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THE PARTY'S OVER THE DRUG CASE OF MICHAEL IRVIN TOOK A DARK TURN WHEN A DALLAS COP ALLEGEDLY TRIED TO HAVE HIM KILLED

July 08, 1996
July 08, 1996

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July 8, 1996

THE PARTY'S OVER THE DRUG CASE OF MICHAEL IRVIN TOOK A DARK TURN WHEN A DALLAS COP ALLEGEDLY TRIED TO HAVE HIM KILLED

Celebrity goes on trial--again--and anybody who's uncomfortable
with smirking, winking, lavender-clad and alligator-shod
defendants ought to look elsewhere for more reassuring examples
of jurisprudence. Say, Court TV, where degree of fame is not the
principal defense and arrogance is not necessarily the same as
innocence.

This is an article from the July 8, 1996 issue Original Layout

What's going on in Dallas, where it was proving nearly
impossible even to select a jury for a small-time drug trial,
doesn't seem to have all that much to do with law anyway. This
case is our era's equivalent of a parking-ticket dispute, and it
ought to be resolved just as routinely, without the need of hit
men. Instead, it has become a study of the awesome privilege of
being a Dallas Cowboy and perhaps of the establishment of a new
legal standard for our assigned royalty. Taking the stand:
grandeur, '90s style.

The truth, about all that we have so far, is that Michael Irvin,
the star receiver for the world champion Cowboys, could have
made this go away with a minimum of fuss. Indeed, a Super Bowl
colleague of his, running back Bam Morris of the Pittsburgh
Steelers, was charged with similar crimes (felony possession of
cocaine and marijuana), albeit under decidedly less sensational
circumstances, in a courtroom about 25 miles from where Irvin
stands trial, and Morris has apparently escaped the
complications Irvin now faces. All Morris had to do was assume
some of the guilt and agree to a plea bargain (third-degree
felony possession of marijuana). For all the damning details of
Irvin's March 4 arrest--the topless "models" who were helping
him celebrate his 30th birthday in a suburban Dallas hotel room
that was stocked with far more potent pharmacology than
Marriott's complimentary shampoo--there was no reason he
couldn't have done the same.

Irvin didn't have to admit to drug use. He is not known to have
ever tested positive, even though police found him that infamous
night in the highly suggestive company of four grams of cocaine
(about four Sweet 'N Low packets to you and me), a stash of
marijuana, a tube like those used for snorting coke and some
razor blades. About all he would have had to concede is that he
was in the room--which became difficult to deny, as the first
words out of his mouth upon the production of handcuffs were,
"Can I tell you who I am?" If he had said he was in the room,
was in some vague way in possession and was guilty of poor
judgment, he probably would have walked away with probation. As
a first-time violator of the NFL's drug policy and a convicted
drug offender, Irvin probably would have been suspended for four
games and subjected to counseling and periodic random testing.
Life would have gone on.

But because this is Dallas and because he's Michael Irvin, such
humility was deemed unnecessary. In a strategy that seemed
wholly dependent on his local fame, Irvin pleaded not guilty to
both felony possession of cocaine, which carries a maximum
20-year sentence, and misdemeanor possession of marijuana, with
his team of four lawyers hanging its case on claims of an
improper search by Irving, Texas, police at the time of his
arrest. He decided, furthermore, to flaunt his lifestyle when
most defense attorneys in such a case would prefer that their
client apologize for it, and to inflame a nickel-and-dime drug
case until it has become, surely will become, a bonfire of the
vanities.

The story couldn't have gotten much hotter than it did last week
when Dallas policeman Johnnie Hernandez was arrested and charged
with soliciting the murder of Irvin, who allegedly had
threatened the officer's common-law wife, Rachelle Smith, over
her testimony to a grand jury. Irvin's arrest had already led to
the revelation of the existence of the "White House," a
two-story house near the Cowboys' Valley Ranch training facility
at which Irvin and his teammates could escape the pressures of
their fame and family and relax with more of those topless
"models." In March reports surfaced on local newscasts
suggesting a pattern of drug use among the players in this safe
haven, and the brashness of this Super Bowl-winning organization
was seen in full flower.

As exotic as this all was, though, nobody was prepared for news
of a hit man. Then again, in a state that gave us the Texas
Cheerleader Mom, murder for hire may be presumed to be an
important industry, somewhat like gas and oil production.
Apparently it's considered no trick whatsoever to contract for
this kind of work; $30,000 will get the job done, with just 10%
down. You can ask anybody (particularly undercover cops, who
must make up a sizable portion of the Texas population). Still,
everyone was a little surprised when the alleged hit was put on
a five-time Pro Bowl player.

According to a source and published reports, this latest turn of
events was occasioned by Irvin's brazen attempt to manipulate a
witness, Smith. (Witness tampering is a felony in Texas, and the
district attorney's office is considering filing additional
charges against Irvin.) Smith was subpoenaed by the grand jury
because her name--like those of Angela Beck and Jasmine Jennifer
Nabwangu, the women with whom Irvin and former teammate Alfredo
Roberts were found on March 4--showed up several times on the
register at the Residence Inn by Marriott where Irvin, Beck and
Nabwangu were partying. It was, according to the source, "a
crapshoot bringing her in."

