Sophia Chang: You know I saw Chris less than 24 hours before he died. I have very specific memories of the day.
There are certain days you never forget. All the details are carved into your memory. What you saw, what you heard, what you felt. And no matter how many years drift by, it’s all still there. Crystal clear.
For Sophia Chang, a close friend of Chris Lighty, one of those days is August 29th, 2012.
Sophia: It was hot. I was telling him about, I think about an apartment I was thinking of renting. He had just had his haircut. This guy used to come to his office. He would do it 2 or 3 times a week. Uh and we were walking. His office was on 16th St., just west of Irving Place, and he said, “Soph, come walk with me to the sandwich spot. I’m going to go to the sandwich spot. He was wearing a Black pique cotton like a polo shirt. He had a little powder on his shoulder, on his right shoulder. I dusted it off and said, “You got your hair cut today?” He said, “Yeah.” And then he said to me, “Come see me tomorrow, Soph.” Everything seemed totally normal as it often does.
The day after Sophia dusted off Chris’s shoulder, he was found dead at his Bronx home.
The official cause of death: a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. No one saw this coming. And when the news broke, there were many who refused to believe it.
And even now, years later they still don’t. Chris was a strong, powerful man. A rich man. A successful man.
Only a handful of people close to Chris knew what we know now: that his marriage was falling apart. That he was drowning in debt. That a huge loan had just come due. That there was a warrant out for his arrest for unpaid child support. That despite all his public success, he was barely holding it together.
On this episode, we look back at Chris Lighty’s last day.
I’m Reggie Osse, and this is Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, a production of Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network.
It was August 30th, 2012. Labor Day Weekend. Tiffany Lighty, Chris’s eldest daughter, was leaving her father’s house in the Bronx to catch a flight to Toronto. And she wasn’t the only one who was leaving.
Tiffany: Veronica kept saying it, like, all week, like, “Okay, Tiffany’s leaving on the 30th to go to Toronto. Like, Chris, you’re leaving also on the 30th. You’re getting kicked out of the house. Like, you need to go and figure it out or something.
Things had been rocky between Chris and his wife Veronica for a long time. There were the affairs. And then, as we know from the police report we told you about earlier, there was the abuse. And now after a decade of marriage, it looked like things were coming to an end.
Tiffany: There were boxes in the car, I remember, in the Range Rover. I remember putting my hands, like, blocking the sun light and leaning on the window of the Range Rover and saying “Dad, look there’s boxes in the car, like, she’s serious.”
Reggie: She’s packing your shit up.
Tiffany: Yeah. He just, like, “Gah.” You know, just sighed and was just like shook his head.
Tiffany had spent the summer after her college graduation living with Chris and Veronica in the Bronx. It had not been a good summer. It was a tumultuous time, with Chris and Veronica fighting a lot. She told us about one of the fights she witnessed:
TIffany: They were fighting in the house. She was hitting him. And I was there and I saw it and, and me pulling her off of him and then her just kind of like, threatening to hit me. And then then he was like, “Whoa Veronica, like, you know, like, no.” We’re not doing this. Then they stopped fighting and then me going into my room and then I remember texting her niece who I was close to. And telling her, like, “I can’t be in this house any more.” Um, you know, even though I had just graduated college and obviously, you know, like, you go home after you graduate and you end up, you know, living at home for a bit, you know, figuring out what you’re going to do and where you’re going to live and what you’re going to do for a living. And so I was like, “Well, I can’t do that here.”
I wanted to talked to Veronica about this, but she declined to be interviewed.
So on August 30th, Tiffany packed up her suitcase and walked out the door.
Tiffany: This is before Uber so he put me in a car service. I gave him a hug. And like, someone asked me, like, “When he gave you that hug, like, did it feel like the last hug?” And I was like, “Not at all.” You know when you hug someone with like one arm versus two? It was a one-arm hug. It was, like, a see-you-later hug. It was normal.
