Illustrations by Robert Bruno
In the grand scheme of things it was a forgettable scene played out before a forgettable game. Symbolically, though, it was a moment of significance. On Jan. 14, 2017, long before tip-off between the Wizards and 76ers, Washington hosted a short ceremony on the corner of the Verizon Center floor. As fans filed in, a strikingly large man—wearing a crisp black golf shirt, glasses and a full beard, smile splashed across his face—stepped up and accepted the Wizards Care Community Assist Award, for what a press release called “his exemplary level of dedication and commitment to the community.”
The players nearby, engrossed in their pregame routines, seemed not to take note of the ceremony, much less recognize Jerrod Mustaf as a former player. But, at least in some respects, they would have done well to observe him. The Republic of Sports traffics often in the concepts of “social conscience” and “giving back to the community.” Here was a guy who could show them what grassroots, populist work looks like in practice. Based in Prince George’s County, Md., where Washington, D.C., dissolves into suburbia, Mustaf has spent the greater part of his adult life working with (and now running) Take Charge, a program designed to keep local teens—most of them male, most of them African-American—out of the criminal justice system. “It’s gang prevention, crisis intervention, leadership. . . . Lately it’s the distractions of technology,” he says. “But really it’s about strengthening the community.”
Mustaf speaks in a low, rolling, authoritative voice and floats easily from topic to topic, from “the inherent unfairness” of mandatory minimum sentences to “the wisdom of sanctuary cities.” He’s bright and congenial and quick-witted; as front-facing figures go, any nonprofit would be lucky to have this man. When Mustaf said, a year ago, that he was considering running for a seat on the county council, it was easy to envision him as a successful politician.
But Mustaf is at his best working with kids—“getting in there and getting dirty,” he says. More than once, he has described himself as “old school.” This is a guy who, a few years ago, launched a Pull ’Em Up campaign, taking a stand against sagging pants. Part Malcolm X firebrand, part Get off my yard! social conservative, Mustaf challenges the boys on their jewelry, their word choice and their treatment of women. To the girls he talks about “sisterhood and self-sufficiency”; he asks them to write down vulgar, misogynistic hip-hop lyrics and then try to defend those lyrics’ appeal.
At first blush, one might conclude the quiet awards ceremony in 2017 marked the end of what Mustaf saw as his exile from the NBA, a former player welcomed back after years of good works, an acknowledgement that while he might be a man of contradictions, he was reformed.
But the reality was something less poetic. The Wizards simply failed to realize they were honoring a man who, in other precincts, is considered to have gotten away with murder.
The Suns had just gutted out a series-saving 108–98 win over the Bulls in Game 5 of the 1993 NBA Finals. Down three games to two, Charles Barkley & Co. were flying back to the desert, where, buoyed by the Phoenix home crowd, they would attempt to win two more and claim the first title in franchise history.
One Suns player aboard that team flight on June 18, however, was something other than buoyant. Jerrod Mustaf, then 23, had played just one minute, and his stat line read all zeros. Brought on that season to be Barkley’s complement, Mustaf never found traction, and he complained about his sparse playing time. But police would later contend that his despondence on this night had nothing to do with basketball.
Earlier in the postseason, Althea Hayes, a 27-year-old acquaintance of Mustaf’s, told him she believed the baby she was carrying was his. Mustaf encouraged Hayes to undergo an abortion, but Hayes, a religious woman, declined. (“That’s just how we were raised,” says her brother Phillip.) Mustaf then turned transactional, offering $5,000 to terminate the pregnancy, but again Hayes declined. Friends, family members and even two nurses would all assert that Hayes had grown fearful of Mustaf by this point.
On June 16, Hayes had visited a medical clinic, where the pregnancy was confirmed; two days later she paged Mustaf in Chicago. He called her back after Game 5, before the team flight took off, and records indicate they spoke for eight minutes. According to investigators’ reports, Hayes reminded Mustaf of her plans to keep the baby. Mustaf would be described in those same reports as “very angry,” to the point that he chose to sit alone on the flight to Arizona. (Mustaf later claimed he’d “never been told [Hayes] was pregnant.”) The Bulls, meanwhile, would beat the Suns in Game 6, Michael Jordan scoring 33 points in his last outing before his first retirement and Mustaf sticking to the bench, a fitting end to a disappointing season.
