped him track down Drakeo’s $2600-a-month one-bedroom apartment on Aviation Blvd., not far from LAX — a claim that seems unlikely at best, absurd at worst. The detectives contact the building manager to obtain security footage from the night of the crime. They pop up at 11:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, two sad vindictive little men watching Drakeo and his friends celebrate the dawn of 2017.

“I wanted to find the guns used in the murder!” Hardiman swears to the D.A., sweating and neurotic.

On January 2, 2017, the investigation ramps up. Hardiman sends two detectives to arrest Drakeo while he’s innocuously chilling in the building parking lot. Later that afternoon, he orders a SWAT Team to raid the apartment, arresting Ralfy, Stinc Team member 2Shitty (Joshua Torres), Drakeo and Ralfy’s mother, and everyone else who had the misfortune of being present. They seize a cache of guns hidden inside a loveseat. None of them were used in the murder, but the D.A. insists on showing the allegedly stolen weapons in pornographic detail for the jury. They also find the masks used in the “Chunky Monkey” video; the D.A. declines to show us these.

With the Stinc Team behind bars, the dirty cop tricks compound. Hardiman secretly plants wired snitches in each of their cells, feeding them full of information about Gregory’s murder and paying them to elicit confessions. In the course of the operation, 2Shitty inadvertently tells the informant that the shooter is a 17-year old Rollin 40s Crip named Jaidan Boyd, who goes by AB (Arlington Blue). It should be the start of the end of the investigation. But this is not your average case. Somehow, the scope only expands.

Who The Fuck Made Him The Ruler?

Before we hear the disembodied voice of Jaidan Boyd, we see him dehumanized.

This is the teenager accused of being one of the two triggermen behind the murder that ensnared Drakeo and the Stinc Team. His case has been severed from Drakeo, Ralfy, and Kellz, and he pleads the fifth to avoid testifying. Nonetheless, the prosecution will play the entire secret jailhouse recording where he accidentally condemns himself to hell. But before they produce it for the jury, they show a photo exhibition of the adolescent: shirtless and muscular, glowering and covered in gang tattoos, wearing a ski mask and pointing pistols at the lens. There is no mistaking the intent.

The white district attorney and her white assistant D.A. and the so white-they’re-salmon pink detectives want to caricature him to the point of becoming a monster. All natural emotions and fear stripped away. In their eyes, he and Drakeo and Ralfy and Kellz and the rest of the Stinc Team are a series of scowls — tribal affiliations and tattoos scrawled onto their skin. It is the same racial animus that you can trace back to the auctioneers and slave traders inspecting human chattel fresh off the middle passage. It is vile and nauseating, but impossible to ignore. It is the central animating fixation that runs through every aspect of the case — from the victims to the defendants to the innocent bystanders caught in the middle. They refer to them almost exclusively by their gang names or rap aliases. They never miss a chance to show the jury pictures of everyone wielding guns. Their languages and codes are manipulated. Even the mugshots look doctored to make everyone’s skin appear darker. It is the sort of thing that fundamentally decent people hoped had begun to fade with the abolition of Jim Crow, the election of Obama, or any number of signs you might use to intimate that the tide was finally shifting. But if you’re in the Compton Courthouse on a daily basis, you understand that notion to be fantasy. In the age of Trump, the pestilential torments of the past continue to infect the present, no matter where you look.

* * *

They call it a Perkins Operation. Its name comes from the case Illinois Vs. Perkins, where the court ruled that police can place undercover agents in cells and use anything remotely incriminating because the confessions occur without the pressures of a “police-dominated atmosphere and compulsion.”

In the case of Boyd, his cellmate is a fake O.G. who claims East Coast Crip, a large faction that forms a part of the Neighborhood Crips with the Rollin 40s, the set to which Boyd claimed allegiance. We hear the entire hour and 22 minute recording, an excruciating and often inaudible experience. The judge instructs the jury that only the actual recording is admissible as evidence, but allows the D.A. to pass out transcripts of the conversation, filled with their own Rap Genius misheard interpretations that favor their arguments.

The Boyd Perkins occurs in mid-February of 2017. By now, nearly everyone connected to the case is incarcerated, though none have been formally charged with the murder.

“This is how it’s gonna’ be,” the snitch says to Boyd on the recording. “There’s five of you…they might take all five of y’all together…or whoever snitches will get a decent deal.”

It’s obvious how obsessed the detectives are with bringing down Drakeo. Whenever the conversation stalls, the informant returns to Drakeo, lamely mocking him as Drakeo the Jeweler or Drakeo the Drooler, insinuating that he’s a nobody, asking “who made him the ruler?” The cops listen to the conversation in real-time, periodically removing Boyd from the cell to interrogate him. They play a cat and mouse game, snatching up Boyd, then removing the snitch, planting seeds of doubt in the kid’s head, telling them that he’s in deep trouble, that all his friends have all turned against him. He is 17. This is his first time in jail and it is clear he is very afraid.

Boyd’s desperation and fear begin to metastasize. He worries about his mother and his girlfriend. He vows that if he makes it out alive, he’ll never return to the streets. The snitch prods and manipulates him, alternating between offering the sound advice of someone who has spent the better part of his life incarcerated — then cynically vampiring the teenager for more info.

“People were saying on Facebook that it was Drakeo and Solo because everyone spotted Drakeo’s car there ‘cuz he’a a famous rapper…And I was fine with that,” Boyd moans.

“It’s C.Y.A.,” the snitch tells him. “Cover your own ass. A lot of niggas can get off the case on you and make you look like a monster.”

It’s too much for the frightened high schooler. He eventually confides everything to the snitch. Admits that he was shooting with the .38, while Buchanan allegedly fired with the .40 Glock. Explains that he’d been actively beefing with Red Bull and once he saw him walk past, it was blast on-site. The snitch keeps on trying to get him to say that Drakeo was behind it all, telling him that Drakeo has probably informed on him and the only wise move is to turn against him. But he never incriminates anyone apart from himself and Kellz.