And I got in the car and then I was texting him, like, saying I got to the airport. I got to my gate. And then I remember opening an email that he sent me and he said, “I’m sorry for how everything turned out. Like, like I really am sorry for it.” I read that and I took it as, “Okay, he’s apologizing for the chaos and mayhem that I just had to witness, really all summer while I was there. I called him just to say, like, “You don’t have to apologize to me, Dad. Like, don’t apologize to me at all. Like, it’s not—I clearly see it’s not you.” And then he was just quiet on the phone and I didn’t really know what to say. Because what do you say to, like, your dad who’s getting kicked out. And I felt so bad leaving but I just didn’t want to be there because it was just so painful and, like, horrible to witness. In retrospect now, you know, I’m like, “Oh my god, like, I wish I would not have left that day.
While Tiffany was in the air, Chris’s assistant, Bubba Barker, was on his way into the Violator offices.
Bubba Barker: I was on the train and Lyor’s assistant called me while I was, you know, passing through the train, I got reception. I’m like, “Hey, what up, Cat.” She’s like, “Bubba, what’s going on? Where are you?” I’m like, “Well I’m on the train going to work.” She’s like, “Why are we getting these calls saying, you know, Chris hurt himself? I’m like, “I don’t know what you talking about.” She’s like, “Yeah, Lyor’s losing his mind in here and somebody said Chris hurt himself. You need to get to the office now. I jumped off on the Canal St. Two stops before I had to get off. Ran from Canal st to our office at the time. I get to the office and my colleagues, you know, other assistants are downstairs like Bubba don’t go upstairs. I’m like why…. Chris Killed himself.
Bubba walks out into the crowded Manhattan streets. He’s numb. In a daze. He can’t believe what he just heard. It must be some kind of mistake. Some error. Chris killed himself? Not that Chris Lighty. Not his Chris Lighty.
Bubba: I start screaming, screaming on 8th Avenue and 16th St. Screaming at the top of my lungs. Somebody thinks it’s a bomb threat because all the people around me in front of the Starbucks turned around looking at me. But I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t know what happened.
Meanwhile, Tiffany had just landed in Toronto. When she turned her phone on, it wouldn’t stop ringing. People were all calling and texting her with the same message: Come home, Tiffany. You have to get back to New York. That was all they’d say, because no one wanted to be the one to tell her that her father was dead.
Tiffany: One of the first calls was actually my little sister. And in between me getting calls I was trying to call my dad and so and he wasn’t picking up. Then I get a call from Veronica’s sister saying, “Tiffany you need to come home. Tiffany you need to come home.” And I’m like, “Why, what, what happened, like, are they fighting? What happened?” Like, I just kept asking, like, what happened and then Veronica got on the phone briefly and she’s like, “Come home, you need to come home.” And I could hear, like, she’s kind of, like, upset, and then ...
Bubba: I had to call Tiffany. She was like, “What’s up Bubba?” I didn’t know what to say to her. Bubba what’s up?
Tiffany Lighty: And he’s like, “You need to come home.” And then I just was like, “Alright, like, what’s going guys. Like, you need to tell me—like, I just landed here. I’m just like, I’m just, like, blurting things out, like,
Reggie: You have no idea.
Tiffany: I’m just trying to guess what happened. I was like, “Did this happen, did that happen.”
Tiffany: At first I was like, “Did they hurt each other.” I was like, “Did something—well, obviously I had spoken to Veronica so I knew that she was obviously still alive.
Bubba: Tears is flying out. She’s not hearing me, but the tears is flowing right now, “So yo, just get back on the plane.” And she said to me—
Tiffany Lighty: Did my dad do anything to himself? And then he said yes. In my mind, I still thought like, maybe he’s still alive, I’m like is he in the hospital. I can’t remember if I guessed it or if he told me. I’m pretty sure I guessed it, like, “Is he alive or not?” He didn’t tell me, like, how or what. He did tell me, no.
Back in the Bronx, family and friends were starting to arrive at Chris’s house. Bubba had linked up with Busta Rhymes and they drove to Chris’s place together. When they pulled up they found a chaotic scene outside.
Bubba: The reality set in once we got up to that house.
