Estate of Uncertainty: Two days in court, five years probation for Rick Ross

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On Friday, March 24 at the Fayette County Court House, rapper Rick Ross and his bodyguard Nadrian Lateef James began a pretrial hearing for their arrest on June 24, 2015, when the two were accused and charged with assault, kidnapping, and possession of a firearm during commission of a felony for an alleged attack that occurred at Rick Ross’s Fayetteville estate 17 days prior. The following is a firsthand account of the March 24 hearing, the subsequent April 4 motions hearing and a decision that came shortly after. It is still uncertain what happened at the the Rick Ross estate on June 7, 2015. 

 

THE HEARING


Opening Statements

Rick Ross walked into the Fayette County Court House Friday shortly before 9 a.m. wearing a cream colored shirt with textured sleeves, cuffs with a zipper, white pants, and no excessive jewelry. For any typical defendant, the clothing choice would’ve been unusual, but it looked ordinary on someone used to standing out from the crowd.

The 41-year-old rapper, who owns the 235-acre former estate of Evander Holyfield in Fayetteville, remained calm, quiet, and relaxed as he sat down in the first row of a nearly empty courtroom, took out a yellow notepad, and jotted down notes to prepare himself for a lengthy pretrial hearing.

On the morning of June 24, 2015, Ross, whose legal name is William Roberts II, and his bodyguard Nadrian Lateef James were arrested and charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm during commission of a felony for an alleged attack that occurred on June 7, 2015. On Friday, the two were defendants in a hearing that, even after five hours in court, appeared to only have just begun.

Rick Ross sits on a bench in the courtroom shortly before the beginning of his pretrial hearing. (Justin Fedich)

Rick Ross sits on a bench in the courtroom shortly before the beginning of his pretrial hearing. (Justin Fedich)

Since the incident occurred nearly two years ago, Ross has gained back some of his freedom, but his ankle monitor is a sign his actions are being watched. Still, Ross hasn’t lost a step in the public eye. Exactly one week prior to Friday’s hearing, he released his ninth album, Rather You Than Me. Friends and family showed up to Fayetteville to support Ross during the hearing, including fellow Miami-based rapper DJ Khaled.

Ross and James were accompanied by three attorneys: Sean Joyner, Adamma McKinnon, and Steven Sadow, the latter of whom handled a majority of Friday’s arguments. On the other side, Michele McCutcheon was the prosecuting attorney for the state of Georgia, seeking justice for Jonathan Zamudio and Leonardo Ceceras, the two groundskeepers who claim they were attacked at the estate’s guest house by Ross and James.

On March 31, 2016, the defendants pled not guilty to all charges. Although the case hasn’t spent much time in court as of yet, Ross and James have used the past few years slowly trying to earn back their freedom while the case is settled. By making a motion to modify their bail order, the defendants have gotten out of house arrest and received the right to travel internationally.

Now, with hours in court ahead of them, the biggest challenge remains: proving innocence. On Friday, much of the discussion was aimed at what transpired on the morning of June 7, 2015.

The two sides began by describing the scene of that morning. Sadow said neither Zamudio nor Ceceras were living at the guest house at the estate but rather were allowed to stay there while working. When Ross and James found out the two groundskeepers were letting others stay in the guest house, they went to investigate.

Sadow took three steps toward Judge W. Fletcher Sams as he explained in detail a scene of Ross cautiously entering the guest house. According to Sadow, Ross walked into a pitch black building with a gun. Ross heard a noise, so he slowly moved in the direction of the sound.

As Sadow sidestepped, acting out Ross’s movements from nearly two years ago, he reached out his hand and said Ross did the same with his .9-mm Glock, as he hit someone in the dark and the lights were turned on almost immediately afterward. The guests were told to leave the premises.

“They didn’t have a right to be there, other than the fact that Mr. Roberts allowed them to stay there when they were working,” Sadow said. “It wasn’t as if they were living there full time.”

McCutcheon, in her retelling of the story from what she had gathered, said the guest house room was not pitch black, and Ross had entered the building brandishing his gun at the people inside, one of which was a child. After leaving the estate and calling 911, Zamudio and Ceceras re-entered later that day escorted by a law enforcement vehicle in a UHaul truck to collect their belongings, which McCutcheon argued would only be necessary if the groundskeepers were welcome to stay in the guest house for more than a day or two.

Sadow argued that Ross and James acted in self-defense, but McCutcheon stated otherwise.