By now, the case is theoretically solved. The detectives obtained a recorded confession from the shooter and the presumed identity of the other gunman. Two Crips allegedly killing a Blood from an enemy hood — an archetypal LA tragedy. But this isn’t enough for Hardiman. There is nothing to level Drakeo, aside from the gun charge that will still lock him up for a year of his prime. So he starts swinging even more wildly; this time with the dim conspiratorial glee of a YouTube commenter.

Rather than reveling in his ability to be a prison sending motherfucker, Hardiman hones in on one of Boyd’s offhand and contradictory remarks: “We wasn’t going on a mission, it was just when we got there, we was there for a nigga from Athens [Park Bloods].” The snitch says “it wasn’t that nigga RJ was it?” Boyd mumbles something inaudible, which the prosecution claims is “on wood.”

To Hardiman and the D.A., this is an admission that Drakeo directed them all there to kill RJ, the former DJ Mustard protégé who wasn’t supposed to perform at or even attend the party, and certainly never showed up. No one is sure who “we” is. It could’ve been one of a half-dozen people. But because of this, they’re alleging Drakeo led a conspiracy to murder, which makes him somehow complicit in the killing of Gregory.

This is the only real evidence that exists against Drakeo. A covertly recorded jailhouse conversation that alleges that an unnamed “we” were at the party to “get” an unnamed member of a very large gang. The case against him isn’t merely flimsy, it’s essentially non-existent. In the absence of reasonable proof that could point to Drakeo’s guilt, the D.A. and detectives have resorted to that old-fashioned racist default: they’re crucifying rap and hip-hop culture.

Lord, Keep Me Away From These Bums

Attempting to squander the court’s time before a long recess, the District Attorney plays the Perkins Operation where they attempted to dupe Drakeo. It lasts for about a minute and a half.

The snitch keeps trying to get Drakeo to incriminate himself, but all he says is that they locked up his mother, his brother, and all of his friends for no reason. The detectives are weirdos. Etc.

When the D.A. asks Hardiman about it on the stand, he says with a pained grimace: “It was pretty quiet in there. Mr. Caldwell didn’t say much.”

Pigtail Flat Tops, Please Tell Me What That’s About?

It’s disturbing to ruminate upon the massive waste of tax dollars, time, and resources devoted to making an entire courtroom watch Drakeo clown RJ’s pigtail curls, the slashes in his eyebrows, lack of hustle, and advanced age. They play the video not once but thrice. There probably hasn’t been a more entertaining moment in the American criminal justice system since Johnnie Cochrane famously coined the phrase, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

The “Flex Freestyle” is all the prosecution can attempt to pin on Drakeo. It’s a top 5 rap diss (my other candidates: Pusha’s “Story of Adidon,” Sauce Walka’s “Wack 2 Wack,” Lil B’s “Fuck KD” or “T Shirt and Buddens;” Prince Metropolis Known’s “Troy Ave Sucks.”) of the last decade, not because it tries to be the new “Hit ‘Em Up,” but because it aims to be the opposite; it’s completely nonchalant, unbothered, and effortlessly scathing. The most vicious line is a taunt that he’s driving around with RJ in the trunk. He also discusses fist-fighting Jesus. There’s no word whether there will be assault charges filed for that, but the trial isn’t over yet.

Hardiman asks the jury to note the blink-and-you-missed-it line where Drakeo claims that he has RJ tied up in the back. If this was 1990, the “people” would be attempting to prosecute Ice Cube for threatening to hang Eazy E from a tree with no Vaseline, just a match and a little bit of gasoline.

It is a patently insane and dangerous thing for detectives and district attorneys to submit a rap diss as evidence of murder. Battling has been fundamental to the art form since the Bronx Park routines. To claim that Drakeo’s “Flex Freestyle” is admissible in a courtroom is like saying that Roxanne Shante can be sued for defamation for alleging that The Educated Rapper in UTFO didn’t graduate high school, or prosecuting KRS for making terrorist threats against the Queensboro Bridge, or that when Meek Mill tweeted “Z” it was really a coded sign for the Los Zetas cartel to dismember Drake and leave him lying in the Rouge River. But this isn’t a new approach. Throughout rap’s four-decade history, racist prosecutors have repeatedly attempted to rescind the first amendment rights of rappers. Whether it’s N.W.A. being threatened with arrest for performing “Fuck The Police,” Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” or 2 Live Crew being temporarily “banned in the U.S.A”, the war-on-crime ferrets of Reagan’s America established a precedent where freedom of expression was perpetually under attack.

At the turn of the century, Shyne and No Limit’s Mac saw their lyrics scrutinized and stripped of context in order for prosecutors to tar them as demonic killers. As rap has become the most popular form of music, the fervor against it has only increased. According to Erik Nielson, the University of Richmond professor and co-author of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, there have been hundreds of instances in the last decade where rappers — both famous and anonymous — have had their lyrics weaponized against them in the court of law.

At Boosie’s 2012 murder trial, prosecutors played several a capella version of his songs to try to tie him to a slaying allegedly committed by a teenage hitman; he was unanimously acquitted. In 2015, the state of Georgia briefly deliberated using Young Thug’s “Halftime” video as evidence against him in a potential conspiracy to shoot up Lil Wayne’s tour bus. But it’s difficult to find a case like Drakeo’s, where a judge has practically deemed half of his videos as admissible. If there’s usually at least the pretense of acknowledging the differences between art and evidence, it has been completely obliterated in Compton.

There are no videos where Drakeo threatens RJ’s life. Not even a diss song or an Instagram story where he legitimately says something that could make you think to yourself, “Damn, he really crossed a line.” Instead, the D.A. has a few tweets. One has RJ crowing, “As far as this street shit in LA. I’m at the top…period…mention my name with the top dogs in LA that’s a fact.” Drakeo responded, “you can’t honestly believe that remark right there 🤔 I got the streets. You had the streets.” RJ hit back with “nah u ain’t fucking wit me bro.” Drakeo clotheslined him with “that’s what LA’s saying Mr. LA.”