Darryl Thompson, Chris’s friend and one of the original Violators, arrived around the same time.
Darryl Thompson: I get to the house. Chris Ali is there, Busta, his wife is there with her family. Her ex-husband is there. Some police officers and detectives. So I go up to Chris Ali and he said, “Well, the family for some reason wasn’t letting people in the house.” I said, “Why not? “Fuck that. Uh-uh. We going in.” So I went right through everybody and went right through and I just walked in the house. And I saw Mike Lighty. Then we was just trying to piece stuff together. The house looks regular ‘til you get down to where everything happened.
Downstairs they saw Chris’s body. Here’s how the Medical Examiner’s report describes the scene:
The decedent was found on the basement level outside the patio near the entrance of the house. He was found clothed lying in a supine position between the wet bar and the patio doors. There were two open wounds found on bilateral temporal areas that expelled clotted blood. No other injuries were noted.
The two wounds in Chris’s head were from the bullet—one where it went in, and one where it came out.
Darryl told us the body was too heavy for the medical examiner to lift. So he and Chris’s brother Mike stepped in and helped carry Chris up the narrow staircase. Here’s Mike:
Mike Lighty: You know my brother is a big guy. You know, he’s not no little, you know, guy where you’re gonna have two hundred-pound dudes lift him and get him into the truck. So they actually needed someone to help them assist it.
Darryl Thompson: That right there was tearing me up. Just to pick up my brother. In a black bag...zippered and then put him in the truck.
Mike Lighty: It was probably, like, the most craziest, hardest experiences ever in my life.
Reggie: What was going through your mind?
Mike: (Exhales)...mm...Honestly, I wanted to un-zipper it. (crying) And just take one more look at him. You know.
Mike: Because I just couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe that was what happened, you know.
Bubba: Once they pulled that body out there, eruption. Eruption. Busta falls as if his bones are spaghetti. He falls. How I caught him? Don’t know. Mike Lighty yells to the top of his lungs. You know what I’m saying? So everybody is walking around like zombies. Q-tip. He’s just walking around with his hands in his pockets. Not saying nothing to nobody. Then he just yells out. “THIS DON’T FUCKING FEEL RIGHT!”
Those words that Q Tip screamed into the afternoon sky—this don’t fucking feel right—he wasn’t alone in thinking that. So many people who heard about Chris’s death that day didn’t accept, couldn’t accept, what they were being told by the police. That Chris had taken his own life.
Here’s Chris’ mother Jessica.
Jessica: And immediately I had my doubts. That it happened the way they said. I do not believe that my son killed himself. I just do not.
Leemon: It just doesn’t make sense.
This is Scott Leemon. He’s an attorney from New York who worked with Chris and represented some of his artists.
Leemon: Tell me in any other situation, where there’s a death like this, that there’s not even a cursory investigation? Something stinks.
Almost every time we interviewed someone, they would share some version of this feeling: something stinks, something is off, we don’t know the whole truth. Chris’s family felt so strongly about this, that they hired Leemon, the guy you just heard from, to do an independent investigation into the death.
As we’ve been working on this story, we’ve looked into some of the concerns that people have about what happened that day.
First, how fast the death was labeled a suicide. The medical examiner’s report, tells us that Chris was pronounced dead at 11:43 AM. Around 6 PM, a detective declared the death a suicide and reported no foul play. That conclusion was reached in less than 7 hours. Again Chris’s mother, Jessica.
Jessica: Declaring my son a suicide in less than 24 hours. To me it it was purely a matter of, it’s a holiday weekend, they’ve already got plans, and he’s just a black man and they don’t care.
Then there’s the way the scene was handled. Like we heard earlier, a lot of people came into the house after Chris died. Darryl Thompson and Mike Lighty told us they carried the body up the stairs. Here’s my producer Matt asking Scott Leemon about that.
Matt: A lot of people were there and they weren’t just outside the house, they were inside the house. They were walking around. Does that mean the crime scene was compromised?