By the morning of Saturday, July 24, Alvin Hayes had grown worried. Two days had elapsed since anyone had heard from his daughter. At nine o’clock he entered Althea’s apartment in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale—and there, on the floor of her bedroom, he found her curled-up, decomposing body. Althea Hayes had been shot four times, including once in the back of the head, execution style, with a .380 handgun. She was three months pregnant.
There would be a murder trial and a conviction, but Mustaf himself would never face charges. He was, however, characterized by police as “an investigative lead.” And that taint, he says, was “totally unfair.” It was also enough to end his NBA career. “Whether I was blackballed,” he says, “isn’t even a question.” (SI spoke with Mustaf at length over several years; he declined to respond to messages in recent weeks when told this story was being published.)
Others contend Mustaf was the beneficiary, not the victim, of justice never administered. Time has done little to diminish the grief and anger of Hayes’s family members, who almost a quarter century later remain adamant that Mustaf orchestrated Althea’s death, and that his freedom has been “crushing” to witness. “He was Rae Carruth before Rae Carruth,” says Phillip, referring to the former Panthers receiver who spent 19 years in prison for hiring a hitman to kill his pregnant girlfriend. “Except Rae Carruth got caught.”
The Phoenix prosecutor assigned to Hayes’s case feels this pain too. K.C. Scull, long retired, still bristles at being denied a chance to take Mustaf to trial. He’s left to wonder whether his bosses in the D.A.’s office bowed to political pressure, or maybe to the influence of an NBA team at the peak of its success. Almost 80 years old now, Scull takes inventory of his career, reflects on Mustaf, sighs and says, “It’s one of my biggest regrets that I wasn’t allowed to try this case.”
“I am writing to enthusiastically support Take Charge Juvenile Diversion Program, Inc., under the direction of Mr. Jerrod Mustaf, in all efforts to implement their program.”
—The Honorable Yvette Alexander; Sept. 1, 2016
Shaar Mustaf understood leverage. A self-styled activist and ardent supporter of the Black Panthers, he grasped power dynamics and negotiation strategies. So in the late 1980s he knew he was dealing from a position of strength when his son, Jerrod, turned into one of the best high school basketball players in the country, a star big man at DeMatha High, in the D.C. burbs. As an army of recruiters descended upon the Mustaf home to pitch their programs, however, Shaar and Jerrod requested they first answer a series of questions: What percentage of your university’s faculty positions [are] held by Blacks? What percentage of your Black students actually graduate?
In all there were 10 questions, each one designed “to get a fuller picture of life at your university.” And some people bristled. “I hire coaches, not blacks or whites,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski snapped, according to John Feinstein’s book A Season Inside. (“My father didn’t like that answer,” 18-year-old Jerrod told Feinstein.)
Mustaf ended up committing to Maryland, in his backyard, with its black coach and chancellor, and there he neither dazzled nor disappointed. As a sophomore he scored 18.5 points per game and made third team all-conference. He turned pro, landed with the Knicks, who held the 17th pick in the 1990 NBA draft, and made a modest impact: 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.
Culturally, though, Mustaf flourished, exploring Harlem and interning at the NBA’s Manhattan headquarters. And he was still 6' 10", still in his early 20s, still could shoot, rebound and run the floor. After one season he was included in the package deal that brought Xavier McDaniel from Phoenix to New York. The Suns had designs of playing Mustaf at power forward, enabling them a year later to slide Barkley, another new acquisition, to the three spot. But Moose, as teammates called him, was still too green, and he was exiled to the bench.
Mustaf groused about his minutes to coaches and to Phoenix’s omnipotent president and part owner, Jerry Colangelo. While team execs recall that Mustaf simply wasn’t as good as advertised, the player had a different read. “I was so different from most athletes, there was gonna be some conflict,” he says, decades later. “I had my pride—some might say hardheadedness—but you weren’t going to push me around. I am not that kind of Negro.”
