By Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press on January 27, 2024.
NEW YORK (AP) – For almost two decades, the 2002 killing of Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay stood as one of the hip-hop world’s most infamous and elusive crimes, one of three long-unsolved slayings of major rap stars.
Now Jay’s case is the first of those killings to go to trial. Opening statements are set for Monday in the federal murder trial of Karl Jordan Jr. and Ronald Washington, who were arrested in 2020.
“A brazen act,” then-Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said at the time, “has finally caught up with them.”
Washington and Jordan are accused of gunning down Jay in his recording studio over a drug dispute, a prosecution narrative challenging the public understanding of a DJ known for his anti-drug advocacy. They have pleaded not guilty, as has a third defendant who was charged this past May and will be tried separately.
Jay, born Jason Mizell, formed Run-DMC in the early 1980s with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Joseph Simmons, known as DJ Run and Rev. Run. Together, the hat-wearing, Adidas-loving friends from the Hollis section of Queens built a rap juggernaut that helped the young genre go mainstream.
They were the first rappers with gold and platinum albums and a Rolling Stone cover. They were the first hip-hop group with a video on MTV, where their subsequent 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on the classic rockers’ “Walk This Way” would bust through a wall between rap and rock, literally doing so in the accompanying music video. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
“We always knew rap was for everyone,” Jay said in a 2001 MTV interview. “Anyone could rap over all kinds of music.”
Embracing rock sounds, rap wordplay and New York attitude, Run-DMC notched hits talking about things ranging from their fame to people’s foibles, including perhaps the only top-100 reference to somebody accidentally eating dog food.
The group also made clear where they stood on drugs and crime.
“We are not thugs, we don’t use drugs,” they declared on the platinum-selling 1987 single “It’s Tricky.” The group did an anti-drug public service announcement and shows, called for a day of peace between warring Los Angeles gangs, established scholarships and held voter registration drives at concerts.
Along the way, Jay opened a 24/7 studio in Hollis and a label, mentoring up-and-comers including 50 Cent.
Jay was killed at that studio on Oct. 30, 2002. His death followed the drive-by shootings of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1997, a trio of hip-hop tragedies that frustrated investigators for decades. A man was charged in September in Shakur’s killing in Las Vegas and has pleaded not guilty; no one has been arrested in The Notorious B.I.G.’s slaying in Los Angeles.
More than $60,000 in rewards were offered for information on Jay’s death. Theories abounded. Police received enough tips to fill 34 pages, according to a court filing. But the investigation languished as investigators said they ran up against reluctant witnesses.
Prosecutors have said in court papers that the case took crucial strides in the last five years as they interviewed new people, did more ballistics tests and got important witnesses to cooperate, among other steps.
But defense lawyers have claimed the government dragged its feet in indicting Washington and Jordan, making it harder for them to defend themselves.
Authorities say the two men confronted Jay in his studio after being buzzed in. Prosecutors allege Washington brandished a gun and ordered a witness to lie on the floor, and Jordan shot the 37-year-old DJ in the head and another witness in the leg.
The motive, according to prosecutors: anger that Jay was going to cut Washington out of a plan to distribute 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of cocaine in Maryland. Prosecutors maintain the DJ had been mixed up in kilo-level coke deals since 1996. His family has insisted he wasn’t involved with drugs.
Investigators were quick to eye Washington, who reportedly had been living on Jay’s couch. Washington already had a record of gun, assault, drug and other convictions, and authorities said he went on a robbery spree after Jay’s death, hopping among motels until being arrested three months later in the hold-ups, authorities said.
He had told authorities and Playboy magazine in 2003 that he was present during Jay’s killing but the armed men were Jordan and another man. Prosecutors publicly identified him in 2007 as a suspect.
After being arrested in the shooting – while still in prison for the robberies – he told agents he “never wanted someone else to get in trouble for something he (Washington) had put them up to,” prosecutors said in court papers.
Lawyers for Washington, 59, have said in court papers that he didn’t match DNA on a wool hat found at the crime scene, and they have raised questions about a witness’ identification of him. A message sent Friday seeking comment on the upcoming trial was not immediately returned by his lead attorney, Susan Kellman.
Prosecutors have portrayed Jordan in court filings as a veteran drug dealer who boasted about his activities in his own raps, including a video called “Silver Spoon” – filmed in front of a mural of Jay – and a gun-filled clip titled “Aim for the Head.” Authorities say they have their own videos, too: recordings of him repeatedly selling cocaine to an undercover agent in 2017.
Jordan, 40, has pleaded not guilty to gun and cocaine charges that will be decided at the murder trial. Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall said in 2020 she is “not going to hold any individual accountable for the lyrics in a rap song that is consumed by our community – and, in fact, it’s consumed by me,” according to the New York Daily News.
Jordan’s lead lawyer, Mark DeMarco, declined to comment ahead of the trial. In court papers, he has said Jordan “adamantly denied his involvement in the murder” and was at his then-girlfriend’s home when it happened.
He considered Jay to be family, since the DJ grew up across the street from Jordan’s father, his defense wrote.
If convicted, Washington and Jordan face at least 20 years in prison. The government has said it would not seek the death penalty.