Leemon: Technically in that situation there was no crime scene. So they didn’t cordon it off like a crime scene. So there was nothing in their view to be compromised. Was it compromised in the pursuit—if anyone was really looking for evidence, absolutely. But the problem is from jump street, when the cops got there they didn’t treat this like a crime. Whoever had their initial conversations with the police, and I believe Veronica had the initial ones, and whoever else was there convinced NYPD that it was a suicide, and the NYPD took that for gospel.
It needs to be said that a lot of suspicions people have are focused on Veronica. She was there when it happened. She was the one who reported it. People knew they had a volatile relationship. And frankly, a lot of people already disliked her.
But let’s be clear: all of that is speculation and rumor. We have not seen any evidence to suggest that Veronica had any hand in Chris’ death.
There were two autopsies done on Chris’ body. The first was done by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. It confirmed what the police thought - suicide.The second was part of Scott Leemon’s investigation. It was done by Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist who has worked on some high profile cases.
Reggie: If you were to give us a probability that this was suicide what would you say? Is it 50% 70% ?
Baden: I would say that the evidence thus far points to suicide, except I’m a bit concerned that the family wasn’t able to get the additional test that were requested by the medical examiner.
The additional test he is referring to is a gunshot residue test. If there was residue on Chris’ hands, it would suggest he was holding the gun when it went off.
We know from the medical examiner’s report that gunshot residue samples were taken from Chris’ hands. But we don’t know if those samples were ever tested. If they were, the results were never shared with the Lighty family.
Dr Baden couldn’t get access to that information, but here’s what he could tell us based on his autopsy. According to Baden, there are two things that point towards suicide.
Number 1: the gunshot wound.
Baden: At the time of discharge the muzzle of weapon was against the side of the head. And then it was approximately a horizontal wound and exited the other side of the head.
In other words, that gun was pressed right up against Chris’ temple. Not shot from a distance or from an angle.
Number 2: there were no signs of a struggle
Baden: That was one of the questions that the family had. There was no evidence um at the autopsy that Mr. Lighty had suffered any kind of other injuries. No struggling types of injuries. No ecomisies, no black eyes, no bruises, no scrapes. So there was no evidence of a struggle.
This is the guy who was hired by Chris’ family to challenge the city’s conclusion, that Chris killed himself. But instead, everything he told us seemed consistent with the NYPD’s version of events.
We reached out to the NYPD on multiple occasions, but they declined to comment on the case.
Scott Leemon is still urging them to reopen the investigation.
Coming up after the break, a closer look at what was going on in Chris Lighty’s head.
Welcome back to Mogul. Before the break we talked about the aspects of Chris Lighty’s death that led many people to question if he committed suicide. And a lot of people still don’t accept the official cause of death. They are still convinced that Chris Lighty did not take himself out.
And you can see why. Look at the man they saw. The guy with so much charisma and ambition. The man behind so many landmark deals. The guy who just kept winning.
Bubba: Because he’s a king. Kings don’t do that to themselves. Black men don’t kill themselves. Nall hell no. what did he kill himself for, what reason, we don’t know.
Remember, the things we told you about Chris in previous episodes, about his marriage and his finances …The truth is that most people didn’t know that stuff...
Sophia Chang: I think he parsed out the information.
That’s Sophia Chang again.
Sophia Chang: I don’t think he told any one person everything. He wasn’t really allowed, there wasn’t allowed to be a chink in the armor, but by that same token he didn’t really, he wouldn’t show it, right? But yeah, I think once we all started talking to each other, different things were revealed.
Bubba Barker: I just felt like, he would look tired sometimes. I would see him and I would notice that the shirt he had on Thursday, he had on on Monday.
Debby: he was disappearing a lot. He wasn’t talking to people the way he was to or hanging out or you know like he was very absent even when he was there. He was still absent and he wasn’t being the talkative person that he always used to be
Turk: He didn’t feel he had a purpose anymore. Like, everything was always attached to the entertainment business, and I’m like, “Yo, your life is bigger than the entertainment business.” Like, his life was attached to his clients. And the success of his clients. And the things he do.
