Part 3: Hip-Hop Icon, Neighborhood Hero, Drug Dealer, Murder Victim
The Life and Death of Jam Master Jay
Credit: Henny Ray Abrams
Mizell wanted a break from the turmoil in his life, so he visited his friend Eric James in suburban Milwaukee, where he stayed for most of October 2002. He seemed relieved to have left Hollis. The two spent most of their time playing video games in James’ living room. Mizell loved video games and sometimes played for 24 hours at a stretch.
“Jay was hiding,” says James. “I don’t know if it was because of Terri or he was scared to go back to Hollis, but he kept saying he wanted to move to Milwaukee.”
Mizell had a deadline to finish the music for a National Football League advertisement, but he wasn’t answering his phone. James worried he was neglecting his work, so he tried to convince him to go home, especially after he received a phone call from one of Mizell’s friends: “Where Jay at? He’s fucking up.”
“I felt like our friendship was infringing on Jay’s career,” says James. “He kept saying that he’d rather stay in Milwaukee and chill. But I kept telling him he had to go home and take care of business.”
Eventually, James persuaded him to leave, but two days before his scheduled departure, Mizell received an ominous phone call. James heard someone on the other end of the phone threatening Mizell. Mizell yelled back: “Motherfucker, fuck you, I’m going to blow your motherfucking head off.” Mizell left the couch, walked into the bathroom, and closed the door. But James could still hear him cursing.
“Jay was irate. I’d never seen him so mad,” he says. “I was shocked.”
Today, James wonders if the phone call had something to do with his friend's murder.
On October 29, Mizell departed Milwaukee to fly to New York. As he left to catch his flight, he gave James a high five and did something he’d never done before: he kissed James on the cheek.
“I pushed him back and said ‘What are you doing?’,” says James. “And Jay said ‘You’re my man’ and I said ‘OK, it’s all love.’ That’s the last time I saw him alive. You can’t imagine how bad that makes me feel, knowing I was the one who persuaded him to go back to New York.”
When James spoke to Mizell the next afternoon, he says, Mizell was eating lunch with Randy Allen at a sandwich shop. They were about to go upstairs to the studio to finish Allen’s Rusty Waters album, which was due at Virgin Records.
Around 7.30 that evening, two masked men climbed the narrow stairs to the second-floor studio. Inside the studio, Mizell sat on a tan leather couch playing a video game with hanger-on Uriel “Tony” Rincon. Randy Allen was on the other side of the room listening to a demo tape with aspiring rapper Michael “Mike B” Bonds.
Allen’s sister, Lydia High, was checking Mizell’s itinerary. The next day, the DJ was due to fly to Washington, D.C. to perform with Run-DMC at a Washington Wizards-Celtics basketball game.
Mizell's friends say he rarely carried a firearm, but that evening he had a .38 automatic, according to police reports. Rincon told the Daily News in a 2007 interview that Mizell placed the gun on the arm of the leather couch as if he was expecting trouble.
Rincon heard footsteps outside the studio door. He paid no attention until two gunmen burst through the entrance. The taller man, about six-foot-two, pointed his firearm at Lydia High and ordered her to lie on the floor.
At the same moment, the second gunman approached Mizell, his weapon raised. “Oh shit,” said Mizell, but before he could pick up his own weapon, the gunman fired two shots. One bullet hit Uriel Rincon in the left leg, the other struck Mizell in the head. The gun was so close that powder burns scorched his shirt. Mizell died where he fell, wearing his trademark white Adidas. He was 37 and left behind a wife and three children.
Eric James alleges that after the murder, Randy Allen emptied the record label bank account: "Randy told me the reason he took the money from the bank account is that he didn’t like Jay’s wife and he didn’t want her to have the money.”
Allen declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a previous interview I conducted with him, he denied the accusation.
"I didn’t steal from Jay,” Allen said. “I made money for Jay. Do you think Jay would have kept me as his business manager for a decade if I was stealing?”
In the aftermath of Mizell’s killing, NYPD detectives grilled Mizell’s friends who witnessed the crime. They refused to talk because they feared for their lives. Police hauled them away in handcuffs and threatened to arrest them for obstruction of justice.
“There was a lot of fear on the streets given the people rumored to be involved,” says Trini Washington (no relation to Ronald Washington), who booked solo nightclub dates for Jam Master Jay. “People were scared to talk. Plus, they told the cops a bunch of bullshit that ended up stalling the investigation.”