The prosecution’s ostensible coup de grace is a Drakeo interview clip from a mostly defunct YouTube channel called GXPO. It’s a trifling click-bait compilation video called “Who is the Real Mr. LA,” intended to magnify a minor beef to do YouTube numbers. When asked about RJ, Drakeo smirks and recounts the anodyne nature of their rivalry, which basically boiled down to Drakeo supplanting RJ as the younger people’s choice. RJ caught feelings, dashed off a few subliminal diss songs that no one cared about (the D.A. also shows these to the jury), and then tries to call the Stinc Team “the queef team.”

In the interview, Drakeo brushes off the notion of real enmity, playfully grinning at the camera and telling them that RJ is really a back-up dancer from Redondo Beach.

If anyone was going to be heated, it would’ve been RJ, who admittedly had a solid and underrated run, but never quite recovered from his battles with Drakeo and 03 Greedo. At the time of the conflict, there was talk about him and Drakeo meeting up to fight it out. It never happened. In the wake of the conspiracy case, RJ has filmed several IG videos stating that he doesn’t believe that Drakeo tried to kill him. About a week after the Gregory murder, Drakeo and RJ ran into each other at Berri’s Pizza, a late night hangout in Hollywood. All remaining bad blood was put to rest then. Just last week, Drakeo wrote on his IG story that he never tried or planned to kill RJ and that they squashed the conflict before he went to prison. RJ quoted it and said in all caps: “AIN’T NO BEEF.” Naturally, the D.A. declines to mention this.

Instead, it’s more testimony from a 50-year old white detective explaining the nature of gang life and rap beef to an incredulous jury. In a cross-examination by Kellz’s attorney, Keith Bowman (a powerfully built gale force who would be played by a young Louis Gossett Jr. in the adaptation), Hardiman gets rocked hard by a line of questions about how an informant would’ve known to produce RJ’s name out of thin air. Hardiman stammers about how he’s not a rap guy, but how the middle-aged sounding snitch would theoretically be magically well-versed in the subtle nuances of L.A. rap beef.

The detective’s credibility is further eroded in an interrogation with John Hamasaki, one of Drakeo’s two attorneys. A charismatic and sharp San Francisco civil rights and criminal defense attorney with a specialty in rap and first amendment cases, Hamasaki boasts the pugnacious streak of someone who pumps himself up for trial by bumping 2Pac’s “Hit Em Up.” In many ways, he operates as a surrogate for Drakeo, getting under the prosecution and detective’s skin and talking shit. At several points, he and Hardiman appear on the verge of squabbling in the parking lot.

“How many Drakeo videos did you watch in the course of your investigation,” Hamasaki sardonically asks the detective.

“I don’t know…over 20 probably.”

“In any of these videos, did you come across any evidence of RJ ever being tied up in Drakeo’s trunk?”

“I have no evidence that he was,” Hardiman hisses.

“Do you know the difference between fact and fiction?”

“I do.”

Shot Five Times, All Over His Torso

The coroner looks like he hasn’t seen sunlight in over a century. His skin is the color of ashes and he vaguely resembles the science teacher from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who lived to dismember frogs and struggled with the switch to Sanka.

If there was any lingering doubt that the victims are merely pawns for the D.A. and detectives to pursue their vendetta against the Drakeo and Stinc Team, it vanishes here. The prosecution offers no warning nor any visible hint of sympathy for the family of Gregory, who have packed the courtroom. A dignified elderly woman, presumably the grandmother of the deceased, begins weeping uncontrollably as the coroner makes cold-blooded circles on a blown-up photo of Gregory’s corpse — like he’s a football coach diagramming a wide receiver’s slant route.

No matter whether you’re hoping for an acquittal or a conviction, it’s a wrenchingly sad and intense thing to watch, made even more grievous by the callous dispassion with which the lost life is being dissected. It is hard not to notice the tattoo of the word “HATE” written on the dead young man’s body.

I Don’t Want Nothing To Do With This

A victim is escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs. This is Kwentin Polk, one of the two football players in the wrong place on that cursed December night nearly three years ago. Before he even enters the courtroom, the D.A. whines to the judge about how he’s afraid to testify, fearful of being labeled a snitch.

While recuperating in the hospital, Polk gave an initial statement to Hardiman on the night of the murder, but had nothing to add. He never saw the shooters and didn’t even know Gregory. If anyone is an innocent casualty of the crime, it’s Polk. But there is little sympathy on the side of the law for a college athlete who merely wants to move on with his life and forget that that stupid party ever existed — at least as much as you can when a bullet in your leg will forever set off metal detectors.

For his troubles, Hardiman serves him with a subpoena to testify. Polk warily agrees to comply, but when he gives the least bit of static, the detective demands an arrest warrant from the judge, waits outside Polk’s house for hours, and arrests him as a way of forcing him to appear in court. When he’s dragged in the next day, Polk remains in his workout clothes, having spent a fitful and uncomfortable night at the county jail. In open court, he labels the treatment to be harassment. The detective claims he’s just doing his job. But a cross-examination from Kellz’s attorney catches the officer in a bald-faced lie. The arrest of Polk was made a day prior to him being supposed to report to Compton.

The D.A asks a litany of questions which Polk mostly answers with “I don’t recall.” His stare is heavy, stolid and antagonistic towards the prosecution. His mother and grandmother are in the courtroom, near tears, anxious about too much to even start to explain.

He’s forced to relive the trauma via the original 911 call. In the cross-examination from Drakeo’s lawyer, Polk explains, “I don’t have any fear. Being here is something I don’t believe in and was forced to do.”

It’s difficult to imagine him being afraid. He looks like he’s able to bench 350 lbs. and run a 4.4 40. A few minutes prior, we listened to the furtively recorded interview that Hardiman and Biddle did in the hospital on the night of the shooting. Polk offers the same story: that of an ambush where he saw nothing and had no hint as to why it would happen. What is hard to forget is the sound of the policemen’s Sméagol laughter and feeble lies.

“If you tell us any information about what happened, no one will ever know,” Biddle snorts.

“For reals, we can keep you out of it,” Hardiman chimes in with a voice that sounds like rancid milk bubbling. “Get on your thumbs [on social media] and do some work for us.”

