- Michael Harris became affiliated with a Blood set known as the Bounty Hunters.
- He began selling cocaine with his younger brother David.
- The pair were reportedly supplied by Colombian national and alleged high-ranking member of the Cali drug cartel Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado.
- At age 26, Michael “Harry-O” Harris was a millionaire.
- Michael “Harry O” Harris Gave Suge Knight $1.5 Million To Start Death Row Records
- Harris was charged with narcotics distribution and attempted murder.
Michael “Harry-O” Harris was born on September 20th, 1960, on West 46th Street in South Central Los Angeles, in a neighborhood known locally as the “Low Bottoms“. He was raised in a single parent household by a hardworking mother. She had two jobs, leaving her with very little time to watch over her son. Michael’s father, who he described as a “wealthy businessman with three families,” left when the he was just five years old. His mother tried hard to make sure that he had a semblance of a normal family life, as well as an alternative to what the increasingly dangerous streets of south central had to offer. She helped to send him to West Los Angeles community college.
Unfortunately, her vision was not to be. This was the turbulent 1960s. Machinations were already underway that would affect Michael’s young adulthood. Racial and economic tensions were reshaping the public consciousness. The civil rights movement was well underway, with the black power movement soon to follow. In the black working class city of Oakland, The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was born. The party would have a profound influence on black youth nationwide, especially in cities along the West Coast. They influenced many ghetto youths to politicize and organize. As the sixties transitioned into the seventies, the Panthers were weakened through infighting and assaults by various government agencies.
Various street gangs in Los Angeles, once inspired by the Panthers, began to step into the void that was left. They became more militaristic and organized their feuds more plentiful and bloody. Soon, pretty much every black gang in L.A. claimed affiliation with either the Bloods or the Crips. While under that banner, they identified with their neighborhood of origin, splitting into various sets or “factions.” Michael Harris became affiliated with a Blood set known as the Bounty Hunters. They also forged significant contacts with members of the Rolling 60s Crips street-gang as well. As their profits grew, they opened multiple crack-houses in their native South-Central, Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach, California. Eventually, the two established a distribution network that reached Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Florida and New York.
The duo routinely sent 200-pound shipments of cocaine to cities such as Shreveport and Chicago. Following one such shipment to Detroit, law enforcement managed to seize the $1 million cash payment headed back to LA. The pair were reportedly supplied by Colombian national and alleged high-ranking member of the Cali drug cartel Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado.
Machinations would affect Michael’s young adulthood. In the 1980s, a cheaper, smoke able version known as crack made the drug accessible to the poorer classes. South Central was ground zero for the crack explosion, and Michael Harris was in a position to capitalize. He began selling cocaine with his younger brother David and became what fellow bloods might have referred to as a “Baller,” or a fellow gang member who strikes it rich in the drug trade.
The 6’5″, 240-pound Harris also applied his business acumen to legitimate enterprise such as a limousine company, a deli, an electrical contracting business and a hair salon in Beverly Hills.
In 1985, he met Lydia Robinson, whom he eventually married, while at a nightclub in Houston, Texas.
Harris lorded over a drug empire that supplied cocaine to many states across the U.S., including Los Angeles, Texas and New York. He was so adept at moving the product that Columbian suppliers were encouraged to deal with him directly. At age 26, Michael “Harry-O” Harris was a millionaire.
At this point, Harris decided it was time to leave the drug business behind and pursue more legitimate goals. He began to invest in real estate and various businesses. He owned a 20 fleet limousine service, hair salons, an exotic car dealership and a construction company. Harris also seemed to have an affinity for the entertainment industry. He produced a play called Stepping into Tomorrow that featured the daughters of slain black leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, as well as the daughters of Harry Bellafonte and Sidney Poitier. He also produced a Broadway play called Checkmates, which featured Ruby Dee, Paul Winnfield and an up and coming star named Denzel Washington.
Washington, a native of Mount Vernon, New York, had already developed quite a resume by the time Checkmates premiered on Broadway. He was known for playing Dr. Phillip Chandler on the acclaimed hospital drama St. Elsewhere. He had been nominated for a best actor Oscar for Cry Freedom. Checkmates was his Broadway debut, adding to what had already been shaping up to be a stellar career.
Checkmates was also a landmark in a very different sense. Michael Harris, gang-member and cocaine kingpin, was the first African American to produce a Broadway show. This milestone might have been more celebrated had it not been for his previous occupation. The fact that he was arrested as Checkmates premiered on Broadway certainly didn’t help matters at all.