Police investigated several theories. Was Mizell killed because of a simmering rap feud between local drug lord Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff and 50 Cent? Did McGriff have him killed because of a rumored affair between McGriff and Mizell’s wife? Did former acquaintance Curtis Scoon kill Mizell over an old drug debt? Did Randy Allen kill his business partner to collect on a $500,000 insurance policy which listed Allen as the benefactor if anything happened to Mizell in the studio?
“Randy was the worst friend Jay could have had,” says DJ Hurricane. “Randy knew right away who killed Jay. I don’t believe he had anything to do with Jay’s murder, but he hurt the case because he was more interested in covering up the money he stole than helping the detectives catch his best friend’s killers.”
Another question that puzzled investigators: who tampered with the studio’s security cameras? When detectives went to retrieve the videotape, they discovered someone had replaced it with an old tape.
In August 2003, police arrested Mizell’s godson Karl Jordan for attempted murder. Mizell’s nephew, Rodney Jones, said Jordan shot him in the leg as he was getting into his car on Hollis Avenue. Detectives investigated whether Jordan shot Jones as a warning not to talk to law enforcement about the Jam Master Jay case. Prosecutors dropped the charge after Jones refused further cooperation.
The following October, Lydia High came forward at the urging of her friends in the hip-hop industry. She identified Ronald Washington as the gunman who ordered her to lie on the ground. Washington was already in custody after police arrested him for committing a series of armed robberies of stores in Queens and on Long Island.
Around the same time, I interviewed Washington in prison. He claimed when Mizell was killed, he was on the street buying bullets for Mizell’s gun. To deflect attention from his own suspected role in the killing, he implicated his alleged co-conspirator, Karl Jordan. Washington said he was returning to the studio when he heard gunshots and saw Jordan running down the fire escape.
“I’m positive it was Little D [Karl Jordan]. I looked him right in his face before he ran off,” he told me.
The government convened a secret grand jury in 2005. Lydia High testified. But the jury failed to issue an indictment. In June this year, Washington's lawyers asked prosecutors for a transcript to find out why jurors didn’t believe her testimony.
Federal prosecutors first identified Washington as a suspect in the case during his 2007 armed robbery trial when they alleged Washington “pointed his gun at those present in the studio, ordered them to get on the ground and provided cover for his associate to shoot and kill Jason Mizell.”
During the trial, prosecutors also claimed Washington’s girlfriend, Danyea McDonald, who admitted to taking part in robberies with Washington, told them that her boyfriend confided in her he murdered not only Jam Master Jay but also rapper Randy “Stretch” Walker in 1995 after a frantic car chase through the streets of Hollis.
According to court documents, Washington thought Walker’s brother, Christopher, had murdered Washington’s brother in a dispute between the Hollis Crew and a rival gang, the Young Guns. Washington fired an assault rifle out of the back window of a car he was riding in, hitting Randy Walker and causing his car to overturn. Washington thought he was firing at Young Guns member Christopher Walker.
Yet, even though Lydia High identified Washington as one of the gunmen in the studio and Danyea McDonald revealed Washington had confessed to killing Mizell, prosecutors declined to charge Washington.
This led the judge in the armed robbery trial to wonder why the federal government didn’t prosecute Washington for Mizell’s murder instead of bringing it up in an unrelated robbery case.
“Well, one might think if it was such an overwhelming case someone might have prosecuted this man for it and not left it as murder hanging onto a bunch of robberies,” said Judge Nina Gershon during the trial.
Nonetheless, Gershon sentenced Washington to seventeen years on the robbery charges based on his extensive prior criminal record.
For over a decade, the case of who killed Jam Master Jay appeared to grow cold. The perception was law enforcement had given up on solving the murder. Part of the problem investigators encountered was the DJ’s associates didn’t want to tarnish his image by revealing what they knew about his involvement in the drug trade.
“Everybody wants to keep this wholesome image of Jay, but that’s a big part of the reason this shit took so long to solve,” says Eric James.
While Washington was locked up in prison, Karl Jordan, who was only 18 when he allegedly fired the shot that took Mizell’s life, became a successful drug dealer. Every year on the anniversary of the murder, he posted pictures of Jam Master Jay on his Instagram account, mourning his passing.
Mizell’s music lingered on through Run-DMC, but as each year passed, it appeared as if his murderers would go unpunished. Behind the scenes, however, the probe continued.