* * *

The following afternoon, the court calls Travis Harvey-Broome, the hulking ex-NFL player who was also wounded. He tells the audience that he doesn’t want to be here today, but he can’t play football with a warrant out for his arrest. He repeats the same story from the night of the murder: how he ran into Gregory, his old Pop Warner teammate who he hadn’t seen in years. The bullets hit them before they even knew what was happening. The next thing Harvey remembers is seeing Polk and Gregory being lifted on gurneys into an ambulance.

Frantically searching for his friends, Harvey makes his way to the front of the party. A cop sees him and throws him into the back of a squad car, demanding his ID. He tries to explain, “I wasn’t the shooter…I was the one who got shot.” They ignore him. So do the first round of paramedics, who take the others to the hospital, while Harvey is left to bleed all over the back of the police car. Finally, he is taken to Harbor Medical, where he’s confronted by the Hardiman and Biddle. His testimony is mostly inconsequential. The D.A. attempts to portray it as a part of a sinister plot by the defendants to suppress the truth. But the prosecutors and detectives have admirably revealed about why no one would ever want to trust them.

In a cross examination, Drakeo’s other attorney, Frank Duncan asks Harvey whether his reticence is partially related to the stigma attached to being involved a gang-related shooting.

“If you’re associated with something negative, you can get cut.”

“And your money is not guaranteed, correct?”

The South Central-raised football player shakes his head. It’s hard not to see this as a real-life version of Boyz In the Hood, except this time Doughboy dies and Ricky lives.

“If you’re like Tom Brady or Odell Beckham, it doesn’t matter if you’ve involved in something like this…their money’s good.”

“And your money?”

“My money’s not good.”

37 Rounds

On the night of June 6, two sheriff’s deputies pulled into a parking lot near the corners of East 132nd and South San Pedro Streets, just three miles from the Compton Courthouse. As soon as they exit their police cruiser, they draw their weapons at a man in a white Kia. Terrified, he begins backing out of the parking space. They respond by pumping 37 rounds into the vehicle, instantly killing 24-year old Ryan Twyman, a father of three. He is unarmed.

The sheriff’s department shields the identities of the deputies and claims that the driver was using his vehicle as a weapon. Twyman’s father responds: “After waking up this morning and watching this video, I have a clear opinion that my son was murdered.” Ryan’s sister adds: “We just want to see justice for Ryan,” she said. “Because this isn’t the first one, and most definitely it won’t be the last one.”

Led by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, multiple anti-police brutality protests occur. That same weekend, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies kill two other men: one in Inglewood and one in San Gabriel.

Mei Ling Just Took Me Shopping

Neiman Marcus know the Stinc Team and they will never forget them. As part of the prosecution’s case, a salesclerk and the head of loss prevention from the Beverly Hills branch of the luxury department store, testify against the rap crew. According to them, Ralfy the Plug twice led a group of Stinc Team members on a Montcler, Alexander McQueen, and Buscemi shopping spree. The only problem was that the credit cards were stolen.

Should you be wondering what a minor instance of credit card fraud has to do with a murder case, that’s a good question. The long answer involves a complicated history of gang policing and a rich legacy of California judges and lawmakers willing to bend to every tyrannical request from law enforcement. The short answer is that the system is irredeemably fucked.

Under Penal Code Section 186.22, all you need to be considered a street gang is an ongoing organization of three or more people, a common name or identifying mark or symbol, and members who individually or collectively engage in criminal activity. Of course, criminal activity can be defined as anything from intimidating a witness to “mayhem” to illegally possessing a gun, to graffiti damages that cost more than $400. If the jury deems the Stinc Team a gang, a relatively slight indiscretion like say, using a stolen credit card, can carry penalties of 15 years to life — even though Ralfy’s never been convicted of a felony. Otherwise, even if he’s convicted, Ralfy will likely walk free after having already served 18 months in county jail.

The other crimes against Ralfy are similarly inconsequential. We are bored by outtakes from the “Right Decision” video, forcibly confiscated from the director Voice2Hard’s hard drives, which depict the Stinc Team spray-painting their names in a desolate graffiti-covered train yard. At one point, Ketchy the Great writes “Fuck2Snitchy,” a reference to Joshua Torres (2Shitty), who implicated Boyd in the murder. Ralfy repeats twice, “Don’t make no threats.” In the final version of the video you see the epithet for one second. For this, he’s being charged with “persuading a witness and accessory to a crime after the fact.” Fifteen-to-life in prison with the gang enhancement.

The detectives can’t actually prove that Ralfy stole the credit cards, so they show video footage from a separate burglary of All Best Logistics, a sketchy-seeming “transportation and shipping” company in the City of Commerce. In the surveillance footage, shot nearly a year after the murder, we watch two separate incidents. In the first one, a thief steals a small handgun, but he’s shrouded in a hoodie and unrecognizable. In the second clip, Ralfy appears to be aimlessly wandering through their offices; nothing is actually taken. Several weeks later, Drakeo was arrested with the gun in a convenience store after being trailed by a patrol officer likely sent by Hardiman to stalk him.

There is (yes, really) a separate sub-plot where the prosecution is attempting to slander Drakeo and the Stinc Team as racist against Asians. It’s partially due to their appropriation of classical oriental motifs for their iconography, and partially because they stand accused of targeting Asians in burglaries. As to the former charge, Drakeo explains that the Buddha and Cat logos of the Stinc Team stand for good business and good luck. He has reiterated multiple times how much he loves his Asian fans and Asian culture, and pointed out that he has Asian members of his family and an Asian-American attorney. As far as the latter charge, well, allow me to say that “Flu Flamming” is a canonical rap song.

To be fair to the other side, it’s fairly unimpeachable that the Stinc Team members purchased a few grand worth of clothing with stolen credit cards. The evidence is all over their videos, gathered by Hardiman who saw a price tag for one of the Montcler jackets and spent hours calling every high-end department store in town just to see if similar items had been fraudulently purchased (“Neiman & Marcus Don’t Know You” must’ve helped narrow the hunt).

