By Rhonda Cook
Mani Chulpayev provided valuable information that helped solve the murder of rapper ‘Lil’ Phat.
But the question that remains is did Chulpayev implicate himself in the murder of Melvin Vernell III in the process?
The Georgia Supreme Court’s answer could go a long way in determining if the one-time Russian mobster and the’s fed’s trusted informant will spend the rest of his life in prison or if he once again walks away from his admitted involvement in a major crime.
The trial judge in Chulpayev’s Fulton County murder case ruled earlier this year that Chulpayev’s statements to Sandy Springs police in the aftermath of Vernell’s death could not be used to prosecute him. Fulton DA Paul Howard appealed and the justices heard the case earlier this month.
Chulpayev, who has been held in jail since May 2013, will be tried once the Supreme Court rules.
As a confidential informant, Chulpayev has traded his access to other criminals to twice avoid significant federal prison time, once in New York and once in Georgia. Prosecutors in those cases noted how important Chulpayev, 37, had been to them.
But this time he is charged with a state crime. Already, one co-defendant, former San Francisco State University point guard Decensea Xavier White, has pleaded guilty to murder in the rapper’s death and is awaiting sentencing.
Three others were convicted at trial last month, 10 days before the Supreme Court heard the appeal in Chulpayev’s case. Trigger-man Deandre Washington, 25, was sentenced life without parole, plus 20 years; rapper Gary Bradford, 35, was sentenced to 25 years, and Maurice Conner, 29, was sentenced to 30.
Chulpayev’s lawyers say he should not be facing criminal charges at all.
“This case is about Mr. Chulpayev, a long-time, trusted and reliable confidential informant wrongly charged with murder after he provided information to law enforcement in his capacity as a confidential informant and in an effort to assist in the fledgling local investigation into that murder,” Chulpayev’s lawyers wrote in a court document. The document refers to the series of conversations he had with investigators beginning six hours after Vernell was shot.
According to testimony, White and Bradford offered Conner and Washington $10,000 to kill Vernell because of a dispute over missing marijuana.
They were able to find Vernell on June 7, 2012, in the parking deck at a north Atlanta hospital, waiting for his girlfriend to deliver, because they had tracked him using the GPS on his car. Vernell was shot multiple times.
Chulpayev, who owned a luxury car business, had leased Vernell an Audi A7, and the Russian gave the men access to the GPS. Chulpayev said he gave them the password after he was assured they would not hurt ‘Lil’ Phat, according to records.
Six hours after Vernell was killed,Chulpayev contacted Sandy Springs police.
According to court filings, Chulpayev insisted that he wanted to help even though his FBI handler was doing everything he could to dissuade him.
Agent Dante Jackson, still working with the Russian, also stressed to Sandy Springs detectives that they needed to take care of Chulpayev because they never would have found Vernell’s killers without his help, according to records.
Defense lawyers said Chulpayev had been told during interviews with police that he was one of the “good guys” and law enforcement appreciated all that he was doing for them.
“Neither before nor at any point during the interview was Chulpayev informed that he was … in any role other than that of a fully protected confidential informant,” his attorneys wrote in a court filing.
They also wrote Chulpayev had been promised he would be protected.
DA Paul Howard’s office said Chulpayev was informed of his right to keep silent but not at every meeting. The prosecutor countered in court filings how could the career criminal think his statements could not be used in their case?
Before he was charged with murdering Vernell, Chulpayev had already faced charges in other crimes. In total, he spent about eight years in prison for those crimes, far less time than he would have received had he not helped federal authorities arrest and convict many more people, some of them members of organized crime.
Federal authorities said he had been invaluable.
• Chulpayev was charged in New York in 1998 with federal racketeering and other violent crimes. But he agreed to wear a wire and then he testified against more than a dozen former associates, who were convicted of crimes like racketeering, fraud, extortion, arson and kidnapping. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to trafficking Russian women to work as prostitutes and running a fraud scheme and sentenced to time served, less than five years. Federal Judge Nina Gershon explained in his sentencing while that Chulpayev’s crimes were chilling and inhuman, he also was “one of the most valuable witnesses in the history of the government’s battle against Russian organized crime.”
• In 2005 in Atlanta, Chulpayev faced federal charges of altering the VIN numbers on stolen cars and using counterfeit titles from Wisconsin and Ohio to sell them. He immediately admitted to the crimes and helped the FBI arrest others, according to court documents. He also helped federal authorities investigating stolen cars rings, weapons charges and a South Carolina murder-for-hire investigation, according to court records. Then-U.S. attorney David Nahmias, who is now on the Georgia Supreme Court, noted in a document outlining federal prosecutors’ agreement with Chulpayev how much he has helped the government in several investigations.
Nahmias recommended Chulpayev’s sentence be 30 months in federal prison; he could have been sentenced to six years. Chulpayev was released from federal prison in April 2007, and he eventually opened a luxury car business in Atlanta.