Harris was charged with narcotics distribution and attempted murder. He was convicted on the attempted murder charge (which has since been recanted) in 1987, and has since been serving a 28-year sentence in San Quinton maximum security prison. His entrepreneurial spirit did not die in prison. In fact, he is probably better known to the public as the man who put up $1.5 million in seed money for a fledgling gangster rap label called Death Row Records. Death Row went on to become one of the most storied and infamous labels in music history. Though Harris was not able to partake in any of the spoils, his wife won a $106 million lawsuit against the label in 2005, sending it into bankruptcy.
Denzel Washington, of course, is now one of the most popular and respected actors in cinema history. He has made a career of roles that present positive and powerful images of black manhood (his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day being a rare exception to that rule). He met Michael Harris through the limousine company that he owned, which is how he ended up scoring the role in Checkmates. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that Denzel had no idea of Michael’s real occupation at the time, since it surely would not have been in his best interest to advertise his status as a major cocaine dealer.
Had Michael Harris been allowed to complete his transition into the entertainment business, there is no telling what he could have accomplished. Perhaps there would have been more productions starring Mr. Washington. Alas, the drug game is not known for allowing an easy exodus. Harris likely knew that going in. He has received parole and is currently awaiting release. Meanwhile, Denzel Washington is likely signing on for a role in another blockbuster and making space on his shelf for another award.
In 1987, Harris is rumored to have helped launch Rap-A-Lot Records with a $200,000 investment. Founder James “Lil’ J” Smith has since disputed Harris’ involvement with the label. According to Harris himself, the two parted ways in 1994 following a dispute over ownership of Brooklyn rapper Dana Dane’s music.
He reportedly retained prominent California attorney David Kenner to oversee his appeal following the conviction.
In September of 1987, David paid $150,000 for a 37-foot speedboat. He was killed when the boat sank in the Long Beach Harbor on May 29, 1988.
On August 26, 1988, the DEA seized Harris’ hilltop mansion worth $1.1 million and located in the San Fernando Valley’s celebrity-filled Encino neighborhood. Owing to the Federal Asset Forfeiture Act of 1984, authorities eventually seized assets belonging to the Harris’ worth $3.2 million, including two other houses in neighboring Tarzana, as well as five luxury cars, including a 1981 Mercedes-Benz and a 1988 Jaguar.
Michael married Lydia Robinson inside Tehachapi Prison, located in California’s Cummings Valley. The nuptials were presided over by the same judge who convicted and sentenced him.
Harris was briefly a cellmate of fellow Los Angeles drug kingpin Rick “Freeway Ricky” Ross, who was a friend of Harris’ brother David. According to Ross, headvised Harris to utilize Andre “Dr. Dre” Young to produce songs for Lydia andwas even present when Harris and Knight met in person.
Harris initially became acquainted with Young’s then-manager Marion “Suge” Knight via telephone and the two met in person while Harris was detained at the MDC Los Angeles (Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles).
Two men convicted of playing key roles in an international ring that linked Colombian drug lords to Los Angeles street gangs were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
U.S. District Judge William J. Rea imposed the sentences in Los Angeles on Brian (Waterhead Bo) Bennett, 25, a native of South-Central Los Angeles, and Colombia-born Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado, 29, a reputed high-ranking member of the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel.
Bennett and Villabona were convicted of operating a continuing criminal enterprise. Each of the six defendants were also convicted of conspiring to possess thousands of kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute and of possessing nearly 1,000 kilograms of cocaine each. Also convicted were Maria Cecilia Fatima Barona, Luz Janneth Martinez, Michael “Harry O” Harris and Michael DuBarry McCarver, all of Los Angeles.
According to evidence introduced in the cases, Rayful Edmond purchased more than a ton of cocaine from Villabona and Bennett through a Los Angeles drug “broker,” Melvin R. Butler.
Edmond, 25, was convicted in December of operating a continuing criminal enterprise and was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. More than 30 other people also have been convicted in Washington D.C. in connection with Edmond’s operation.
Documents seized in connection with the California case showed that Rayful Edmond was one of Mario Villabona’s best customers and that Edmond regularly flew to Los Angeles just after Villabona received major cocaine shipments from Colombia via Mexico and Panama.
“This is the single most important partnership in U.S. history established between a major South-Central (Los Angeles) drug dealer and the Colombians,” U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner said at the time of sentencing.
Harris was charged with narcotics distribution and attempted murder. He was convicted on the attempted murder charge (which has since been recanted) in 1987, and has since been serving a 28-year sentence in San Quinton maximum security prison. His entrepreneurial spirit did not die in prison. In fact, he is probably better known to the public as the man who put up $1.5 million in seed money for a fledgling gangster rap label called Death Row Records.
Michael “Harry O” Harris – I Gave Suge Knight $1.5 Million To Start Death Row Records
While incarcerated, Harris made the introduction between Marion “Suge” Knight, Jr. and David Kenner in October 1991 in the interest of furthering his wife Lydia’s singing career. Knight visited Harris in detention at Tehachapi Prison several times during the production and release of Death Row’s first offering: Knight’s business partner Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s solo debut album, The Chronic.