RO: And he can’t—he can’t flip that switch off.
RO: Which is dangerous.
Blue Williams: I have learned how to see signs in people I can kind of see the weight sometimes I can see the um body language, I just saw him just trying to cope. I could see a heaviness on him.
Maybe the person who came closest to understanding just how bad things were was Chris’s friend D-Nice.
DNice: You know, I sent him a text message and I all said to him was, in this message, “Are you okay.” And his response to me was no.
Reggie: Wow. Hold up, D. Why I’m saying wow is because, you know, you’ve had a different, more intimate relationship than most people with Chris lighty, but the consistent story with regard to Chris is that he always had this guard up or his armor up. Or he was always this chameleon, so even some of the closest people didn’t know what he was going through, but for him to say that you, that’s really—that speaks volumes.
DNice: It’s because I didn’t want anything from him. I only wanted his friendship. So in that moment of, like, what he said to me when I asked that question and he said no, I immediately just asked him to just come out and get dinner with me. And I won’t forget, we went to a restaurant in New York City called catch. We had dinner there, we talked. At the end of the dinner we left and we went to hear Q-tip DJ. And then after we left we were both in the taxi. I was like, “Yo, I’ll drop you off,” and you know, he shared with me, he’s like, “You know, yo, I’m stressed, you know, like, sometimes I just want to jump off the building.”
DNice: At the time I didn’t know what it was like to, like, lose a friend or to recognize the signs, but it was a difficult thing. I felt like it was my boy crying out for a little bit of help, you know. And even though I did help in the way that I knew how to by making myself available, those things were foreign to me. I wish, you know, had a better understanding of that and was able to be more encouraging. That we all go through ups and downs and, you know, things will eventually, you know, get better.
D-Nice might have seen that Chris was struggling the summer before he died. But it didn’t start that summer. Through our reporting we learned that Chris had been battling depression for some time.
In 2011, a year before he died, he checked himself into a psychiatric facility, a place called Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut. We obtained a copy of Chris’s discharge summary. One section reads, quote:
“He has been feeling increasingly depressed, with decreased energy, desire, initiative, interest in usual activities. His social withdrawal and impaired mood has affected the relationship with his wife and kids. He has started experiencing suicidal ideation, with thoughts of jumping off his building.”
This was more than a little stress. More than a bad day or two. This was clinical depression. Chris was mentally ill. And this kind of sickness, it’s not something people in our community like to talk about.
So when Chris checked himself in and disappeared from the scene, he played it off like it was high blood pressure or a problem with his heart. Because that was a lot easier for them to accept. It was a lot easier for him to share.
Feeling like you have to hide your mental health issues, that’s something Chris’s artist and friend, Fat Joe, can relate to. When I sat down with him, he opened up about his own battle with depression… a battle he hid for many years...
Fat Joe: I was depressed for two years, seeing a psychiatrist. I never thought of killing myself, but I know that’s, it’s a hard fight. It’s a hard fight. Like, I fought it for 2 years. You know when you come out and it’s 90 degrees and the sky looks dark? I couldn’t sleep. I would lay down in the tub with no water and just look at the ceiling for hours and hours. It’s a battle within yourself. So you know, sometimes it wins, you know what I’m saying? People don’t show that.
Fat Joe: Blacks and Latinos.
Reggie: We’re not allowed to.
Fat Joe: We’re not allowed to. And that’s why I tell you I went through depression, because I like to be vulnerable. I like people to know, yo, it’s cool, you know. You can go through that and you can come out of that. Know what I’m saying? That’s why I like to tell people certain things about me, to be like, because they look at me as a mythical figure. Like, you know, this nigga, he’s ready.... No, nigga. It’s hard out here. You know what I’m saying? But you could get through it.
Reggie: Did you have any idea Chris was depressed?
Fat Joe: No way in the world.
Lighty kept up his facade right to the last day. Like Sophia said, he parsed out the information. So in the end, each person who knew him had to take what they knew and make their own decision about how to grieve.
