Combs: 'Everything is all right' following acquittal

Saturday, March 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ For Sean ``Puffy'' Combs, everything is all right now.

The hip-hop mogul was acquitted of toting an illegal handgun into a crowded Manhattan dance club and then trying to bribe his driver to take the rap for him.

In the hallway outside the Manhattan courtroom where the jury ruled in his favor Friday, Combs, 31, telephoned his children to share the good news.

``I told you,'' he said to his son Justin. ``I just wanted to tell you everything is all right.''

When the verdict was read, Combs and his lead attorneys, Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran, hugged.

``I told him, `You've got your life back,''' Cochran said outside the courtroom. ''`Good luck. Do the best with it.'''

``It's bittersweet,'' Combs said of the verdict. ``My heart goes out to everybody who was hurt by this. ... This has been a life-changing experience for me.''

As the verdict was read, Combs sat nervously holding a copy of the New Testament. According to Cochran, they had read the 23rd Psalm _ ``The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want'' _ just before the verdict.

The jurors were driven away from the courthouse in a bus without speaking to reporters. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau declined to comment on the verdict.

Music industry executives said a conviction could have seriously damaged Combs' career.

The editor-in-chief of The Source magazine, Carlito Rodriguez, said while the criminal trial may leave Combs with a stigma, he didn't expect it to damage his $300 million business empire or rap career.

``I don't think people are not going to want to do business with him,'' he said.

Rodriguez noted that Combs' latest discovery, the hot teen girl group Dream, signed with his Bad Boy label despite the charges against him.

``I think people are still going to want to be associated with a label with as much success as Bad Boy has,'' he said.

Combs' bodyguard, Anthony ``Wolf'' Jones, was acquitted of the same charges as Combs. Both men had faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Rapper Jamaal ``Shyne'' Barrow, 21, a Combs protege, was convicted of two counts of assault in connection with the shooting of two people in the club following a scuffle involving the Combs entourage in the early morning hours of Dec. 27, 1999. He also was convicted of reckless endangerment and two weapons charges. He was jailed pending his April 16 sentencing and faces up to 25 years in prison.

Combs was the key defense witness, spending a full day testifying that he never carried a weapon on the night of his arrest. He also denied offering his driver, Wardel Fenderson, a $50,000 bribe if Fenderson would take the gun possession rap for him.

Fenderson had testified that Combs tucked a black handgun into his waistband before heading over with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez to the hip-hop hotspot Club New York.

The trial stretched across seven weeks, with the jurors hearing from 59 witnesses and examining more than 130 pieces of evidence.

Combs and Lopez arrived in Manhattan a little past midnight on Dec. 27 after a limousine trip from tony East Hampton, N.Y., where they had spent the day after Christmas at his $2.5 million home.

Combs testified that he had expected to party and do a little networking with other music industry types inside the nightclub one block west of Times Square.

But trouble began as Combs tried to exit the club shortly after 2:30 a.m. Someone bumped into Matthew ``Scar'' Allen, an oft-arrested Brooklyn man. After an exchange of insults, another man tossed a fistful of dollar bills at Combs.

Three to six shots then rang out inside the packed club, sending panicked club-goers diving to the floor for cover or charging toward the exits.

Three people were wounded: Natania Reuben was shot in her face; Robert Thompson and Julius Jones were hit in their shoulders. Reuben, a Brooklyn hairdresser, was the first witness to say Combs fired a gun, an assertion contradicted by defense witnesses.

Combs fled the club with Lopez, Jones and Fenderson in his Lincoln Navigator SUV. They were stopped 11 blocks away after Fenderson steered the SUV onto a sidewalk to evade a police car and then ran several red lights.

A 9 mm handgun police found in the SUV and a virtual twin weapon that was allegedly hurled out of the window during the chase led to gun possession charges against Combs and Jones. Lopez, initially arrested, was never charged.

The same charges were dropped against Fenderson when he agreed to testify against the others. Fenderson, who twice told police that he owned the gun before recanting, also detailed the alleged bribe offer.

Lopez was never called to testify despite a promise to appear if Combs needed her. The singer and actress told a grand jury that she never saw Combs with a gun on the night of the shooting.