But there is only circumstantial proof that the Stinc Team stole the credit cards in the first place. So in addition to the Neiman Marcus axis, the D.A. trots out a trio of Asian men and women, complete with Korean and Mandarin interpreters. The Q&A for each is identical:

“Did you go to Neiman and Marcus in Beverly Hills?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Did you give anyone permission to use your credit on that date?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Did you purchase these items?”

The D.A. reveals a series of flamboyant high-end designer clothing. In each circumstance, the victim shakes their head.

“No, I didn’t.”

Then it’s time for Ralfy’s attorney Jovan Blacknell, to cross-examine Dae Han Lee, the baby-faced witness in a black polo shirt, who exudes a dazed where-am-I aura.

“Did you ever find your stolen wallet?” Blacknell inquires.

Bespectacled and slim, Blacknell is cerebral, subdued and very effective. He recently earned notoriety as the lawyer who won a murder charge acquittal for Cameron Terrell, the white Palos Verdes teenager turned Rollin’ 90s Crip.

Through the interpreter, Lee shakes his head sadly and says, “No, I never found my wallet.”

Blacknell nods his head gravely.

“But have you ever listened to the Stinc Team?”

AUDIENCE MEMBER GOT STABBED OUTSIDE COURT

During one of the most intense days of testimony, the normally sluggish courtroom bristles with tension. On one side, it appears that a half-dozen Bloods have come to witness the murder trial of their dead friend. On the other side, roughly a dozen equally menacing men in their 20s — disproportionately wearing Blue — materialize to see if the prosecution’s star witness will snitch on Kellz.

Everyone is respectful in the courtroom, but there is the feeling of a hovering rain cloud, ready to drown us at any point. When the judge tells everyone to break for lunch, a conflict seems averted. But about an hour after we return, the bailiff passes Hardiman a note. Written in all caps, it reads: AUDIENCE MEMBER GOT STABBED OUTSIDE COURT

A few minutes later, it’s time for the afternoon intermission. Just outside the courtroom, on the 10th floor, the bailiffs handcuff a guy in burgundy pants and a black T-shirt. He doesn’t utter a word. For the next 10 minutes, no one is allowed to use the elevators. No one on either side returns to court for the duration of the trial.

Ion Know Nothing

Most days, Drakeo hits me up on my way home from trial. I’ll be grappling with the migraine traffic of the 710 and he receives a brief window to make phone calls before they send him back to the dungeon.

We usually wind up replaying the day’s proceedings: the reasonable doubt so glaringly large you could drive a tank through it. The inconsistencies and fabrications that Hardiman spins on the stand. The bizarre obsession that they have with him. If it’s a given that hundreds of rappers are paranoid about the Feds watching, Drakeo is proof that sometimes they are. They will comb through every Tweet and every DM, scrutinize every interaction on every social media app, every phone call. They will bust the doors down and search every inch of your property, digital and physical. Forget your constitutional protections. A persistent cop can persuade the right judge to give them a search warrant for just about anything. And if you don’t have an iPhone, best believe, they’ll crack your Android and use anything they can find as against you in court.

“They never mention that every one of my videos, every direct message or tweet that they’re trying to use against me, was said because I was trying to protect myself,” Drakeo sighs. “During one week in October [2016], niggas shot at me, they shot at Ketchy, they shot at Josh (2Shitty), and they robbed [my cousin] Randall. You don’t see the detectives trying to go after who did that to us!”

For the most part, Drakeo stays calm and collected. He politely stands up every time the jury walks in, wearing brand-new Burberry and Montcler shirts that his mother and aunt dutifully bring him and Ralfy. Their spirits remain largely optimistic. Both expect to be home by mid-July.

“I’m just regular about it,” Drakeo says. “I know they’re just painting a picture that’s not there. It’s outright racism. We’re the only people they’re doing this shit too. N.W.A had guns in all their videos. When we have a gun in the video, it’s a felony charge with a gang enhancement. I’m the one being charged with conspiracy, not the actual gang members involved.”

None of this is easy to explain. The case is purposely esoteric to confuse the jurors. It’s a matter of just throwing as much against the wall to see what if anything sticks. The trial has exceeded the one month mark and the district attorney seems increasingly despairing, repeating exhibits and videos over and over again. It feels Groundhog’s Day with a better soundtrack.

“This shit is looking cool,” Drakeo adds. “What else can they say? Even the defense’s star witness said I had nothing to do with it.”

I Know You Rider

The star witness doesn’t want to be here, but it’s too late for that. His name is Daveion Ervin, but since he was in a jerkin’ crew as a teenager, everyone just calls him Solo. For the better part of a week, Solo takes the stand to alternately implicate and exonerate the members of his former crew.

He was the only one actually identified at the crime scene — the tall, dreadlocked, light-skinned male standing outside in the parking lot, minutes before the murder. And because everyone else has either pled the fifth or refused to testify, it’s his retelling that will be the only one entered into the public record. Should you believe him, it’s likely the closest that outsiders will ever get to knowing exactly what went down at that party on December 10, 2016. Of course, no one was supposed to talk, but the police have long mastered the art of making people cough up blood.

About two weeks after the January 2017 raid on Drakeo’s apartment, Solo wound up handcuffed in the Men’s Central Jail. Hardiman had served a search warrant on all of the Stinc Team’s social media pages, trawling for even the most mundane crime. He found one on Kellz’s Facebook: a several seconds-long video of Solo pointing a .38 revolver at his head and firing into the ceiling. It was either an accident, a dumb clout gag, or both. It was all the cop needed.

Acquiring a search warrant, the detective went to the apartment, ordered the popcorn ceiling removed, and discovered a bullet still lodged there. The Sheriff’s forensics teams concluded that it matched the make of the .38 fired at the crime scene. Enough to have Solo arrested for negligent discharge of a firearm and the illegal possession of a firearm by a felon.

In the interrogation room, the officers told him that the gun charges would lead to a third strike conviction, meaning life in prison. Without the money to hire a good attorney, Solo didn’t realize that he wasn’t even eligible for a third strike (with only one adult felony conviction for residential burglary). They told him that they had witnesses placing him at the scene, and footage of him holding the murder weapon. If he didn’t confess, they might try him for the slaying of Gregory too.