It’s worth noting that inmates of the California state prison system are legally barred from operating businesses. However, beginning in the 1990s, Lydia Harris has linked several six-figure deals with recording industry giants. While both husband and wife have acknowledged that Michael has been involved in these discussions, they deny that he served in a CEO capacity.
In May of 1992, Harris’ wife Lydia and Suge Knight’s legal counsel and Harris’ former attorney, David Kenner, filed incorporation papers for the company Godfather Entertainment (GFE, Inc.), which became the parent company of Death Row Records.
Knight even installed a black telephone in the Death Row recording studio that was only to be used to receive collect calls from Harris in prison. All Death Row staff members and visitors to the studio were notified to never tie up the line.
In 1993, Lydia secured a $150,000 production deal with Motown Records subsidiary, PolyGram Records. She also landed a $250,000 deal with Sony subsidiary, Relativity Records for Pittsburgh rapper Blak Czer’s 1994 album Tales From Da Blak Side, which was released through her Lifestyle Records. After signing New York rapper Dana “Dana Dane” McLeese to Lifestyle Records, Lydia negotiated a $500,000 recording deal for him with Interscope Records.
In 1994, Michael’s daughter Lydasia was conceived during a conjugal visit with Lydia.
That same year, Lydia signed a $ 200,000 publishing deal with Viacom subsidiary Famous Music on behalf of legendary Long Beach, CA producer Kevin “DJ Battlecat” Gilliam, who composed several songs for Lifestyle. 1994 also marked the inking of a $2 million deal with Time Warner subsidiary, the now-defunct Maverick Records, which was co-founded and co-owned by 1980s and 90s pop superstar Madonna. The deal resulted in the release of McLeese’s third and final studio album, 1995’s Rollin’ Wit Dana Dane, which was largely produced by Gilliam. However, that same year, Maverick Records dissolved its relationship with Lifestyle. Maverick co-founder Frederick DeMann visited Michael Harris in prison several times during the Maverick-Lifestyle venture. DeMann’s resume also includes acting as manager for Madonna, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Billy Idol and Shakira.
In late 1995/early 1996, Harris issued a letter to Death Row Records’ distributor, Interscope Records, threatening to file suit if he was not compensated for his initial investment of $1.5 million in the label in late 1991. No suit was filed and Harris’ wife was paid $300,000 by Death Row’s distributor, Interscope Records.
In 1996, Harris declined a deal, offered by the government, that would grant him early release in exchange for his testimony against Knight.
In May of 1997, following the much-publicized death of Death Row Records’ flagship recording artist Tupac Shakur and the incarceration of label head Suge Knight for a parole violation caught on camera, federal agents representing the FBI, IRS and ATF sought to determine a link, if any, between Death Row, Harris and Patrick Johnson, a convicted PCP kingpin and former client of Kenner.
Harris was transferred to the MDC Los Angeles (Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles) by order of subpoena soon after the investigation was launched.
Knight denied receiving any start-up funds from Harris, though both he and Kenner thanked Harris during speeches they gave at a February 22, 1992 Godfather Entertainment party hosted at the now-defunct Beverly Hills restaurant, Chasen’s. The speeches were captured on a videotape, which the FBI subsequently seized.
Meanwhile, that same year, Lydia founded another music label, New Image Entertainment. The company’s first album, Life After Evolution: Reality Check, was released in August of 1997.
In March of 2005, Lydia Harris was awarded $107 million as a result of her 2002 lawsuit, which never made it to trial, against Knight and Death Row alleging that he owed her unpaid profits from the label due to her role as a co-founder. Harris was awarded $60 million in punitive damages, $45 million in economic damages and $2 million in non-economic damages.
That June, Michael’s attorney, Steven Goldberg, filed for divorce from Lydia Harris on his client’s behalf. During the proceedings, Michael, who was serving his sentence at California’s Soledad State Prison, sought half of the nine-figure judgement from Knight as community property. He was brought to the Monterey County courthouse in which the proceedings took place in handcuffs and accompanied by a SWAT team. During the divorce litigation, both testified that Lydia sued Knight on behalf of Michael. Michael was quoted as stating, “I was the one making all major client decisions on behalf of the marital estate, even though Lydia was technically named the plaintiff in the matter. Lydia simply accepted whatever decision [her lawyer] and I made jointly.”
That same year, Harris became eligible for parole. He eventually broke ties with Kenner and hired one of the prosecutors during the “O.J. Trial”, Christopher Darden, as his attorney.
Harris is currently being held at FCI Lompoc (Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc), a low-security federal prison located 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles.