Friday, June 20, 2008

Akon's con job - part 2

We began examining Akon's criminal record after he was arraigned last December on criminal charges stemming from an incident during a June 2007 concert at Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, N.Y. During that show, Akon, whose given name is Aliaune Thiam, lifted a 15-year-old boy over his head and tossed the child into the crowd. As seen on a popular YouTube video, Akon dispatched a security guard to bring the young fan, Anthony Smith, on stage after a pretzel had been thrown at him from the audience (fellow concertgoers apparently fingered the teenager as the culprit). "He made a big mistake today, boy," Akon announced before flinging Smith several rows into the crowd.

With the incident on tape, the singer was charged with harassment and endangering the welfare of a child. Following a December 3 court appearance, Akon was released without bail after a computer check turned up no outstanding warrants or, for that matter, any prior criminal history. This seemed peculiar considering the singer's frequent mentions of his prison time and assorted arrests.

A second check was performed, with investigators submitting Akon's fingerprints to the FBI for a more thorough search for warrants and priors. This time, bureau records turned up six arrests for Akon, who previously used several aliases and birthdates when being processed by law enforcement agencies in New Jersey and Georgia. In light of the discovery of the previous arrest history, prosecutors asked a town judge to set Akon's bail at a nominal $5000, a request the jurist denied.

Though he has claimed to have been frequently arrested while growing up in a middle class household in New Jersey, Akon's rap sheet (and court records) reflect no such cases. He told Vibe last year that he sold marijuana and test questions from his high school locker and that a friend named Tito got him his first gun, a .22. Which, Akon claimed, he rented out for $100 a day. As he explained to VH1 in 2005, he was a big deal back then: "I got accepted by the gangster crowd because they saw that I wasn't afraid of nobody and I would fight anybody...Before I knew it, I became the most popular kid in Jersey City as a good bad guy." Though he lived in the suburbs, Akon told Vibe he "hung out in the ghetto. The suburbs were just boring. We couldn't make any noise."

Born in Missouri, Akon reportedly spent some of his youth is Senegal, where his father, Mor Thiam, was a well-known percussionist. Akon apparently moved with his family to Georgia in the mid-90s, though he would often return to New Jersey, where he hung out with members and associates of the Fugees. At the time, the singer was signed to Elektra Records and was, according to copyright records, writing songs with Fugee Wyclef Jean and Stephens, a choreographer and "image consultant" who would later play a central role in Akon's platinum success.

It was after his deal with Elektra cratered that Akon ran into his first serious criminal trouble. In September 1998, he was named in a felony indictment charging him and codefendant Terrence Taylor with handgun possession and receiving stolen property (specifically, a 1998 BMW).

Burlington County Superior Court records indicate that Akon--who was originally charged under the name Abou Thiam--was released from the county lockup in Mount Holly after posting $3500 bond.

While free on the New Jersey case, he was arrested in mid-November 1998 in Stone Mountain, Georgia. According to a police report, a DeKalb County auto crime investigator happened to be on a stakeout when Akon had the misfortune to drive past him. It probably didn't help that, as the police report notes, Detective R.L. Brewer "observed a white BMW vehicle being driven by a B/M subject." During a prior court case, Akon listed a home address in Stone Mountain that was slightly more than a mile away from where Brewer spotted him.

In an interview, Brewer recalled that he was positioned outside a shopping center and that his stakeout had nothing to do with Akon; the singer was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The performer happened to be driving a car whose license plates triggered a "stolen vehicle response" when the auto's tags were typed into a police computer. Brewer followed Akon until two uniformed backup officers arrived and pulled over the BMW 740 near Highway 78, according to a police report. He was taken into custody "without incident." A passenger, Willie Ashley, was detained on unrelated traffic charges.

[Years later, as he recounted his purported "ringleader" arrest in an interview for a DVD, Akon said that he was "going up 78 headed toward DeKalb" when he was surrounded by police cars. With their weapons drawn, officers began simultaneously barking at him to get out of his car. One cop, the singer recalled, remarked that, "You was caught in a car once before and they said it was a hot pursuit or something. But your name popped up in the computer." So, the singer added, "He locked me up." The arrest left the imaginary kingpin perplexed and wondering if he had been framed by someone who "planted something," since he knew how "clean" his work was.]

[In a November 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Akon took a similar fact-free flight of fancy, claiming that he was "driving a BMW 325, on my way to the chop shop" when he was apprehended. "That's the slowest car in the whole fleet...I'd been in high-speed pursuits before and always got away, but this time I didn't because the car was too slow. I didn't even want that car, it was a favor to someone else. And I wound up getting locked up for three years."]

While searching the BMW, Brewer discovered title and registration documents purporting to show that Akon was the rightful owner of the $70,000 vehicle. But the detective believed the paperwork was fraudulent and called in FBI Agent Peter McFarlane for a consultation. McFarlane, who has worked auto crime cases in Atlanta since 1972, examined the documents and concluded that the title papers were bogus.

Brewer obtained warrants charging Akon with possession of stolen property, forgery, and possession of an auto with an altered vehicle identification number. The singer was booked into the DeKalb County Jail, where bond was set at $20,000 (an amount Akon could not raise).

Nearly a decade after the arrest, McFarlane, who retired from the FBI in late-2002 after 31 years, could still recall some details of the case, due to one memorable fact regarding the BMW's theft in August 1998.

Three months before Akon was arrested driving the car, the vehicle had been stolen from in front of the Columbus, Georgia office of Robert Schiffman, a wealthy financier. Schiffman also was a collector of valuable guitars, one of which happened to be in the trunk of the sedan when it was taken. The car thieves, though, were unaware that the instrument, a 1931 Herman Hauser that once belonged to the classical guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia, was worth more than the BMW itself. The guitar, then valued at $100,000, was one of only two instruments that Hauser built for Segovia (the other guitar, made in 1937, is part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection).

Along with everything else in the car that could trace back to the BMW's owner, the guitar was discarded by the thieves. The instrument, still in its $1,200 case, was eventually discovered in a roadside bush by a BellSouth lineman. Five years later, the Hauser guitar finally found its way back to Schiffman, who is now seeking to sell the guitar for upwards of $250,000.

McFarlane, 62, who has worked auto crime cases for Georgia's Department of Revenue since his FBI retirement, laughed out loud when told of Akon's claims about running a "notorious" auto theft ring, owning chop shops, and being brought down by turncoat underlings. "Ah, this is bullshit. This guy is so phony. He's an arrogant SOB," said McFarlane. Asked about Akon, Brewer said, "I don't think he had any role besides [wanting] to drive a high-dollar vehicle. And I say this because we didn't link him to any other cars."

Nobody was arrested for the actual theft of the BMW, and it is unclear how Akon obtained the auto. Though both McFarlane and Brewer recalled how a member of Jagged Edge, an Atlanta-based R&B group, opted to purchase stolen cars at a deep discount.

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