Then, in a major development in the case in 2016, one of Mizell’s former business associates, who was cooperating with the FBI, claims he stumbled across Uncle’s true identity.
The partner, who played a significant role in Mizell’s drug operation, never met Uncle in person, but claims he talked to him on the phone a dozen times.
“After Jay passed, he [Uncle] spoke to me about investing in the movie that he wanted to make with Jay,” he says. “After that, I lost contact with him. He just vanished.”
In 2005, the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested sixteen members of the Black Mafia Family, including the organization’s founders, Terry Flenory and his brother, Demetrius Flenory, accusing them of trafficking thousands of kilos of cocaine worth over a quarter of a billion dollars.
One night, the source was watching a documentary on the Black Mafia Family entitled BMF: The Rise and Fall of a Hip-Hop Drug Empire, which featured a wire-tap of Terry Flenory secretly recorded by investigators.
“I nearly fell off the couch,” he says. “I knew that voice. It was Uncle, it was fucking Uncle. So I called the FBI and said ‘This is going to sound crazy, but I believe Uncle is Terry Flenory’.”
(In April 2016, I received a phone call from Michael Cassidy, an investigator working the Jam Master Jay case. He asked me based on my previous reporting if I knew whether Uncle was Terry Flenory. At that point, I’d never heard of Flenory. Cassidy identified Flenory as the co-founder of the Black Mafia Family. He said the government had developed information from a source that Uncle was Flenory.)
The source claims the FBI sent agents to interview Flenory in prison, where he was serving thirty years after a jury convicted him of drug trafficking and money laundering in 2008. But he says investigators hit a dead end when Flenory refused to meet with them.
“The FBI told me they visited Terry in prison to offer him a deal if he cooperated,” he says. “And he told them to ‘suck my dick.’ There was no point in him co-operating because he was getting out, anyway.”
Flenory has since left prison after authorities granted him compassionate release because of health issues. He declined to be interviewed. But a spokesperson for Flenory confirms investigators wanted to talk to him: “I can confirm for you that while Terry was serving his time, a law enforcement official contacted me to see whether Terry would be interested in cooperating in a murder case in New York. Terry said he wasn't interested in talking to them.”
Finally, eighteen years after Jam Master Jay’s murder, last year, federal prosecutors charged Ronald Washington and Karl Jordan with Mizell’s murder.
The indictment states that Washington and Jordan “together with others [emphasis added], with malice aforethought, did unlawfully kill” Mizell, which suggests that the government is leaving open the possibility that Washington and Jordan did not act alone but as part of a wider conspiracy to murder their friend.
“This case has been around for a long time,” said Seth DuCharme, acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, at a press conference announcing the charges. "For the crime of murder, the passage of time offers no escape. Today we begin to answer that question, who killed Jason Mizell and why.”
Darryl “DMC” McDaniels released a statement praising law enforcement for not abandoning the case. “It’s been a difficult 18 years not having Jay around while knowing that his murderers were not yet indicted for this heinous crime. I commend NYPD, NYC Detectives, Federal Agents and all the law enforcement who were involved in this case, for not giving up and working to bring justice for Jay," the statement read. "I realize this is a first step in the judicial process, but I hope Jay can finally Rest in Peace.”
But Washington’s lawyer Susan Kellman questions why prosecutors took so long to bring an indictment. “If Lydia [High] identified my client back in 2003, why did they wait nearly twenty years to indict him,” she tells me. “If the studio was bustling at the time of the shooting, why wait two decades to arrest Ronald? Or, maybe they got nothing on Ronald that night because he played no role in Jam Master Jay's death.”
The government is seeking the death penalty for both Jordan and Washington.
In the end, Mizell thought his fame insulated him from the consequences of his criminal activity, only to be betrayed by those closest to him. Asked if Mizell believed his status as Jam Master Jay protected him from the dangers of dealing cocaine, one of his friends tells me: “That’s exactly what it was.”
The revelation that the DJ was involved in the drug trade, however, shouldn’t diminish his legacy, his important contributions to hip-hop culture, says Trini Washington, who got his start in the music business as one of Run-DMC's assistants before managing Mizell's studio.
“People focus on drugs and drug dealers, but that’s not the Jam Master Jay I knew,” he says. “The Jam Master Jay I knew was a family man, a husband and a father, who loved his mother and sister and brother. His focus was putting out great music, not selling drugs. He was like a big brother to me. I owe him everything. Run-DMC saved my life. If it wasn’t for them, I would still be running the streets, dead or in jail.”