Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff had checked into a luxury hotel in Miami late last year when detectives showed up at his door. They arrested McGriff, 42, on a weapons charge -- but only as a pretext. By then, McGriff was a key suspect in a secret investigation into alleged ties between the rap music industry and drug trafficking.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, N.Y., who are heading the investigation, have refused to discuss McGriff -- a convicted crack cocaine kingpin who spent a decade behind bars -- or any other aspect of a case that has shaken the rap world. But law enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said authorities are investigating McGriff's involvement with the Murder Inc. record company.
Investigators are trying to determine whether drug proceeds could have been funneled into the popular label, headed by McGriff's childhood friend, Irv Gotti, and home to Grammy-nominated stars like Ja Rule and Ashanti, the sources said.
Both McGriff and Gotti have denied any wrongdoing. Gotti's only offense has been "helping out a friend," his wife, Debbie Lorenzo, told the New York Daily News. "He's got a big heart."
A lawyer for McGriff insisted his client's recent business ventures, including a movie deal with Murder Inc., were legitimate. "Kenny saw the light after spending time in jail," said the lawyer, Robert Simels. "Why would he go back to that kind of life when he could get into the entertainment business? That's where the money is."
The life McGriff once lived was the stuff of gangsta rap. A Queens native, McGriff rose to power during the 1980s when he took over a "quasi-religious sect" in his neighborhood known as the Five Percenters and transformed it into a ruthless crack-dealing crew called the Supreme team, court documents said.
At his peak, McGriff and his nephew, Gerald "Prince" Miller, employed scores of dealers in and around a Queens housing project, documents said. They took in $200,000 a day. The team used rooftop sentinels with two-way radios to thwart police. It inflicted violence against rivals and traitors, resulting in at least eight murders in 1987 alone.
A raid led by federal agents that year resulted in McGriff's arrest and seizure of drugs, cash, weapons, and "instructional manuals on criminal activity," documents said. He was convicted of narcotics conspiracy charges and sentenced to a 10-year term.
Once released from prison, McGriff renewed his association with Gotti by helping Murder Inc. produce "Crime Partners 2000." The straight-to-video film, due for release next month, stars Ja Rule, Snoop Dog, and Ice-T.
McGriff's lawyer says his client had wanted to make a living writing scripts. But, unconvinced he had gone straight, a team of NYPD and federal investigators put him under surveillance last year, one law enforcement source said. Authorities had hoped to quietly gather evidence against possible suspects, including drug traffickers in the rap industry.
But a recent escalation of violence -- including the unsolved, execution-style slaying of rap icon Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C. in Queens -- prompted investigators to begin making arrests and seizing documents during raids on the offices of Murder Inc. and other locations last month.
Investigators believe the publicity drove McGriff underground last December, forcing them to track him down. "All wiretap activity stopped and he disappeared," one source said. Acting on a tip, investigators found McGriff in the Miami hotel, where he had checked in using a $1,000 cash deposit and an alias. He had holed up in his room with a younger woman and a small stash of Ecstasy and Viagra, the source said.
McGriff was charged with regularly taking target practice at a Baltimore firing range -- a felony for a convict. His trial has been set for March.