Asked what it was like to coach Mustaf, Paul Westphal, who led the Suns from 1992 to ’96, pauses before responding. “What I remember about him,” he says, “I’d rather keep in my brain.” Mustaf’s outspokenness amused teammates, and he had a flair for locker room pranks. (He recounted to SI that he once produced a fake newspaper, headlined NATION IN SHOCK, describing how Barkley changed his name to Charles Abdul Muhammad and converted to Islam.) But most of Mustaf’s relationships were of the arms-length variety. “Nothing about Phoenix was a good fit for me,” he says. Pressed for specifics, he ticks off a list of black teammates, including Barkley, who married nonblack women. He also recounts how Kevin Johnson, the Suns’ leader, sat in the front of the team bus and “didn’t say a word for nothing. [Kevin] was that good Negro. I was not that guy.”
Mustaf was distracted by the usual trappings available to those transformed overnight into millionaires: women, fast cars, clothes. But he also poured money into Take Charge, a program founded in 1990 by his father, and opened an Afro-centric bookstore on Phoenix’s south side, Moostaf’s Connection, that he stocked with Malcolm X T-shirts and memoirs by the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass. The shop allowed Mustaf to start a literacy program and provide jobs to friends and other young African-Americans. “That [store is] for the people,” Mustaf explained at the time. “Once you understand that, then you might understand me.”
It’s worth noting: This was around the same time Barkley famously declared he was no role model. So, too, is it worth noting: This was in a state where the black population hovered around 4%, where only the threat of losing the opportunity to host a Super Bowl motivated the citizenry to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday.
According to Mustaf, Colangelo at one point made clear that he thought the bookstore was exacting a price on the young forward’s game. Mustaf didn’t back down. “I have a bookstore in a black community that needed one,” he says he protested to his boss. “[Teammate Dan] Majerle has a sports bar. You tell me which you think is more important.”
At Shaar’s behest, Jerrod invited an older cousin to come live with and work for him in 1991. Levonnie Wooten had recently been released from prison in North Carolina, where he’d served 14 months on drug-related charges. In his mid-20s and trying to reassemble his life, Wooten was grateful for a new start. But in March ’93 the two cousins argued at the bookstore over a bill and Wooten claimed Mustaf hit him over the head with a phone. Police charged Mustaf with aggravated assault and Wooten filed a civil action. He also quit working at the store and left Mustaf’s residence, moving with his girlfriend, Monique Harris, into the home of her cousin, Keith Rucker, a defensive tackle for the Phoenix Cardinals.
Before this rift, Wooten had overlapped briefly at the store with a spirited, ambitious coworker: Althea Hayes. An aspiring singer, Hayes sought work at the shop in part because she’d learned Mustaf owned not just the bookstore but also a talent agency. She also grew enamored of the young NBA player with a social conscience, and soon she began a sexual relationship with him. Hayes’s brother, meanwhile, warned her against being seduced by a professional athlete. “I was not impressed,” says Phillip, who remembers writing Althea a letter saying, “You’ve always been independent, and you don’t need him or anyone else to make it.”
Phillip issued this warning without knowing Mustaf’s history with women. In college Jerrod allegedly assaulted and threatened a girlfriend whom he’d impregnated. (The charge was dropped; Mustaf admitted to shaking the woman but denied knowing she was pregnant.) In Phoenix he allegedly fought with his then fiancée, Psasha Luke, when she was eight months pregnant, and fired a gun through a wall near her. That dispute began when Luke received a letter from a woman in Florida claiming Mustaf was the father of her child. Police filed an assault charge, which was later dropped. Luke gave birth and became pregnant again a year later but sought an abortion, she told investigators, after Mustaf threatened her once more. She later had a second child with Mustaf. Soon after, she obtained an order of protection against him.
Separated from Luke but living with a different woman in the spring of 1993, Mustaf would allegedly meet Hayes at various Phoenix hotels—until she told him of her pregnancy. After that, she told friends, his demeanor changed. He threatened to stop talking to her if she didn’t have an abortion. The two nurses who examined Hayes would later tell investigators that when she mentioned Mustaf, she became “emotional, upset and concerned about her well-being.” Those women were sufficiently concerned that they referred Hayes to counseling.
Tearman Spencer was working in Boston around this time when he received a frantic call from Hayes, his cousin. Voice quavering, she explained her situation. “She said, ‘I have to get out of here right now because they’re gonna get me,’ ” recalls Spencer. The following day, she was killed.
