Melvin Vernell III — known as Lil Phat — was killed after he stole 10 pounds of marijuana, prosecutors said. They’ve indicted five people in the plot, including another rapper they say belongs to an Alabama-based gang, a former Russian mafia member turned informant and a college basketball standout from California.
Vernell, 19, stole the drugs from Decensae Xavier White, a San Francisco State University point guard also known as Griz, and Gary Bradford, a rapper who goes by El Dorado Red, prosecutors said. Angry and seeking revenge, the pair hired Deandre Washington and Maurice DeWayne Conner to kill Vernell for $10,000, prosecutors said.
Washington and Conner were able to find Vernell at the hospital on the outskirts of Atlanta using GPS coordinates given to them by White and Bradford, who had gotten the information from Mani Chulpayev, who runs a business leasing expensive luxury cars and had rented out the car Vernell was driving the day he died, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys flatly deny that version of events.
At the June 13 bond hearing for four of the five men accused in Vernell’s death, prosecutor Sheila Ross and defense attorneys painted dramatically different portraits of the men accused in the case.
Chulpayev, 38, was convicted in the late 1990s on charges related to his involvement in Russian organized crime and then became an FBI informant, his original lawyer in the current case, George Plumides, said. Plumides told ABC News in May that Chulpayev’s FBI handler asked for and received from Chulpayev gifts of cash, jewelry, tickets to sporting events, hotel rooms and the use of luxury cars.
The FBI’s Atlanta field office has said the agency took immediate action to address those accusations and that the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General had initiated an investigation.
Plumides, who withdrew from the case after Chulpayev’s June 13 bond hearing after prosecutors objected to a perceived conflict, said the FBI agent tried to keep local police investigating Vernell’s death away from Chulpayev. But that actually complicated things for him because Chulpayev was eager to talk to police to clear his name in the matter and offered multiple times to take a lie detector test, Plumides said.
Chulpayev rented out luxury cars and had GPS trackers on them so he can repossess the car quickly if the person failed to make a payment, Plumides said. Getting such expensive cars requires capital, and White had invested in Chulpayev’s business, which is how White had the tracking information — not because Chulpayev gave it to him to kill Vernell, Plumides said.
Vernell had leased six cars from Chulpayev over an 18-month period, Plumides said.
“Why would you kill the goose that laid the golden egg?” Plumides asked during the bond hearing.