During his initial interview, Ervin lied incessantly. He said he wasn’t at the party, the gun was a fake, and that he hadn’t seen Drakeo in eight months. The façade lasted roughly 30 minutes after they returned him to his cell. Racked with anxiety, aware that they already knew too much, Solo cracked. Requesting another interview, he eventually copped a plea deal, and depending on who you believe, told the detectives everything he knew. Had he not, they were ready to sentence him to 13 years in jail for accidentally firing a gun.

So there he is, 18 months later, slumped over on the witness stand, unspooling his life story in an Adidas Tracksuit. There is a sad, hangdog expression to his face, which looks uncannily like J. Cole. His sense of shame is unmistakable. The government paid $1,500 for his relocation out of state, a comically insignificant sum, considering his name will be immutably stained on the streets of L.A. He eventually returned home against their will and acquired a misdemeanor charge for receiving stolen property. In the wake of his flip, threats have poured in via DM and text. His testimony could fatally sink both Boyd and Buchanan, his one-time friends. Conversely, if Drakeo is acquitted, it will unquestionably be due to Solo’s testimony.

It’s easy to see him as a hapless victim of circumstance: raised poor in the 60s and all over L.A.; not a gangbanger, but his proximity and familial links to Crips put a half-dozen bullets in his body by his early 20s; multiple convictions for burglary, most as a teen. In the late ‘00s, he met Drakeo in when they danced for different jerkin’ crews, but they didn’t become close until 2015, when Drakeo put out a call for juice and Solo delivered. A close friendship was sparked. Solo officially became a member of the Stinc Team. He was all up in the videos and on stage at the shows, dancing and waving pistols to look “extra cool.” Because Drakeo didn’t want to be bothered, he’d give people Solo’s number and have him operate as the de facto call screener. The Turtle of the entourage.

The night that destroyed it all started out exactly like any other. The Stinc Team was just kicking it at Drakeo’s place on Aviation: Drakeo, Ralfy, Solo, Philly, Kellz, Young Bull, Ketchy the Great, Good Finesse. People wander in and out of the apartment, smoking, drinking, sipping, whatever. At some point, Solo claimed that Drakeo shows him the party on Instagram and they all make plans to go. Before they leave, Solo receives a call from Jaidan Boyd. He tells him about the party and that if he makes it to Drakeo’s in time, he can roll with them there.

Before they make it to Carson, they post up for 20 minutes in a random parking lot down the road from Drakeo’s, so Good Finesse and another Stinc Team member can fight. It immediately winds up on social. No one is hurt and none of it matters. I’m only telling you because the D.A. showed the videos in court as part of her ceaseless quest to stereotype them as brainless savages rather than as young adults, barely out of adolescence, raised on WorldStar.

The Stinc Team caravans in five cars to the party. Drakeo drives in the Benz with Solo riding shotgun, Kellz sitting directly behind. It’s in Carson, 15 minutes away, a semi-industrial big box city of 90,000 on the fringes of L.A. County, best known for producing Brandy and Ray J. Even though you can’t actually see the murder, the parking lot video is played dozens of times, until it’s ingrained in the collective courtroom memory. Solo is asked to explain who is who and what is what: untangling a mess of a surveillance footage, glaring headlights and shadow figures. We see Drakeo’s car roll past and park off-screen. Solo pops out and directs Boyd where to park; Boyd gets out of his car, puts on a jacket, and drives outside the camera’s purview. They all return to their cars.

In Solo’s recollection, they are sitting in the car, sitting, talking, and smoking. At some point, 2Shitty approaches the window and tells them “the [Inglewood] Families is here.” Solo claims that Drakeo says, “Let’s get out of here.” Within seconds, the football players and Red Bull (Davion Gregory) walk past the car. Their eyes briefly lock. The next thing he remembers is the sound of shooting.

“When I heard the shots, I ducked down,” Solo tells the courtroom. “Drakeo ducked down too. People ran…there was a lot of commotion. I looked out the window...still a lot of commotion, more shots. I didn’t see anyone firing. I only heard firing. We thought we was under attack.”

“Why?” the prosecution glares.

“Because of everything that was going on?”

“With the Blood Gangs?”

“Yeah,” Solo responds. “After the shooting stops, I’m like shit, what the fuck! Drakeo is like ‘what the fuck?!’ And Kellz says, ‘I emptied a clip on them niggas.’ That’s when I looked up and seen the boy AB [Boyd] shooting with the .38. So I’m like we gotta’ get up out of here.”

Solo maintains there is silence the whole way back to Drakeo’s place. Back at the apartment, no one knows whether anyone was actually hit. Boyd drops by briefly, but never actually enters the building. Solo eventually goes to sleep, waking up at 3 a.m. to the news.

“Boy got manned down.”

He’s told by 2Shitty.

“Who?” Solo asks.

“Red Bull.”

“Oh well.”

He never sees the guns after that night. The .40 is found several months later in a Gardena Middle School by a student who claims to be a member of the Inglewood Families. From there, Solo claims that begins to distance himself from the crew, disappearing to Victorville for a week or two before returning. The D.A. plays an old Snapchat of Kellz bragging that he’s sipping on a “Dead Bull.”

The next time, they’re all chilling, Solo claims that Kellz tells them, “if you snitch, you know what’s up.”

“Meaning you’ll die?” the D.A asks.

“Yes.”

“How bad is snitching on a scale of 1 to 10?”

“Shit…worse than that,” Solo sighs. “It’s a 25.”

* * *

Fear is a universal currency. It can be manipulated for the purposes of power and sex, societal conformity, and religious control. It’s a nexus to our primitive savannah wiring, an atavistic reminder of how the species survived. It is why our political situation is so bleak and why racism persists as one of the chief blights of an entire species. Fear is formidable, yet filled with weaknesses.

