Tragedy In New Jersey: The Jayson Williams Shooting Facing a manslaughter charge and witnesses who may turn on him, the ex-NBA star has seen his dream world collapse with the shotgun death of a limo driver

March 11, 2002
March 11, 2002

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March 11, 2002

Pro Basketball

Tragedy In New Jersey: The Jayson Williams Shooting Facing a manslaughter charge and witnesses who may turn on him, the ex-NBA star has seen his dream world collapse with the shotgun death of a limo driver

This much we know: In the early morning hours of Feb. 14 the lives
of Jayson Williams, the wealthy NBA player turned B-list
celebrity, and Costas (Gus) Christofi, a limousine driver who had
apparently put a difficult stretch of his life behind him,
intersected tragically. A shotgun was fired in the master bedroom
of Williams's lavish estate, a grown man's Disneyland in
northwest New Jersey. We do not know why the gun was fired or,
with any certainty, how. But we know Christofi is dead, Williams
is charged with killing him, and their names are now linked in
perpetuity. First, the death was reported as a suicide, and then
forensic evidence proved it was a homicide. Now, SI has learned,
there was allegedly an attempt to tamper with evidence in the
moments after the shooting in order to protect Williams. Creeping
up slowly on the truth, investigators learn more from witnesses
each day.

This is an article from the March 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

They lived in different worlds, the driver and his celebrity
client. Williams, 34, played nine years in the NBA and struck the
mother lode when he signed a six-year, $86 million contract in
January 1999, two months before the first of a series of injuries
led to his retirement in June 2000. But since his career ended,
his fame has grown; a regular on the Manhattan nightclub circuit,
he joined NBC's NBA studio show this year. Christofi, 55, who
lived in Washington, N.J., went to prison four times (twice on
burglary convictions) for a total of eight years between January
1976 and December '88. But he seemed to have righted himself in
middle age and was described by Sam Nenna, his employer at
Seventy Eight Limousine, as among the most reliable of his 15

On Feb. 25 Williams surrendered to New Jersey State Police and
was charged with shooting Christofi at Williams's mansion on his
65-acre estate in Alexandria Township, N.J. The charge,
second-degree manslaughter, could still be upgraded. A witness
told SI that he saw Williams and another person attempt to place
Christofi's palm print and fingerprints on the gun that killed
him, apparently trying to make plausible a 911 call claiming that
Christofi had committed suicide. The witness also said that
Williams and two other men disposed of the clothes that Williams
was wearing at the time of Christofi's shooting. Either alleged
act could expose Williams--and perhaps others--to additional

At 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 13, Victor Santiago, who identified himself
as Williams's brother, called the office of the limousine
company, in Pittstown, N.J., near the Pennsylvania border. The
caller asked to hire a stretch limo to drive Williams, a former
All-Star center-forward for the New Jersey Nets, and nine other
people from a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game at Lehigh
University in Bethlehem, Pa., to the Mountain View Chalet
restaurant in Asbury, N.J., 25 miles away, and back to Bethlehem.

Nenna told the caller that his only stretch limo was unavailable,
but he could send a passenger van instead. Then Nenna made two
calls. First, to make sure that the limo order wasn't a hoax, he
phoned the Mountain View Chalet to confirm that a reservation had
been made in Williams's name. (It had.) Next he contacted
Christofi "because I knew he was such a great sports fan," Nenna
told SI last Saturday. Christofi had been scheduled to make
early-morning runs the next day, but Nenna shifted those to other
drivers to put Christofi on duty with the Williams entourage.
"We've had Jayson Williams in the past, and he's had diversions
to Atlantic City and other places," said Nenna. "I had this
feeling that it wouldn't be just to the restaurant and back, so I
wanted to make sure Gus could stay out as long as he needed to."

Christofi picked up Williams and several other passengers at
10:30 p.m. at the Comfort Suites on West Third Street in
Bethlehem and drove them to the Mountain View Chalet, arriving at
the restaurant at approximately 11:15. A source familiar with the
events of that night says the van was so crowded that one of the
passengers rode up front next to Christofi and chatted with him.
Among the passengers were four members of the Globetrotters' team
that played at Lehigh that night: Chris Morris, an 11-year NBA
veteran who last played in the league in 1999 and was a Nets
teammate of Williams's for five seasons; Benoit Benjamin, who
played in the NBA for 15 years, including two with Williams on
the Nets, and who was on a 10-day tryout with the Globetrotters;
Paul (Showtime) Gaffney, a nine-year Globetrotters veteran who
plays the team's clown, as Meadowlark Lemon once did; and Curley
(Boo) Johnson, a dazzling dribbler in the Curly Neal mold who is
in his 14th year with the team.

The Williams party stayed at the Mountain View Chalet, a
family-style restaurant, for roughly two hours. But instead of
returning to Bethlehem, Williams took the Globetrotters and the
rest of the group to his home, telling them he wanted to show off
his digs. They arrived at about 2 a.m.

Chez Jayson is a sprawling two-story, 30,000-square-foot mansion
with 17 bathrooms, eight bedroom suites, a theater with
custom-made red-leather seats, an indoor swimming pool and a
gymnasium; outside there are riding stables, a duck pond, an ATV
track and two golf holes. The property--Williams named it Who
Knew? Estates--also has a skeet range. At the range, according to
his 2000 autobiography, Loose Balls, Williams nearly shot
visiting New York Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet by accident when he
discharged a mammoth .50-caliber handgun inches from Chrebet's
face, knocking him unconscious.