“The state expects that this is a case, Judge, not about defense of habitation, not about defense of persons who were intruding forcibly onto your property, it was an aggravated assault against persons who were properly present at the location,” McCutcheon said.

 

‘Objection, Your Honor’

Ross greeted Khaled with a hug as he exited the courtroom. It was one of the few times Ross smiled during his long day at court. The two sat together on a bench outside the courtroom, but their conversation was brief. After a five-minute recess, Ross returned to the courtroom, and Khaled took his seat three rows back.

Charles Mittelstadt wasn’t at Ross’s Fayetteville estate on June 7, 2015. In fact, no one in the courtroom Friday was there on the day of the incident except Ross and James. However, Mittelstadt, a criminal defense investigator, visited the property a little over a month after the incident and reviewed surveillance footage from the morning of the alleged attack.

After both McCutcheon and Sadow were given a chance to provide their account of what happened based on evidence they had collected, Mittelstadt was called to the witness stand. On a large screen to Mittelstadt’s right, Google Earth’s bird’s eye view portrayed a section of Ross’s estate.

After Mittelstadt proved his knowledge of the property, Sadow began a long line of questioning aimed at showing that his clients were innocent. A majority of Mittelstadt’s time at the witness stand was spent analyzing surveillance footage from the morning, as Sadow flipped through the various angles of photos and videos from a laptop.

Sadow, in an attempt to clarify that Zamudio and Ceceras were only temporary residents, asked Mittelstadt if it looked like the guest house was the permanent residence of anyone on June 7, 2015.

“Objection, Your Honor, as to how this witness is qualified to answer that if he had not been present on June 7,” McCutcheon said.

It was far from the only time McCutcheon rose from her seat with an objection during Mittelstadt’s testimony, as Sadow pressed the criminal defense investigator to make inferences based on surveillance footage that wasn’t always clear. In one photo, Mittelstadt later admitted he misidentified one of the men, and he was cautious not to make too many definitive statements when reviewing the surveillance.

As Ross watched on from his seat, his gaze constant and expression rarely changing, Mittelstadt looked at two separate pieces of surveillance footage, one of the man he believed to be Zamudio and another one he believed to be Ceceras.

The footage was from a time after the incident had occurred, once Zamudio and Ceceras re-entered the estate, and Sadow asked Mittelstadt if either of the alleged victims looked like they had blood on them. Mittelstadt replied they did not appear to be bloodied.

During McCutcheon’s turn to speak to Mittelstadt, she carefully crafted her questions, trying to find holes in the story she thought didn’t add up. Much of McCutcheon’s concerns during Sadow’s line of questioning was the level of certainty behind Mittelstadt’s claims. She also challenged the relevancy behind some of Sadow’s questions.

As McCutcheon pushed for every detail she could, Sadow interrupted.

“I just want to be clear,” Sadow said. “I don’t object to any of this because this is not going to be a dispute, but this is precisely the same type of testimony she objected to.”

The two sides broke for lunch soon after Mittelstadt exited the witness stand, a resolution seemingly far away and another Ross arrest yet to be discussed.

Rick Ross and DJ Khaled exit the Fayette County Court House Friday for a lunch break. (Christopher Fairchild)

Rick Ross and DJ Khaled exit the Fayette County Court House Friday for a lunch break. (Christopher Fairchild)


Blood On the Gun

On June 10, 2015, three days after the incident occurred at Ross’s estate and two weeks before Ross and James were arrested for it, Tommy Grier was sitting in his patrol car on Hwy. 279 near Dix Lee On Drive. According to Grier’s arrest report, Ross was traveling southbound on Hwy. 279 in a Bentley with a female in the passenger seat, and Grier started follow the Bentley towards Hwy. 314.

Grier had the second of two testimonies at the Fayette County Court House, and McCutcheon was the first to address Grier as he recounted arresting Ross for possession of marijuana.

Grier, who was promoted to Corporal on the day of his testimony, explained that in his nearly 20 years of work in law enforcement, he’d dealt with thousands of arrests involving possession of marijuana, a majority of which occurred during his time working for the Fulton County Police Department for the Crime Suppression Unit.

From the witness stand, Grier said he originally pulled Ross over at approximately 1:35 p.m. because he believed Ross’s windows were tinted darker than the legal limit in the state of Georgia, which is 32 percent give or take 3 percent. After testing Ross’s rear window, Grier said the tint was 15 percent, which was illegally dark.

However, it wasn’t the window tint — nor was it was opened CVS Pharmacy bag of six rolled marijuana joints on the passenger seat floorboard — that made the first of two Ross arrests that month relevant to the June 7 incident.