Smith appeared before the grand jury without an attorney.
According to the source, she testified that she not only knew
Beck and Nabwangu (Beck danced with Smith at The Men's Club of
Dallas and even gave her address as Smith's house when she was
arrested) but also knew Irvin intimately. "She kept talking for
several hours," the source said. "Rachelle told me that she has
been to that hotel with Michael, and they were physically
involved."

After she testified, the source said, Smith called Irvin to tell
him she had gone before the grand jury. Irvin allegedly had two
gofers, Dennis Pedini and Anthony (Paco) Montoya, take her to an
apartment for his own line of questioning. According to the
source, the men, fearing that she might be miked, strip-searched
Smith before Irvin demanded the details of her testimony. Then
Irvin "told her it would be real foolish to say that stuff in
court," the source said. "He told her she would regret it."

According to the source, Hernandez became furious after Smith
told him about Irvin's threat. Hernandez had unknowingly struck
up a relationship with someone acting as an informant in an
investigation by the Dallas Police and the Drug Enforcement
Administration. (Authorities were seeking information about
Dallas officers suspected of protecting local drug dealers.)
Hernandez evidently became comfortable enough with the informant
to broach the possibility of killing the man who had allegedly
threatened his wife. The informant put Hernandez in touch with
an undercover DEA agent, and Hernandez came up with $2,960 in
cash toward the $30,000 deal. Hernandez was arrested last
Thursday, three days into jury selection for Irvin's trial.

"Johnnie was a real Boy Scout, a real weenie of a guy," said the
source. "But he also had a streak of that macho cop thing in
him. That's what got him to do something like this."

Jury selection proceeded, although the Dallas area became fairly
hysterical over news of the alleged targeting of Irvin.
Prosecutors doubted that the latest twist was anything more than
what it seemed. "This is a jealousy thing," said a police
source. "It isn't going to be a great superspy novel."

In an interview with SI last Saturday, Smith said she will stand
by her man. "He is a really great guy," she said of Hernandez,
who on Monday remained in jail on $252,500 bail. "All he ever
wanted was to be a police officer and work with kids. In all of
this, I believe he had nothing but good intentions."

As the jury selection process bumbled along, Irvin's wife,
Sandi, was notably absent from his side. (A six-man, six-woman
panel was finally seated on Monday.) That was considered a
disappointment for the defense. It seemed that the celebrity
would not be presenting the appearance of a solid family unit to
bolster jurors' perceptions of his fidelity.

But Irvin apparently doesn't think this mess is all that
serious. Early on, when agent Drew Rosenhaus, a friend of
Irvin's since the player was at Miami, told Irvin to "hang in
there," Irvin replied, "Hang in for what?" Says Rosenhaus, "He
just acts like there's nothing wrong, that there's a media
conspiracy."

Irvin, who like everyone else involved in the trial is prevented
from talking about the case by Judge Manny Alvarez's gag order,
spoke with his wardrobe instead. When he appeared before the
grand jury in March, he wore a fur coat. As the court prepared
for a new trial last week (the first indictment was thrown out
on June 12 when one of the grand jurors was found not to be a
Dallas County resident; Beck, Nabwangu and Irvin were reindicted
two days later), Irvin showed up in a lavender coat and pants,
with two-tone lavender-and-dark-red alligator loafers. Generally
this is not the image that defense attorneys like to showcase
for a jury.

The arrogance spins this little drug case out of control,
wrecking lives, no end in sight. A prosecution source said that
Smith, whose involvement sprung a murder plot into the story, is
just one of several women "we have come across who have been
around with Michael." So there's more to come? "I can tell you
that there are still a couple of aces tucked away, some gems
that will come out at trial," the source said. "I'll admit it
will be tough to top this one, but there's some good stuff ahead."

Yet watching the most basic element of jurisprudence--jury
selection--move forward, one could somehow get a handle on
Irvin's state of mind, the heightened self-image, the
invulnerability that belongs to gods, or what passes for them
nowadays. As prospective jurors walked into the courtroom for
questioning last week, they all looked for the famous football
player among the men standing at the judge's bench. As he walked
out of the courtroom, a man in his 40's winked at Irvin. A woman
in her 50's waved goodbye to him. Another man admitted he
marched in the band at the first-ever Cowboys game. "I am a
jumble of emotions," he said. A woman said her daughter had been
chosen as a Cowboys cheerleader. A season-ticket holder said his
primary interest was that Irvin "play again, as soon as possible."

So it went last week as simple celebrity and outrageous fame
perverted everything they touched. At jury selection a man in
his 30's said his daughter was infatuated with Irvin and had a
poster of him hanging in her bedroom. Given the circumstances of
Irvin's arrest, that image was fairly shocking. Yet one doesn't
imagine, doesn't believe for a moment, that it was shock that
Irvin was trying to hide as he covered his famous face with his
famous hands while the prospective juror described his
daughter's poster.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. RHODES/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS The flamboyant Irvin has hardly dressed the part of a remorseful defendant looking for sympathy. [Michael Irvin]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WOO/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS [See caption above--Michael Irvin wearing fur coat]COLOR PHOTO: RON HEFLIN/AP [See caption above--Michael Irvin]COLOR PHOTO Hernandez, with Smith last year, was allegedly angry at Irvin for threatening her. [Rachelle Smith and Johnnie Hernandez]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WOO/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS Sandi, with the Irvins' daughter, Myesha, has thus far left Michael to fight his own courtroom battles. [Sandi Irvin and Myesha Irvin]