The superficial veneer of the District Attorney’s case is to seek justice for a senseless murder. But it is really a referendum about fear. It boasts a more professionalized tone, but a similar goal as the hard right demagoguery that governs the Trump era. It’s deeply rooted in a colonialist fear of the other — typically brown and black, but also Native American and Asian and Jewish and anyone who refuses to adhere to the arbitrary notions of civility set long ago by dry white corpses. When deputy D.A. Shannon Cooley interrogates Daveion “Solo” Ervin, she is after much more than merely who did it, she is attempting to indict an entire culture as something irredeemably criminal.

We see photo after photo of the Stinc Team posing in the iron-barred slums of L.A., squat stucco boxes huddled beneath towering palm trees. They’re throwing up the Stinc Team’s hand sign. In each, the D.A. asks Solo to confirm that they’re throwing up “2 Greedy Family,” her way of semantically twisting the crew’s name to make it sound more sinister. She shows us mugshots of the crew, asking Solo to identify his former best friends. They’re gloomy and passport-sized; everyone seeming glazed and somber, unsure exactly why they’ve been so viciously targeted.

Cooley shows shots of the Stinc Team with Adam22 of No Jumper and Rami the Jeweler, as though it’s her way of revealing how deeply they’ve infiltrated. There is a photo of the Stinc Team with 03 Greedo and Shoreline Mafia and the Hit Mob producers. It looks like the best commemorative cover of XXL that never was. In her contorted electric chair mindset, it’s supposed to show the jury what lawless heathens lurk in their city. She could be describing any street rap crew, or even Odd Future or A$AP Mob. There is no sense of nuance because that would require empathy.

There are photos of Drakeo pouring up, and a forlorn Solo is forced to identify what’s in his hand.

“Lean.”

“What is lean?”

“Promethazine…codeine.”

“And then you mix it with soda!?”

Gasp.

She reads the transcript back from Solo’s grand jury testimony: “You told the court that the 2 Greedy Family gets money by stealing, hitting licks, robbing, scamming, and committing fraud.” He affirms it, visibly disgraced.

There is little mention of rap. Instead, Cooley shows us tattoos: the Stinc Team cat and the Buddha. As though there aren’t 10,000 greying white 40-somethings walking around in cargo shorts with Wu Tang tattoos. Mostly, there are guns. Guns of all shapes and sizes. AK’s that are clearly props and .38s and .40s and .30s. Gun barrels aimed at the camera. The classical poses of L.A. gangsta rap, refracted into this funhouse distortion, where to the District Attorney, it’s only art if it’s done by someone who doesn’t look like them and dress like them.

* * *

In response to the withering idiocy of the D.A.’s Footloose demonization, Blacknell, the attorney for Ralfy, cross-examines Solo. One by one, he lays the foundation of the hallowed hollow-tip tradition that spawned the Stinc Team. There is 2Pac throwing up the Westside. Dre and Eazy toting massive assault rifles. Ice Cube on the cover of the Kill at Will EP, passing a giant Glock to the camera. Dre, now benefactor of the high school across the street, pointing a pistol at his temples on the cover of The Source.

“Is it true that some people from 2Greedy would commit crimes?”

Blacknell asks Solo.

“Yes.”

“Is it true that some had regular jobs?”

“Yes.”

“Is it true that some made money from music like Drakeo and Ralfy?”

“Yes.”

“Did anyone share proceeds from crimes?”

“No.”

“Have you ever been a part of a flocking crew?”

“No.”

“Have you ever been a part of a burglary crew?”

“No.”

“Is Drakeo a gang member?”

“No.”

“Were you from 2Greedy?”

“Yes.”

“Were you ever from a gang?”

“No.”

The evisceration of the gang allegations continues. Blacknell asks the prosecution’s key witness whether if he’s familiar with the idea that many rap groups have their own hand signals. Solo nods.

“You’re familiar with Jay-Z.”

“Yes.”

“What’s this?”

The attorney shows a photo of Volume 3 era S. Carter, rocking a durag and throwing up the Roc.

“That’s his Roc-A-Fella-Sign,” Solo answers.

“Is it common in hip-hop culture for people who are part of the same rap group to make the same hand sign.”

“Yes.”

On a projector screen, the attorney shows Jay and ‘Ye at a GQ party throwing up the Roc. Then he shows LeBron throwing up the Roc; then Kobe making a diamond with his hands. Finally, he shows a candid shot of Warren Buffett.

“Do you know who Warren Buffett is?” the attorney asks the witness. The witness seems very confused.

Blacknell shows a slide of Jay and Warren Buffett in black tie. The rap mogul attempts to teach the billionaire investor how to throw up the Roc. The courtroom explodes in a paroxysm of laughter. Everyone but the D.A. and the detectives.

* * *

If the proceedings often feel like a tragicomic farce, the most visceral A Few Good Men moments occur during Solo’s cross-examination by Kellz’s attorney, Keith Bowman. This is when the courtroom is the most crowded, word of Solo’s Judas turn having traveled through the asphalt grapevine.

If Kellz is going to beat the case, there is the obvious need to sow reasonable doubt in the juror’s minds that he wasn’t the shooter. It seems that his attorney’s plan is to attempt to convince people that it might have been Solo blasting in tandem with Boyd.

The exchange begins with a long litany about how the word on the street was originally that Solo shot Red Bull. He asks why he didn’t go to law enforcement in the first place.

“Have you went to the police with every problem?” the witness fires back.

“I’ve never been involved in a shooting,” Bowman booms.

“It doesn’t have to be a shooting. I didn’t go to the police. The police came to me.”

The attorney attacks Solo’s claims with wild haymakers. They lightly graze the witness but don’t quite connect. He alleges that Solo gave Boyd the .38 in the first place. Solo denies it, getting agitated and demanding that they replay the video for everyone to see.

They talk about all the times that Solo was shot. He intimates that Solo never liked Kellz and this is his chance to enact revenge. The former firmly denies it. More sparring back and forth. The room is wracked with stress but riveted.

“I didn’t want it to come to this,” Solo confesses his sins, hoping for sympathy but aware that he’ll receive very little for a very long time. “But I knew that if I didn’t tell, I would go to jail and while I was inside, the people who actually did it were going to be outside living their best lives.”

“Why didn’t you tell my client at the time that you had a problem with his actions?”