“I couldn’t get a ticket to her fast enough,” he says. “And I’ve been wrestling with that guilt ever since.”
“I have worked closely with the Take Charge Juvenile Diversion Program . . . generally my first choice when looking for an appropriate diversion program for a youngster in trouble.”
—The Honorable C. Philip Nichols Jr.; April 23, 2010
As the head prosecutor of Maricopa County’s homicide unit K.C. Scull was able to hand-select his own cases, and he picked “the highest profile and the worst ones,” he says. Hayes’s murder checked both boxes.
After 15-odd years in front of judges and juries, Scull approached trials with an unblinking confidence, but this one particularly so. Perhaps because of the involvement of a professional athlete, the scope and scale of investigative resources had been uncommonly large, and so Scull came to court armed with what he considered abundant evidence, an airtight case he believed he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Inside the county attorney’s office he distributed a pretrial staff briefing, titled “Althea Hayes Homicide,” that laid out the case. That document, culled from police reports, interviews and phone records, alleged the following, much of which was later entered into the record in court:
• Levonnie Wooten returned to the East Coast after falling out with his cousin. Then, on July 20, 1993, he received two airline tickets—one for him and one for his girlfriend, Harris—to come back to Phoenix the next day. Mustaf and his father would claim these tickets (which were paid for by Mustaf) were intended to repair the cousins’ relationship. But Harris told investigators a different story. She said Wooten told her he owed Mustaf a “favor.” In Phoenix, Wooten and Harris would stay at Mustaf’s home.
• On the same day those tickets arrived, Wooten’s mother received $1,500 from Mustaf, purportedly to cover rent on her apartment in Landover, Md.
• On the afternoon of July 22, witnesses saw Mustaf driving a rented red Mercedes convertible into the parking lot of Hayes’s apartment complex. They also saw Wooten following in a black Porsche owned by Mustaf. Hayes was not home.
• That same evening, at 9:23, Hayes placed a call from her apartment to a friend, Toni Evans, who says Hayes told her, “Jerrod’s cousin Vonnie is over here right now, so if anything happens [to me] you know who was here.”
• Around 9:30, Hayes’s neighbors heard what sounded like gunshots or firecrackers.
• At approximately 10 o’clock, Harris says she woke from a nap at Mustaf’s house and looked for Wooten. Asked about his cousin’s whereabouts, Mustaf replied that Wooten had gone out to handle some business.
• Wooten returned that night dressed in all black, with a knit hat, and told Harris to pack because they were driving to California, where she had a home. (Another house guest of Mustaf’s reported seeing Wooten near a gun closet after he returned to the residence.) As Harris and Wooten left the house in a Mitsubishi Diamante that another one of Mustaf’s friends had rented, Harris, driving, watched Wooten disassemble a semi-automatic handgun and throw pieces out the window.
• Wooten returned to Phoenix on July 24. Mustaf and his girlfriend took Wooten to a mall, where they bought him a new suit, and then to the airport. That was the day Alvin Hayes found his daughter dead on the floor of her bedroom.
• On July 26 Wooten returned a call from the Glendale detective in charge of the investigation. Wooten at first denied knowing Hayes. . . then admitted he might have met her before. He told the detective he’d flown into Phoenix on the night of the 22nd. . . then corrected himself—it was actually the 21st. He explained that he and Harris had traveled to Phoenix so she could visit her cousin, Rucker, the NFL player.
• Roughly a week after the murder Wooten called Harris and told her that if the police were to ask, she should say they left Phoenix for California at two or three in the afternoon on July 22. He also instructed her to repeat the story about visiting her cousin. (During this conversation, Harris took notes on a piece of cardboard that was later recovered by detectives.)
• The police investigation revealed Wooten’s story to be riddled with holes. Rucker had been out of town, and people who were at Mustaf’s house on the afternoon and evening of July 22 refuted Wooten’s claim that he left at 3 p.m. Other sources confirmed that Wooten and Hayes knew each other from Moostaf’s Connection. (Harris fed investigators Wooten’s version of events more than once before eventually breaking down and admitting she’d lied for her boyfriend.)
