Former NBA point guard Jerome "Pooh" Richardson, a Philadelphia high school standout and a star at UCLA, is now a central figure in an obstruction-of-justice investigation built around a phone call he made to a local drug kingpin warning him that he was about to be arrested.
Richardson, 42, called Alton "Ace Capone" Coles from California shortly before 3 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2005, to tell him that "the feds were coming," according to those familiar with the probe.
Coles and several top associates were arrested in a series of raids about three hours later. They were charged with heading a multimillion-dollar crack cocaine distribution network.
Philadelphia police detective Richard "Rickie" Durham, a boyhood friend of Richardson's, was the source of the information Richardson forwarded to Coles that morning, according to investigative sources. Durham is the target of a grand jury investigation.
Richardson has been questioned by federal authorities, and it is unclear whether he is cooperating or is a potential target. Now living in California, Richardson has not returned several phone calls over the past five days seeking comment.
In a telephone interview last week, Durham admitted that he called Richardson but denied any wrongdoing. He said the allegation that he leaked information in an attempt to warn Coles was false.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Lloret, who prosecuted Coles, has declined to comment about the current investigation.
Two sources familiar with that case said that Richardson told authorities he made the call out of concern for his half-sister Asya Richardson, who was living with Coles.
"Pooh" Richardson starred at Benjamin Franklin High School and UCLA before becoming the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round draft pick in 1989. In his 10-year NBA career, he also played for the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Durham, 43, said that he met Richardson when they played in the Sonny Hill Basketball League as teenagers and that they had been friends ever since. The 12-year police veteran, who was placed on restricted desk duty last year after authorities traced the alleged leak to him, said he did not know Coles.
A detective with the major-crimes unit, Durham was on an assignment with an FBI task force in 2005 when the Coles raid was planned. Members of the task force, along with dozens of other law-enforcement agents, were briefed about the case and assigned to assist in a series of coordinated, pre-dawn raids set for that morning.
In an interview last week, Durham said he called Richardson in California just hours before the raids. He said he made the call because he was trying to gather information about Asya Richardson.
The detective said he believed "Pooh" Richardson realized from the questions that a raid was about to take place and called to warn his sister and Coles, who lived in a newly built, $480,000 house near Mullica Hill.
Wiretapped conversations in which Coles made a series of frantic calls to associates early on Aug. 10 indicated that he knew the raids were coming, according to investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), who spent more than two years building a case against the Coles organization.
Coles and Asya Richardson were arrested around 6 a.m. that August in their home off Dillons Lane. They had moved in about 10 days earlier.
A dozen other associates were also arrested during the raids, in which nearly $1 million in cash, more than a dozen weapons, and a kilogram of cocaine were seized.
While the tip had no impact on the Coles case, the U.S. Attorney's Office launched a separate investigation to determine the source of the leak.
Several law enforcement sources familiar with the case said last week that Durham's explanation about why he made the call to Richardson was not plausible because Durham was not working the Coles investigation.
Like more than 100 other agents that morning, he only had been assigned to assist in the raids.
A friend of Durham's, who asked not to be identified, described him as a "good cop" who had no reason to tip off Coles.
Other law-enforcement sources, however, said the ongoing obstruction of justice investigation into Durham goes beyond the Aug. 10 phone call.
Durham was removed from the FBI task force and assigned to desk duty last year when he became a suspect in the case.
Coles and five associates, including Asya Richardson, were convicted in March 2008 after a six-week trial in U.S. District Court. Found guilty of drug trafficking and related charges, Coles, 35, was sentenced to life plus 55 years at a hearing last month.
Authorities alleged Coles used a rap music company he had founded, Takedown Records, as a front for a drug distribution network that put two tons of cocaine and nearly a half-ton of crack onto the streets of Philadelphia between 1998 and August 2005.
During that period, investigators said, Coles lived the high life of a celebrity record-company impresario, driving a Bentley, hosting post-concert parties for rap stars, socializing with professional athletes and flashing thousands of dollars in cash.
Asya Richardson was one of at least three girlfriends at the time, according to court testimony. She has remained free on bail and is appealing her conviction on two counts of money-laundering.
Her attorney, Ellen Brotman, declined to comment. But in a post-trial motion, Brotman described her client as "a naive young woman who fell in love with, and was duped by, Alton Coles, a deceptive, manipulative . . . drug dealer who hid his illegal activities from her and used her as part of his legitimate front to the outside world."
Read "The Takedown of Ace Capone," a two-part series on how investigators built their case, at http://go.philly.com/aceEndText