Grier asked Ross if he wanted to call someone to pick up the vehicle, and, according to Grier, Ross responded, “(Expletive) you, Grier. You don’t love me.”

Grier performed a search of the car after Ross continued to be uncooperative, and that’s when he said he found a .9-mm Glock with 16 rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. There was blood on the gun.

While Grier didn’t know the details of the incident that occurred on June 7, he knew that something had taken place at Ross’s estate, so he submitted the gun to evidence, according to his account of the day’s events.

Since it was nearly two years ago, Grier said he couldn’t remember all the details. When Sadow asked why Grier didn’t turn on his dashboard camera that day or why Grier was using a cell phone to call someone with Ross waiting in the cop car, Grier didn’t have an explanation.

Ross's attorney, Steven Sadow, speaks during a pretrial hearing Friday at the Fayette County Court House. (Christopher Fairchild)

Ross’s attorney, Steven Sadow, speaks during a pretrial hearing Friday at the Fayette County Court House. (Christopher Fairchild)

While McCutcheon had challenged Mittelstadt during his testimony to find inconsistencies in his story, Sadow took on the role of the aggressor during Grier’s testimony. Using dashboard camera footage from another officer’s vehicle, Sadow searched for answers.

Sadow tasked Grier with describing the action taking place as multiple officers convened, while Ross waited with two handcuffs restraining him in the back seat of Grier’s patrol car. McCutcheon continued to raise objections to Judge Sams, citing irrelevancy as Sadow tried to find inconsistencies in the arrest report.

Sadow fired back, stating that one important fact was left out from the report.

“Not one word in your report of blood on a gun,” Sadow said, raising his voice to a level that drew a warning from Judge Sams.

After defending himself against Sadow’s questioning, Grier left the witness stand.

As the hearing dragged into late afternoon, the four-time Grammy-nominated rap star stayed focused and alert, occasionally taking notes on his yellow notepad and exchanging whispers with his attorneys. He didn’t show any visible signs of fatigue despite being out at an Atlanta strip club until 1 a.m. the night before while filming a music video for a song on his new album, according to a TMZ report.

Nonetheless, Ross was mostly silent in court. Throughout the entire hearing, he only uttered two words to Judge Sams. One of the issues that needed to be discussed was whether Sams was going to allow Ross to travel internationally, a privilege given to him by the previous judge hearing the case, Tommy Hankinson.

McKinnon requested that Ross travel internationally, and Sams approved the request on the condition that Ross not speak negatively of the case, especially of the opposition, in videos online as he had done in the past.

“Yes sir,” Ross said.

The hearing was scheduled to begin again Tuesday, April 4 at 9 a.m. and continue throughout that week.

 

THE DECISION

Ross strolled down a boat dock in Aruba the Sunday afternoon prior to April 4, getting ready for a fun day on the water before flying back to America the next day to prepare for what he thought might be multiple grueling days at the Fayette County Court House.

“Gonna be a long week,” Ross said, as he broadcast his international adventure to his followers on Snapchat.

Ross’s week wasn’t nearly as long as he’d expected, as he and co-defendant James entered a plea deal Tuesday before Judge Sams, a no contest plea that put him and James on 60 months (five years) probation. Ross agreed to the conditions of a search clause, no drugs or excessive alcohol, anger management, no contact with the victims, and no possession of any firearm.

Ross pled no contest to the charges of aggravated assault, battery, simple assault, three counts of pointing a pistol at another and possession of marijuana less than an ounce. All of the charges, save for the marijuana charge, are from the events that occurred on June 7, 2015.

James entered a plea to aggravated assault, simple assault, three counts of pointing a pistol at another and driving without a license. Ross’s marijuana charge and James’s driving without a license charge stem from June 10, 2015, when Ross was pulled over in his Bentley without his license and with marijuana in the passenger seat. James had to bring Ross’s license to him that day.

Zamudio and Cereras were present at the Fayette County Court House Tuesday, as were other witnesses who were there at the scene of the crime, notably Cpl. Stephen Fluegeman with the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office.

While the afternoon was filled with private discussions and negotations, Tuesday morning’s motions hearing carried on as planned. Fluegeman, who was the responding officer to the 911 call on June 7, described to both McCutcheon and Sadow what he saw when he went to Ross’s Fayetteville estate on the day of the alleged attack.

Fluegeman met Zamudio at Our Lady of Mercy Church across the street from the estate and Fluegeman followed Zamudio’s UHaul onto the property in his patrol car. He met Cereras at the guest house and saw something that wasn’t right.

