The Case Of Jerrod Mustaf -- A Mater Of Suspicion
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
IN THE WAKE OF HIS RELEASE by the Sonics, Jerrod Mustaf - a suspect in an alleged murder-for hire scheme - wonders if his name will ever be cleared so he can return to the NBA and become a political leader.
When the call came, when Jerrod Mustaf was invited to the Seattle SuperSonics training camp, a flicker of hope returned to the 1990 first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks.
Mustaf viewed Seattle as a chance to restore a sagging image as a player and a man. Suspected of masterminding an alleged murder-for-hire scheme while playing for the Phoenix Suns three years ago, Mustaf had been unable to shake the stigma that had followed him.
Caught unaware, the Sonics learned that Maricopa County prosecutors still suspect Mustaf although he has never been charged or indicted. After only three days with the Sonics, Mustaf was gone, partly because the NBA ruled that the Sonics were over the salary cap and partly because the Sonics didn't think it was worth the trouble to keep him.
"I thought Seattle would be prepared for it," said Mustaf, who was released by the Charlotte Hornets a week earlier because of similar concerns.
It seems no teams in the NBA are prepared to deal with Mustaf. If he is ever to return to the NBA and then fulfill his father's wish that he become a political leader, he will need to clear his name.
And as long as the death of Althea Hayes looms in the background, that might be all but impossible.
Theory developed quickly
On a sultry summer evening three years ago, Althea Hayes was fatally shot four times, twice in the back of the head. The body was discovered by her father in the victim's Glendale, Ariz., apartment the next day.
It did not take investigators long, according to Maricopa County court records, to develop a theory. They alleged that Mustaf had Hayes killed because she refused to have an abortion. Court records say the victim, who was three months pregnant, contacted a lawyer about seeking child support from Mustaf.
The victim's family and friends told authorities that Hayes, 27, said Mustaf was the father and that the former University of Maryland star offered her $5,000 to get an abortion.
When she refused, police allege Mustaf flew his cousin LeVonnie Wooten from Maryland to Arizona to kill her. Afterward, Wooten's girlfriend, who had accompanied him to Arizona, testified that while driving Wooten to California, she saw him dismantle and discard a gun piece by piece in the boundless desert.
She also testified Wooten told her he owed Mustaf a favor and was going to Arizona "to take care of business."
The weapon has never been recovered. Based on circumstantial evidence and witness testimony, Wooten was convicted of first-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence without parole in a maximum security prison in Florence, Ariz.
Because there is no statute of limitations for murder, Mustaf, 26, will remain a suspect unless new evidence is introduced. Prosecutors maintain he was the only one with a motive.
When asked about the case the first day at Sonic training camp, Mustaf pleaded with reporters to give him a chance to play and not discuss the allegations.
Upon hearing Mustaf's words later that night on the television news, Hayes' mother started to cry when she "heard him saying all he wants is to play basketball, why don't we let him play?" Hazel Hayes said. "He has a right to work at least until he is arrested.
"(But) why didn't he let her have her baby? That's what my daughter said to him before he had her murdered, `Please, please leave me alone. All I want is my baby.' "
Last year, Alvin and Hazel Hayes filed a wrongful death suit against Mustaf and Wooten. The civil proceedings, currently in their preliminary stages, are similar to the ones O.J. Simpson is facing in California. The standard of proof is not as strict as in a criminal case.
All of this is enough to discourage teams from taking a chance on Mustaf. He thinks it could follow him overseas if he decides to return to Europe where he played in France, Spain and Greece the last two seasons.
"Once somebody gets killed and you are (an NBA player), you get tainted," said Shaar Mustaf, Jerrod's father. "I'm not sure how much you can do about that."
After his recent frustration in Seattle, Mustaf agreed to talk about the case, including his whereabouts the day and night of the murder.
In 1994, Mustaf refused to testify before a Maricopa County Grand Jury, invoking his right against self incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
"I never knew that taking the Fifth would make me look guilty," Mustaf said.
Mustaf said he had not dated the victim and didn't know she was pregnant. He said she had a boyfriend, but didn't know much about her before she died.
He acknowledged knowing her because they ran in the same circle, adding that he once recommended Hayes as a secretary for an entertainment company that rented office space from him.
On the day Hayes was murdered, Mustaf said he and Wooten drove to her apartment in separate cars on their way to lunch.
