NJ court upholds conviction of rapper Max B in Fort Lee hotel murder
Former Harlem rapper Max B is staying in prison and won’t be eligible for parole for another 30 years for masterminding a robbery at the Fort Lee Holiday Inn on Route 4 that left a man shot dead, following a state appeals court ruling released this morning.
Charly Wingate, 34, whose cause is being championed by a “Free Max B” campaign, was sentenced to 75 years in 2009 after being convicted of nearly a dozen charges, including murder, kidnapping and armed robbery.
He won’t be eligible for parole from Trenton State Prison until Nov. 9, 2042.
Although he wasn’t at the scene, prosecutors said Wingate orchestrated the robbery/murder – enlisting his stepbrother to do the deed – and won the convictions thanks to testimony by Wingate’s ex-girlfriend, who was at the scene.
The rapper, known by the New Jersey State Department of Corrections as “INM 641403,” repeatedly has said in prison interviews that he expected his appeal would be upheld.
“I’m about to touch down real soon,” Wingate told Statik Selektah on the ShowOff radio program in May. “I come home, I’m on my contract situation, so yeah, there’s definitely going to be a Max Biggavel album. I’m gonna give ya’ll a couple Max Biggaveli albums.
“I’m staying strong. I’m focused. I’m praying. God is good. I’m still wavy, aooww.”
The appeals court wasn’t swayed by his arguments of mistakes by the judge and Bergen County prosecutors at his trial, or that he received a “manifestly excessive sentence.”
Wingate had already spent eight years in prison o a conviction of first-degree armed robbery before being released in 2005.
He made his name working with the Harlem collective The Diplomats – and, more importantly, with big-name rapper Jim Jones. Wingate is credited as co-writer on one of Jones’ biggest hits, “We Fly High,” and is featured on the single “Baby Girl,” as well as several other tracks by Jones.
The two split over money, leaving Wingate still under contract to Jones’s ByrdGang Records. He began releasing mixtapes and He took the nickname “Max Biggaveli” as an homage to The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur (who used the handle “Makaveli”).
Wingate eventually signed a three-album deal and was preparing to release a debut album, “Vigilante,” when his stepbrother, Kelvin Leerdam, and girlfriend, Gina Conway, went to the Holiday Inn — at his direction, according to prosecutors.
Their targets: Two men seen driving expensive cars and flashing cash days earlier in Harlem.
Conway pleaded guilty for her role in the robbery and testified against Wingate and Leerdam. She was sentenced to 15 years.
Wingate filed his appeal jointly with Leerdam, who was convicted of firing the fatal shot. The appeals court upheld his life-plus-35-year sentence, as well.
Two of the victims were involved in mortgage, real estate and credit card fraud. One of them was known to carry a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with as much as $40,000 in cash.
He noticed Conway, a stripper at the Bronx nightclub Sin City, on the street one day, introduced himself and took her to a local bar – then to a Mahwah hotel, where he unsuccessfully tried to seduce her, court papers show.
She left around 4 a.m. and took a cab to Sin City, where she met Wingate and gave him money, the appeals court decision says.
Two days later, the man picked up Conway and took her shopping in Bergen County. Conway called Wingate in an effort to make him jealous, then went with the man to the Fort Lee Holiday Inn.
There, he “opened the designer bag several times to impress Conway, who thought it contained approximately $50,000,” the decision says.
Later that night, he dropped her off in Manhattan and met his associate and two women, spent the night in a club, then brought one of the women to the hotel. His associate brought the other. The two couples took separate rooms.
Before going to bed, the man had all but $1,000 of his cash, as well as his wallet, jewelry and car keys under the plastic liner of a trash can. He stashed the cash under the mattress, then went to sleep while Nieves showered, records show.
Conway, meanwhile, took a cab to a basketball court near 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, where she met Wingate and some of his friends.
She took Ecstasy and drank some Hennessy, then told Wingate about her new friend.