“Oh, I’m supposed to let him know what I think, so he can plot on me?”

Bowman baits Solo, trying to get him to crack, to change his story, to reveal an even more fatal lapse of character. Finally, he detonates.

“You know damn well this ain’t fine and dandy!! This ain’t no cup of tea!!” Solo spits daggers at the imposing attorney. “You know and I know what I’m facing after this when the police ain’t there to protect me…you know what my family is going to have to deal with after this!!”

“You a rider, right,” the attorney taunts him, honing in on the guilt and wounded pride that he feels.

“Why would I snitch if I didn’t have to!” Solo retorts.

“I thought you was a rider…right?” Bowman continues.

“I ain’t never said I’m a rider,” he shoots back. “You trying to insinuate that.”

The girl in front of me whispers to the entire back row: “That’s because he a bitch. He ain’t no rider!”

I’m a Sore Winner. When I Win I Take the Scoreboard With Me

If the state had tried this as a regular murder case, there’s a significant chance that both of the alleged shooters might be convicted. But there is an element of hubris that can’t be diminished. Drakeo is Hardiman’s white whale, a fanatical bogeyman that he ought to spend the rest of his life in psychotherapy trying to unravel. It’s gotten so weird that one afternoon, they brought in members of the Franchise Tax Board to try to get Drakeo on tax evasion as though he was Al Capone.

But the crux of their case rests on the notion of a conspiracy. Their own chimerical fantasy of rap beef as real life — the idea that just because Drakeo was the leader of the Stinc Team, he could order hits by imperial fiat. For all the smoke and mirrors, Drakeo’s acquittal or conviction hinges upon their ability to prove that he was sloppy enough to go to a party with 20 friends, in his own very recognizable car, to kill a famous rapper who was never supposed to be at the party.

There is so much reasonable doubt that it’s almost unthinkable to consider that 12 people could deem Drakeo guilty. If he’s ultimately set free to return to the throne, there will be two moments that tipped the case for the defense. The first arrives during Solo’s cross-examination by Drakeo’s owlish co-counsel, Frank Duncan.

After the D.A. has fruitlessly attempted to get Solo to turn on Drakeo, Duncan follows up with a succinct line of questioning. They discuss the shooting once more: how Drakeo told the rest of the group that they needed to leave. The hail of bullets itself, and both his and Drakeo’s subsequent fear that they were under attack. Then Duncan digs in.

“Was there any conversation before the party at Drakeo’s place about RJ?”

“No.”

“Was there any conversation on the way to the party about RJ?”

“No.”

“Was there any conversation on the way back to Drakeo’s house about RJ?”

“No.”

“Was there any conversation after you woke up about RJ?”

“No.”

“So at no point did anyone ever want to kill RJ?

“No. It was never a real thing between them. It was just music. It was just rap beef.”

After Ervin departs the witness stand, Hardiman retakes the pulpit. This time he’s jubilantly patting himself on his back for discovering a group Instagram DM among a dozen or so members of the Stinc Team. It’s a chat that took place shortly after the members of the crew came under constant attack in October of 2016. Most of it concerns the need to come strapped to every show because of the very real threat that they were facing — similar to nearly every street rapper who finds themselves suddenly rich, famous, and a massive target.

With the court only a few minutes away from a weekend recess, Drakeo’s other attorney, John Hamasaki confronts the detective who attempted to singlehandedly destroy the Stinc Team and the lives of a dozen young men trying to claw themselves out of poverty — all for what appears to him to be a game.

“How many of Drakeo’s Instagram messages did you search?” Hamasaki inquires.

“There were 53,000 pages.”

“At any point, did you do a keyword search for ‘RJ?”

“I don’t know.”

Hamasaki keeps prodding and Hardiman starts vainly riffing on the impossibility of searching for a two letter combination like “RJ.” No one believes him.

“But this is the main theory of your case…You never thought to look up ‘Fuck RJ’ or ‘let’s get RJ’ or anything of that nature?”

“If you’d like to search the 53,000 pages yourself, you can.”

“But in all your skimming and searching, you mean to tell me that you found nothing that supports your theory of the case?”

“Oh, that’s not true,” Hardiman snorts and violently cackles. “That’s not true.”

“Did you ever find and memorialize something in all your reports that even suggests that Drakeo had a plan to kill RJ?”

“Well, what I do is gather evidence and present it to the district attorney who files the case and…”

“You can answer no,” Hamasaki interrupts him. The jury nervously laughs.

“I believe that when we are finished with the presentation of our evidence, the jury will weigh it accordingly and make their decision…”

“Oh, I believe they’ve already decided.”

The laughter gets a little louder, a little less nervous.

“Let me finish!” Hardiman seethes, flustered, turning crimson. “I’m not finished!’

“If that’s not your theory of the case, then what is it?” Hamasaki goads the detective, who appears on the verge of an aneurysm.

“My theory is that we have significant evidence that Drakeo gathered and purchased firearms, warned people that he’d knock a nigga’s soul out,” Hardiman roars in his thin anteater whine. “He had a number of guns in his house! He controlled those guns! He sparked a conflict between blood gangs by drawing members into his own gang, the 2 Greedy Family! He got robbed by the Black P-Stones! He started a beef with RJ and other rappers! He creates a situation where a murder occurs. I think it’s pretty clear!”

At least three jurors visibly roll their eyes. Hamasaki offers a patronizing, knifing smile and responds.

“How about you take the weekend to go through all of your 53,000 Instagram pages and 5 hard drives and bring me back something that answers my question — something about Drakeo actually having a plan to kill RJ.”

Several seconds elapse that feel like eternities. You see the detective ransacking the contents of his brain to come back with a witty retort, something that will validate the tens of thousands of hours he’s spent trying to find a connection that just isn’t there. He finds nothing to say.

So he flashes a homicidal stare at the defense attorney, grits his teeth, and responds: “Okay.”


The murder trial for Drake The Ruler is currently ongoing and a verdict is expected as early as next week, the week of July 15.

Stabbing, lies, and a twisted detective: Inside the murder trial of Drakeo the Ruler