"It just so happened that she was desperate for some money and was going to be receiving some in a few weeks," Mustaf said. "So, I gave her a loan."
Prosecutors alleged that Wooten followed Mustaf to the victim's apartment to see where she lived, returning that night to kill her.
Mustaf said they drove separately because after lunch he had to work at his south Phoenix bookstore that catered to minority youth.
He said he saw Wooten that evening when eating dinner in his Chandler, Ariz., home with his then-girlfriend and a group of friends. Mustaf said his girlfriend spent the night. He said he did not know anything was wrong until 48 hours later when authorities stopped him at the airport to ask questions about Hayes.
From then on, Mustaf said, investigators have tried to connect him to the crime. Prosecutors alleged in court last year that Mustaf paid Wooten's legal fees as "hush money." Still, Mustaf thought the case was dormant until he tried to re-enter the NBA this fall.
"I've been convicted without a trial," he said. "What about innocent until proven guilty? They (the public) don't understand that I am human. I hurt. I cry. I have feelings, I have a family."
Mustaf said people need to examine his past - that of a high school honor student in Hyattsville, Md., and his work with black youth for the Prince George's County executive office - to understand what he is capable of doing.
Such an inspection, Mustaf said, will cast doubts on the government's suspicions.
"He was on his way," Shaar Mustaf said of his son's path to politics. "Everything was in place. He had the background, he was well read. I tried to groom that guy to be a role model and leader."
Court records, though, offer a contrasting portrait.
A pleading filed by Wooten's attorney during the murder trial said Mustaf impregnated a former girlfriend at Maryland when he was a freshman in 1989.
"When (Kim) Davis informed him that she was not going to have an abortion, as he requested, he became very angry with her and assaulted her," the memorandum said.
Mustaf denied the assertion. He said the woman was a friend who refused to leave his dormitory. He said they argued and he tried to escort her out. She finally left with four women.
Before Hayes died in the summer of 1993, assault charges were filed against Mustaf by fiancee Sasha Luke stemming from a disagreement over visitation rights of their daughter. The charges were dropped shortly thereafter. Luke, who now lives with Mustaf, also has a son with him.
A third incident involved Mustaf and Wooten. The cousins got into an argument about theft at the bookstore where Wooten worked. Mustaf was charged with hitting Wooten in the head with a cellular telephone. The case was dismissed when Wooten failed to appear in court. Shaar Mustaf said the cousins met the day Hayes died to reconcile their differences.
"Jerrod thought LeVonnie was coming to Phoenix to work things out," Shaar Mustaf said.
During the trial, the defense claimed Wooten threatened to sue Mustaf if he didn't pay him because of the cellular phone incident. Attorneys argued that Mustaf framed his cousin for Hayes' murder because of the possible lawsuit, a position the jury rejected. Wooten declined an interview request.
Jerrod Mustaf said none of these incidents indicate he is a murderer.
"There has been nothing said, no facts to indicate Jerrod knew anything about the girl getting killed or was part of it," said Shaar Mustaf, whose relationship with his son started when he was 13.
Social awareness adopted
A self-described black militant, Shaar Mustaf brought his son to Maryland as a teenager from Whiteville, N.C., where he was reared by his mother, Lilly Mae George. Once the relationship began, Mustaf tried to ingrain the importance of being a community leader.
"I drilled it in his head that he should be involved in the slums," he said.
Jerrod adopted his father's social awareness. He used some of his NBA earnings to finance a Maryland program his father runs for juvenile delinquents. For the past six summers, he has helped the program by holding basketball camps and chauffeuring youths on outings.
Mustaf still holds on to the lofty goals of his father. He said his primary concern is being able to play professionally for about five more years, then use sports as a springboard to community service.
"I will do whatever I can to clear my name to continue to live a meaningful life," he said. "I want to improve relations between blacks and whites and Jews and others and I think I can."
But as long as Arizona authorities believe he is involved in murder and he is a defendant in a wrongful death suit, questions will persist.
"Most of the women I talk to say he sends a bad message to our young people, but I don't see athletes as role models," Hazel Hayes said.
Still, the victim's mother thinks athletes have a responsibility to their disciples: "They should live a life saying, `Yes, you can be the best you can, and don't have anyone's blood stain on your hand.' "
Whether Mustaf does or doesn't might never be known.
Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.