• Three months after Hayes’s death Wooten dropped the bookstore-related assault charge and the civil suit against his cousin. And on July 22—the last day Hayes was seen alive—Mustaf wrote a $10,000 check to purchase land in North Carolina. Intercepted phone calls revealed that this land was to be the site of a disco. A former girlfriend of Mustaf’s confirmed that Wooten was going to manage the disco.
Finally, on April 8, 1994, nine months after Hayes was killed, Wooten was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, burglary and witness tampering. As he awaited trial he conducted his first jail-house interview and asserted his innocence to an unlikely pair of interlocutors: Charles Barkley and a radio personality who went by the name Super Snake.
Mustaf, meanwhile, was summoned one week later before a grand jury, but through a lawyer he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In September he was quietly released by the Suns, who bought out the remaining two years on his contract for $3.8 million. He’d never play in the NBA again.
It’s not often that a prosecutor and a defense team find themselves in agreement theorizing about how a crime unfolded. But in The State of Arizona v. Levonnie Wooten both sides approached the case from remarkably similar angles. Scull’s team asserted that Mustaf wanted Hayes killed because she’d refused an abortion. Though lacking in physical evidence, they believed Mustaf had masterminded Hayes’s murder. Wooten, acting in the service of his famous cousin and with the motive of his future stake in the North Carolina disco, was only the triggerman.
The defense, too, argued that Mustaf had arranged the murders. But Wooten, his lawyers said, had been “set up.” Another member of Mustaf’s entourage was likely the triggerman.
Still, even by the standards of a murder trial with ample room for reasonable doubt—no witnesses to the shooting, no damning physical evidence, no indication that investigators had sufficiently pursued other suspects—this one was hotly contested. Scull sparred with Wooten’s defense lawyer, Eleanor Miller, over various pieces of evidence, hearsay exceptions and Miller’s comments to the press. He took particular aim at Miller’s strategy, filing a motion to bar a “third-party guilt” defense. When that motion was successful, Miller’s job became even more challenging. In motions leading up to the trial, the prosecution had even tried compelling Miller to reveal who was paying her legal fees. At the time she responded, “None of the state’s frickin’ business.” (Today she speculates that some but not all of Wooten’s fees came from Mustaf, the “only one in the family that had any money.”)
Finally, on Jan. 29, 1996, two years after Wooten was arrested—following a trial that lasted two weeks and received strikingly little media coverage given the connection to a pro athlete—a jury found Wooten guilty on all counts. When the verdict was announced, he smiled, yelled “Peace!” and high-fived friends in the gallery. He was spared the death penalty because of what Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein called “a lack of aggravating circumstances to support that request.” But he was sentenced to life for the murder, 21 years for the burglary and nearly two years for the witness tampering. (Wooten would appeal the conviction, and while unsuccessful the trial entered into the record many of the points laid out in Scull’s briefing document.)
Mustaf, who had by then resumed his career in Europe, was not present during the trial. Hayes’s mother was. According to the Associated Press’s account, Hazel Hayes “sobbed at the sentencing.” The family would have no closure, she said, until there was a second conviction. “When my husband found our daughter laying down dead, it murdered my whole family. I can’t truly heal until Jerrod Mustaf is brought to justice.”
Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system—for that matter, anyone who watches Law & Order—can recognize the choreography here. Wooten would be offered a lesser sentence in exchange for “rolling” on Mustaf, testifying against his cousin. That was certainly Scull’s plan, anyway.
In the years following Wooten’s conviction, Mustaf played in France, Spain and Greece, and in the fall of 1996 was invited to the training camps of the Seattle Sonics and Charlotte Hornets. He was waived both times, and while neither team gave a reason, Mustaf thought he knew why. “I’ve been convicted without a trial,” he told reporters at the time. “What about innocent until proven guilty?”
At least one court proceeding did go somewhat unfavorably for Mustaf. The Hayes family filed a wrongful death civil suit, claiming Mustaf had summoned Wooten to Phoenix “for the express purpose of carrying out the plan to kill Althea Hayes,” and the two parties settled for an undisclosed amount.
Mustaf eventually filed for bankruptcy. He married Shalamar Muhammad, niece of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan Sr. and had another child.
Meanwhile, K.C. Scull was busy preparing a case against Mustaf. While he’d never before tried a pro athlete, he’d overseen other high-profile cases—he led the successful prosecution in the so-called Buddhist Temple Murders, the largest mass homicide case in Arizona history—and didn’t consider Mustaf’s particularly exceptional.