According to the source familiar with the night's events,
Williams kept several shotguns on a wall rack in his bedroom. In
his book he recounts nine incidents involving guns, including one
in which Williams threatens former NBA player Manute Bol's uncle
with an unloaded handgun; another in which one of Williams's
brothers shoots another brother twice with a shotgun for hitting
him in the head with a baseball; and yet another in which
Williams's father shoots a man in the buttocks after the man hit
Jayson with a pool cue. In 1994 Williams was arrested on weapons
charges after a handgun he admitted owning was fired at an
unoccupied vehicle in the parking lot of Meadowlands Arena (now
Continental Airlines Arena), where the Nets play. Williams denied
firing the gun, and charges were dismissed after he completed a
pretrial program.

As part of that program Williams took out a yearlong series of
ads in The Bergen Record, warning youths about the dangers of
using guns. "My message," he said, "will be that guns in the
wrong hands can be deadly."

Not long after the van carrying the Williams party arrived at his
estate, the source familiar with events of that night says,
several guests, including the four Globetrotters, were in a study
that adjoins Williams's first-floor bedroom. They were examining
a wall decorated with photographs and other pieces of Williams's
memorabilia, and the trail of fingerprints they left allowed
police investigators to later determine who was in the study and
where they had been standing.

Christofi also had entered the house. According to Nenna, this
isn't unusual. "We have customers who, as a matter of
hospitality, invite you in," he said. "They get to know you after
a few hours, and everyone is comfortable. You just never go in
expecting to get shot." Several of the Globetrotters later told
an acquaintance that Christofi was a sports trivia fanatic with a
good wit and that he had engaged in conversation with the group
for much of the night.

At approximately 2:30 a.m., the house was shaken by the blast of
a shotgun. According to the source, several of the visitors
rushed into Williams's bedroom and found Christofi slumped
against a wall, bleeding profusely from a massive chest wound,
and Williams "freaking out." The shotgun lay nearby on the floor.
Williams screamed for someone to perform CPR on Christofi, and
when nobody responded, Williams started pressing on Christofi's
chest, feeling for a pulse and talking to him. According to the
source, one witness said that Christofi "looked like he was in
shock, then all of a sudden he was dead."

At 2:38 a.m., according to Hunterdon County prosecutors,
Williams's adopted brother, Santiago, called 911 and reported
Christofi's shooting as a suicide. At approximately the same
time, a witness told SI, some of Williams's guests saw him and
one other man attempting to place Christofi's palm print and
fingerprints on the shotgun. Later, according to the witness,
Williams changed clothes and disposed of the bloody ones he had
been wearing when Christofi was shot.

Police arrived to find Christofi dead and the shotgun on the
floor next to his body. Guests were questioned by police and
detained at the mansion, some for as long as 18 hours. Williams
submitted to a toxicology test that, according to WNBC-TV in New
York, revealed a blood-alcohol level greater than .10, making him
intoxicated under N.J. law. Following an autopsy and Williams's
subsequent arrest, he was released on $250,000 bail. On Monday he
appeared at a hearing at Hunterdon County Justice Center, but did
not enter a plea. Afterward, Williams's lawyer, Joseph Hayden,
declared his client's innocence and called the shooting "a tragic
accident," and Williams made his first statement since
Christofi's death: "Me and my wife would like to send out our
heartfelt condolences to Mr. Christofi's family."

The four Globetrotters who were in Williams's house were placed
on paid leave, and all four have hired lawyers. New Jersey
authorities have been aggressively working the case, and by
Monday night two of the players told an acquaintance that they
had been given immunity in exchange for detailed testimony. That
grant of immunity suggests that prosecutors believe additional
charges may be warranted.

For Williams the incident is the latest--and darkest--in a
rollicking public life. He has always been a chameleon of sorts.
His quick humor and natural storytelling were staples on talk
radio and puff TV shows like Live with Regis and Kelly, and it
was obvious why he was attractive to NBC. (The network announced
that he would not appear on the show until the case is resolved.)
His generosity has been well documented: He has been a
contributor to and a fund-raiser for victims of pediatric AIDS
(two sisters died of AIDS-related illnesses), and he donated
$20,000 to Continental Airlines Arena workers during the 1998-99
NBA labor lockout.

Yet over the years he has also been involved in several violent
incidents. In addition to his history of gunplay, he was in a
brawl in 1992 outside a New York City club he co-owned; he maced
two men and punched one of them, acts that cost him $30,000 in a
civil settlement. In 1994 three teenagers accused Williams and
teammate Derrick Coleman of beating them up outside another club.
(Williams was never charged.) Last November he allegedly pushed a
police officer outside a New Jersey bar, and paid a disorderly
conduct fine. The latest incident, of course, will be played out
for much higher stakes: five to 10 years years in prison if
Williams is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, and up to 30
years if there is evidence of extreme indifference to human life
and the charge is upgraded to aggravated manslaughter.

Christofi died for reasons that may never be fully understood, in
a place that Williams once described as a party animal's
sanctuary. "Now if people want to get wild and throw a party, get
crazy, they have to come do it at my house," he wrote in Loose
Balls. "I'm not always an angel. But if I'm a devil at home, no
one gets hurt."

COLOR PHOTO: THE EXPRESS-TIMES/AP Who knows? It's unclear why Christofi took a shotgun blast to the chest in the master bedroom of Williams's Who Knew? Estates.COLOR PHOTO: AP Taking a charge Former Net Williams surrendered to New Jersey State Police on Feb. 25 and was released on $250,000 bail.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AP (2) Court sense Williams, with wife Tanya, didn't enter a plea in the shooting of Christofi (below) at Monday's hearing.
WILLIAMS screamed for someone to perform CPR, but when nobody
responded, he started pressing on Christofi's chest.