“I noticed he was bleeding from the right side of his head,” Fluegeman said.

But Cereras was hesitant to say his injuries were someone else’s doing.

“Maybe I bumped it,” Fluegeman recalled Cereras saying.

After Fluegeman reassured Zamudio and Ceceras he was here to help, Zamudio told him that Ross and James had “pistol-whipped” them.

Fluegeman explained pictures he took on his phone that day of blood droplets in the garage and kitchen area of the guest house. He described the layout of the bedroom, where the altercation supposedly began. Sadow pressed Fluegeman on his decision to take certain pictures and leave other pictures out.

“You didn’t take a single picture from inside the bedroom, correct?” Sadow said.

“Correct.”

“Why?”

Fluegeman responded that it was dark in the bedroom so the blood droplets would not have shown up well in pictures, but that it was not completely pitch black in the room, a claim made in a previous hearing by Sadow describing Ross’s side of the story.

Fluegeman also presented pictures he took of Zamudio’s injuries, including a black eye, fingernail scratch, cuts on his inner lip and one a few days later of a bruise on Zamudio’s sternum where he said he had a gun jammed into his chest.

The two sides broke for lunch, and court was scheduled to resume at 1 p.m., with Tyler Simpson of the Fayetteville Police Department scheduled to testify. Simpson had been on call with Fluegeman that day and was present when Ross got pulled over for the window tint on June 10 that ended up being a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana.

Ross and his group of supporters behind him were ready to resume the case, but both side’s lawyers were absent. Ross, his lawyers, and family were led into a private room to discuss the next option. Although Ross had been quiet in court, he could be seen through a glass wall passionately speaking to the group eager to do something.

Hours later, the decision had been made.

“No contest, nolo,” Ross said in response to how he plead.

The two sides came to a negotiation, and although Ross and James still have some limitations with their probation, it was a decision worth celebrating for Ross. He was able to finally rid himself of his ankle monitor Tuesday night, freeing himself of a reminder of how long the case has taken to come to some sort of resolution.

He’s not completely free to do whatever he wants yet, but the famous rapper usually has plenty of places to be. Since he had scheduled to be in court all week, he was given the rest of the week to do almost anything he desired.

“Guess what man?” Ross said on his Snapchat Tuesday night. “I’m having a pool party tomorrow!”

 

THE AFTERMATH

Ross’s career could’ve been over. He also could have walked away a completely free man.

Both sides, fearing the worst, came to an agreement on only the second day of a hearing that was scheduled to take up the whole week. The plea deal was finalized late on Tuesday, April 4 at the Fayette County Court House, but, according to  Sadow and District Attorney Ben Coker, the discussion of a potential plea deal had begun the weekend prior. As the case creeped closer to a possible trial, Sadow was wary that Ross could be putting himself in a potentially dangerous situation if there was any chance he would be convicted by a jury.

After looking at the history of past decisions of the Fayette County Court House, it was clear that if convicted, Ross would likely have been imprisoned for more than a few years. On the other side, Coker said the motion to suppress the evidence of the pistol used in the June 7, 2015 alleged attack could prove costly for the prosecution. Coker believed that was a key piece of evidence to support the state’s argument that Ross used the gun to intentionally harm the victims, and based on how the hearing had gone so far, Sadow’s side had a chance of succeeding in the motion to suppress that evidence.

Coker wasn’t willing to take that chance.

“Based on all the evidence that came forward, we felt like it was the best resolution to the case,” Coker said. “Had it not been, Judge Sams wouldn’t have taken the plea.”

Coker said even Zamudio and Ceceras were not disappointed with an early resolution of the case. He said the victims had made inconsistent statements in their deposition of a civil case they had filed before the criminal case came to light.

Sadow was pleased with the plea deal for Ross and James, and he is confident Ross will be able to uphold the requirements listed in his five-year probation. Sadow was also very complimentary of how the opposition handled the case.

While there were many objections exchanged between him and McCutcheon in the courtroom, Sadow, who has also represented other rappers including T.I . and Soulja Boy, has no objection to how events played out during either day of the hearings.

Ross wasn’t the only one enjoying the rest of his week outside of the courtroom.

“I think all sides are glad that it’s over,” Coker said.

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About

Justin Fedich is a reporter for the Fayette County News. He has been a reporter for various papers around the Southeast, including the Athens Banner-Herald and the Selma Times-Journal. Justin is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in digital and broadcast journalism and a sports media certificate.


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