Mustaf in Poland, in 1999.
But here’s what never happened: Wooten rolling on his cousin. Even facing life without parole, Wooten declined to cooperate with prosecutors. “They didn’t want Levonnie. . . . Who they wanted was Jerrod,” says Miller, the defense lawyer. “They thought that eventually Levonnie would break.”
Wooten never broke. Even so, Scull figured he could establish motive and opportunity, and he was endowed with plenty of incriminating evidence. He even reckoned he’d acquired a new bit of ammo—admissible, he believed—when he was put in contact with a former girlfriend of Mustaf’s who had recently returned from visiting him in Spain. Mustaf and the woman fought, and he’d accused her of stealing $10,000; then he left her a voicemail, which she turned over to authorities. According to Scull’s pretrial briefing memo, experts were able to authenticate Mustaf’s voice on the recording saying: “I will recover that money by any and all means. If you don’t believe me, you better ask about me in Arizona.”
Scull figured he had enough to take Mustaf to trial. His boss, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, thought otherwise. As Romley saw it, the case was long on suspicion and short on hard evidence. As he remembers it: “I said, ‘Give me any evidence. Show me a gun. Show me a bank transfer for paying off Levonnie Wooten, whatever.’ They couldn’t present anything.”
The two men disagreed fiercely—so much so that, Scull recalls, it almost led to his firing. “When the kibosh came down,” he says, “that was that.”
“Mr. Mustaf has shared a unique relationship with the Prince George’s County Police Department . . . . His organization’s youth programs have contributed to the vast reduction of violent crime.”
—Prince George’s County Chief of Police Mark Magaw; June 8, 2012
Both the murder of Althea Hayes and the fate of Jerrod Mustaf still weigh heavily on Levonnie Wooten. He’s been transferred throughout Arizona and is now incarcerated in Florence, a facility of 4,000 or so inmates an hour southeast of Phoenix. He’s 51. He’s spent nearly half his life behind bars and it’s likely he will die in prison. He begins a jailhouse interview, conducted via phone, by sighing and saying, “It’s day to day, man.”
Wooten has filled his days and months and years playing dominoes and basketball, although he admits, “I’m [getting] too old for that now.” He’s held a series of prison jobs, from maintenance worker to tailor, and devotes much of the balance of his time to trying to establish his innocence. He also, according to Arizona Department of Corrections records, has committed 14 disciplinary infractions since his sentencing.
Wooten maintains, adamantly, that he was wrongly accused and convicted; he says he didn’t even know Mustaf and Hayes were romantically involved—so where’s his motive? His explanation for what has since transpired is not always easy to follow, but he speaks with great passion. “You got no physical evidence against me, no facts. You don’t have no prior history of me doing any of these type of things, and you charge me with this?” he asks. “How is that possible?” Wooten then answers his own question. He believes Arizona is a racist, publicity-hungry state—“They wanted another O.J.,” he says, before linking the state to 9/11 and Columbine conspiracies—and that he was targeted for being Muslim. He claims he was investigated by a “crooked” cop and received ineffective counsel; he points to his predominantly non-black jury pool. And, he theorizes, both the Suns and their well-connected president, Colangelo, played a role too, concerned as they were “about the publicity [of] having a stain on their players.” (Colangelo, who sold his interest in the Suns in 2004, did not respond to inquiries from SI for comment.)
Wooten claims to harbor no hard feelings for Harris, the ex-girlfriend who, once offered criminal immunity, testified against him. Faced with the choice of cooperating with the prosecution or risking losing her kids, he says, she made an understandable choice. “All of a sudden [the state] come and say, ‘You was an accessory to the murder. They going to take [your kids] from you.’ I ain’t got bad feelings for nobody but the prosecution’s office.”
And through it all Wooten has remained fiercely loyal to his cousin. “That’s my family, man,” he says. “Friends, partners, associates come and go. Blood is forever. When you look back on your life, family is family, good or bad. But me and Jerrod is me and Jerrod. I don’t have nothing bad to say about Jerrod. Jerrod ain’t did nothing.” (As for the fact that Wooten’s lawyer built his defense around Mustaf’s alleged involvement in plotting Hayes’s killing, Wooten waves this off as just part of his lawyer’s strategy.)