When he asked her how much money the guy had, Conway testified, she told him “a lot.”
Conway said Wingate vowed “to get him,” but that she took it to mean his money.
After she told him where the man was staying, Conway told jurors, Wingate summoned Leerdam, filled him in, then called a cab and sent the pair to Fort Lee.
The taxi driver stopped for gas on the way. Conway pulled up in another car, Conway said, and told her he would love her forever if she “pulled it off.”
The cabbie and the couple went to two other Holiday Inns before they found the right one. They told the driver to wait while they went inside.
On the way to the room, “Leerdam put on gloves, took duct tape from his pocket, and displayed a handgun,” the decision says. “Conway, who had not seen any of these items previously, became nervous because this was not part of the plan.”
Conway used her key card, but it wouldn’t open the door to the room, the decision says.
She called the man’s cell and could hear it ringing, but he didn’t answer. So she knocked on the door.
The hooker answered, “told Conway and Leerdam that Plowden was sleeping, and tried to close the door,” the decision says. “Conway used her foot to prevent the door from closing, and she and Leerdam entered the room.”
Leerdam grabbed the woman by the hair, pointed the gun at her head, and demanded the money and Plowden’s car keys.
Conway said she searched the room as the man slept.
She said Leerdam shoved the hooker into the bathroom and told her to “tape her up, which Conway did, duct taping [her] wrists, mouth, and ankles.”
The victim “got a good look at Leerdam and noticed a scar on the left side of his face,” the decision says.
Conway said she then woke the man. She said Leerdam told him not to look at him or he would be shot, so he did.
Conway said she duct taped his hands and eyes. He then told them about the money under the mattress.
While the couple searched the room, the victim lifted some of the tape and saw what was happening.
“He eventually told Leerdam and Conway that the rest of the money was downstairs in a friend’s room,” the decision says.
Holding the gun to the man’s head, Leerdam forced him to call his friend.
When that man came to the room, Leerdam pointed the gun at his face.
The man reached for the gun and it went off, prosecutors said.
The man fell dead, shot in the head and neck.
Conway scooped up cell phones, a laptap and clothes the first man bought during their shopping spree. She also went through the dead man’s pockets and took $800.
Leerdam, meanwhile, took the dead man’s watch and changed into his clothes.
He then smashed the other man in the face with the gun, while Conway took the hooker’s purse, threatening to kill her and her family.
Before leaving, the couple told the man they would come back and kill him if the money wasn’t in his friend’s room.
The man freed himself, though, and chased after them. He punched Conway, who screamed. Leerdam turned toward him with the gun and the man ran.
The cabbie noticed Leerdam in the new duds, then drove the couple to Leerdam’s city apartment.
Leerdam then called Wingate, records show.
Conway took a bag containing the stolen items to Sin City, where she met one of Wingate’s friends. They then took a bus to his Bloomfield apartment, the decision says.
She left the bag there, took another and went to Wingate’s sister-in-law’s house. She called Wingate from there and he said “he was sorry for what had happened and would take care of her,” according to the decision.
Investigators later found two Holiday Inn key cards, cell phones, a laptop, car keys, clothing, a wallet, and a camera in the bag. When they arrested her, “she gave them a statement implicating Wingate and Leerdam,” the decision says.
Wingate contended, among other arguments, that trying him along with Leerdam deprived him of his right to a fair trial. The appellate court disagreed, noting a prosecutor’s statement that there wasn’t “one piece of evidence or testimony that would not be introduced against both defendants at separate trials.”
“[D]epending on what evidence it believed, a jury could convict both defendants, convict one of them, or acquit them both,” the judges added.
In the end, the panel ruled, process rights didn’t outweigh the State’s interest in “judicial efficiency.”
Rejecting another of Wingate’s arguments, the appeals panel also said that the trial judge was correct in not dismissing a juror who had an “innocuous encounter” when the victim’s father briefly tried on some pants at his store.
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