Both the murder of Althea Hayes and the fate of Jerrod Mustaf still weigh heavily on the family of the deceased, too. Hazel Hayes, famous in her family for her toughness, used to visit the Graceland Cemetery in Milwaukee where her daughter was buried. Years after Althea’s death, Hazel would break into tears, lamenting that she’d lost a daughter and a grandchild. In 1999, when Rae Carruth’s pregnant girlfriend was murdered, Hazel was repeatedly interviewed. And repeatedly she said that, in Carruth’s case, at least the victim’s child survived. Hazel Hayes died in 2005. “My mother was a strong, strong woman,” says Phillip. “But what happened to Althea, that took so much from her.” (Another sibling, Barbara, took ill shortly after Althea’s murder; she never recovered, passing away in 1998. The family is convinced she literally died of grief.)
Hazel’s husband reacted with more stoicism. Alvin Hayes, who first discovered his daughter’s lifeless body, has tried to avoid the topic. He resumed his life as best as he knew how. After Hazel passed away, he remarried, and now, at 93, he lives in Arkansas.
The family has united around this: a deeply-held belief that the man who arranged Althea’s killing remains at large. Now a lawyer, Tearman Spencer, Althea’s cousin, says: “Mustaf colluded. He orchestrated and he ordered a hit . . . . The weakest case you could pull together is conspiracy. I’ve seen conspiracy convictions when people only talk once. I think there was something afoul in Maricopa County. I don’t know if it was [driven] by the ballclub or what, but they did not connect the dots, and the dots were not difficult to connect. I know there was not justice.”
Both the murder of Althea Hayes and the fate of Jerrod Mustaf still weigh heavily on Eleanor Miller. As a prominent Phoenix-area lawyer, Miller had a wealth of experience representing criminal defendants. But when Wooten retained her as his counsel, it marked her first capital murder case. And it was a jarring, scarring experience. She still has vivid recollections of Hayes’s grieving parents. At some point after the trial, Miller heard through a mutual friend that the Hayes family had endured a home fire and was in need of some furniture. She offered up a princess bed that her daughter no longer used. Alvin Hayes came to pick up the bed. Yes, the donor had defended the man convicted of killing his daughter, but Hayes was able to overlook that. “He was just as kind as he could be to me,” Miller recalls. “They didn’t hold a grudge.”
Miller continued her defense work until 2015, when she retired from practicing law. But after representing Wooten she actively avoided other capital cases. The “weight of the world,” she says, hung in the balance. It was more burden than she was comfortable shouldering.
Both the murder of Althea Hayes and the fate of Jerrod Mustaf still weigh heavily on K.C. Scull. He has been retired since 2000 but is still able to recite details with uncanny precision. When he talks about Mustaf, one hears a prosecutor characterizing a defendant: “He was mercurial in temperament. He could be a good friend of yours one minute, and turn on you the next.”
Why was Scull not allowed to try the case? “I could only speculate,” he says. “The Suns [were a] big-deal industry in Phoenix at that time. . . . I don’t know what caused Rick Romley to be so afraid of this case. The rest of us weren’t.” (Nothing revealed by police or shared by Scull suggests any actual untoward involvement from the Suns’ part.)
Romley, his boss, has an entirely different recollection. He knew both Scull and the Glendale police were eager for a prosecution. But Romley recalls that the “vast majority” of his staff opposed it. For one thing, many of the people who would have been called to testify were either unavailable or unreliable. “Look,” says Romley, “I know K.C. very, very well. I respect him. He has tremendous trial skills. But sometimes he goes a little bit too hard.”
Scull doesn’t contest that point. Even in retirement, he holds out hope that this case, dormant for years, might somehow attract the attention of an enterprising lawyer. (There’s no statute of limitations on first-degree murder.) “I think, even today, if the U.S. Attorney’s office would take this case on,” he says, “it could be won.”
“Jerrod Mustaf, influential Marylander 2014, [one of] 50 people in our communities who have shaped and influenced our world for the better.”
—The (Maryland) Daily Record; March 2014
The tidy and sanitized version of the Jerrod Mustaf story goes something like this: After building a checkered history with women, he had an awakening and turned to a righteous existence. Having narrowly avoided prosecution for murder, he doubled down, further devoting his life to public service and helping African-American kids avoid the criminal justice system. The reality, though, is considerably more complicated.
“The situation that summer of 1993,” as Mustaf calls it, ended his NBA career, he’s sure of that. He’s also reasonably certain it has created a taint that still hurts him to this day “in other ways I don’t know about.” His distrust for authority, always there, turned into skepticism, even paranoia. “I’m cynical about everything now,” he says. “Syria has weapons of mass destruction? Yeah, right.” Referring to the Hayes murder case, he says he’s seen people “do devious things” and witnessed “evidence being planted that was admitted.” It’s led him to document every event in his life. His office and home are now filled with notebooks and calendars. When his friends call him a pack rat, he just smiles.
As for long-term effects, though, that’s about it. “I lead my life, man,” he says. “I’m much more about the future than the past.” He has eight children, including a daughter who plays D-I basketball and a teenage son who’s an ascending prospect. Based on his social media profile, Jerrod has recently traveled the Eastern seaboard, leading basketball coaching clinics and youth leadership seminars.
Mustaf doesn’t flinch when he starts to get poked with uncomfortable questions. He’s reluctant to discuss specifics of the Hayes case, but not for fear of saying anything incriminating. No, he says, it’s mostly because he has designs of writing a memoir and, as he puts it, “I want to reserve the right to tell my story.” Until recently, he referred to the “situation” on his own website (which has since gone dark), mentioning Colangelo by name and characterizing the events of the mid-’90s like this: “Withstanding the character assassination and false media portrayals, Jerrod and the Suns mutually agreed that he leave the NBA and continue his career in Europe.”
Asked to think back to the summer of 1993, mostly Mustaf recalls how cavalierly he regarded the situation at the time. He was young, wealthy, socially conscious and shrewd, and—referring to criminal matters but overlooking the various domestic violence incidents and allegations—he says that he had never so much as gotten a traffic ticket. He couldn’t really be linked to a murder. “I thought the entire thing was ridiculous,” he says. “I didn’t understand the seriousness of it then. I said, Y’all are crazy. It didn’t make any sense to me. . . . Then I saw what [the D.A.’s office] leaked and threw out there. In hindsight: Damn, that was serious.”
Asked how someone as bright and savvy and companionable as he is could even get into this predicament, he laughs and attacks the premise of the question. If no charges had been filed, what’s the predicament? Then he adds: “What is the reason [I was accused]? Because I was vocal, opposed to the Suns. The whole week leading up [to the Hayes murder] I was in the paper arguing with Jerry Colangelo. I started putting [everything] together. Who doesn’t see this?”
After Mustaf’s pro career ended overseas he returned to the Maryland suburbs in the early 2000s and founded the Street Basketball Association, an eight-team urban league with DJs playing throughout games. “Baskettainment,” he called it. Again, the goal was to create jobs and enterprise in the black community. Meanwhile, his problems with women continued. In February 2001 he was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly attacking his wife, Shalamar. A month later he was arrested for violating her protective order. (Court records show that charges were dropped when Shalamar did not show up for a hearing. According to public records, the couple divorced in ’03.)
Unable to land a television contract, his basketball league withered. Mustaf dedicated himself full-time to Take Charge, the organization his father started. When Shaar Mustaf passed away, in 2011, it only hardened the son’s resolve to “become a leader in the black community.” Thousands of kids have been through the program. And while the success rate is hard to quantify, the sheer volume of testimonials and acclamations says plenty. From Maryland high school principals to senators to the secretary general of the Gambia, Mustaf’s admirers cut a wide swath.
For as many kids that come through Take Charge, for as many paths as Mustaf reroutes, he is still learning on the job. He’s especially confounded by the unpredictability of human nature. Why do some kids, poised on the verge of success, raised in relative comfort, get caught in the gears of the system? Why do other kids, born into situations that verge on dire, manage to surmount them? Why do deterrence and rehabilitation work some times and not others? Why do people who know right from wrong choose the latter? “Trust me, I don’t always understand it and don’t know if anyone does,” Mustaf says. “Sometimes, it’s like there’s this disconnect, you know?”
Special reporting by Lily Altavena