Tiffany: For me recently I’ve just had to just kind of choose to be at peace in a way to go forward because I’ve literally like tortured and like tormented myself with trying to be a detective of what happened and trying to put pieces together and then um - so. I just - say that he did take his own life - for me to just - you know. Try to move on. I mean there’s no moving on from it.
Sophia Chang: And you know, we all talked about - I heard about all the theories…that perhaps it wasn’t a suicide, me that was the easier way out for me personally because then you have someone to direct your rage at, right? And you have someone to point the finger at. Rather than pointing the finger at him because it was self-inflicted. And grieving a homicide and grieving a suicide are completely different. Grieving a homicide, you put it all on the perpetrator, you put it all on the murderer. Grieving a suicide. You put it all on the person that pulled the trigger, but you then also put it on yourself. Because again you think, “How didn’t I see it? I was just with him less than 24 hours before.” And then you play everything in your head, you know. “If I had just been there. If we had just spoken that morning on the phone. If I had told him to come downtown instead of going uptown. If I had gone uptown with him, and he’d taken me in the car, and I had been in the car. And I could’ve gone inside and—
But in the end I did choose to grieve it as a suicide.
PAUSE AND MUSIC UP
Chris Lighty was born in the Bronx in 1968—a time when hip hop didn’t exist. In 1979, when The Sugar Hill Gang dropped Rapper’s Delight, Chris was still in elementary school. He got his real education when rap went on tour, and New York acts like the Jungle Brothers threaded their way through towns and cities up and down the east coast. Rap had started to spread across America, and Chris was along for the ride.
When rap went global, so did Chris Lighty. His artists toured the world. Sold out stadiums everywhere. When Bling made it into the dictionary, when America elected a president who dusted off his shoulder and didn’t hold back his love for Jay Z, Chris was getting equity for his artists and making black millionaires.
I wonder if he ever imagined that hip hop would take him so far. If he was ever at one of the early park jams -- weed in the air, bass in his chest -- and he stopped to think: This thing, this stew of bass and beats and rhythm and poetry. This will take me on an incredible journey. And if he ever said to himself, this thing called hip hop … it’ll change my life.
But not always for the best. Sure, you get the car, you get the house, you get to live large. But this is a world that can chew you up and shit you out. A world where you have to be hard, where you have to stay winning. Chris spent his whole life running on that treadmill. And he stumbled many times. He wasn’t a perfect man. Not even close. As well as celebrating his success, we have to hold him accountable for his mistakes. He was complicated. He was flawed. But above all else, he was hip hop.
Sophia: Chris was the Violators. Chris was the South Bronx. Chris was hip hop in such a profound way. And nobody can ever, ever dispute that.
Reggie: Do you think hip-hop eventually destroyed Chris Lighty?
Sophia Chang: No. I mean, he was in hip-hop and his life was destroyed, but I don’t think he would ever say that hip-hop destroyed my life. No. Quite the opposite. “Look at the life that hip hop gave me, Soph. I’ve traveled the world. I started an agency. I’ve been in rooms that I never would’ve dreamed of. I’ve led conversations with kingmakers and kings.” No. I don’t think it destroyed him at all. I think it gave him everything. And he gave hip-hop everything.
Internets, thank you so much for going on this journey with us.
Okay, one last time. Let’s do these credits.
This episode of Mogul is a production of Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network. It was produced by Eric Eddings and Meg Driscoll, with help from Isabella Kulkarni, Jonathan Mena, and Peter Bresnan. Our senior producer is Matt Nelson. What up Matt?
Our editors are Lynn Levy, Caitlin Kenney and Chris Morrow.
Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Sound design and mixing by Haley Shaw. Music direction by Matthew Boll. This episode was scored by Nana Kwabena with additional music by Prince Paul and Don Newkirk and Haley Shaw.
If you like the show, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It’s a great way to help new people find out about the show. Follow us for all the latest news and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. Our handle is AT Mogul.
Tiffany: After it happened, I actually had a lot of, I think it’s called lucid dreaming with my father in it. He was coming to me in my dreams. And I have one dream where he says, he’s like, “Hi, Tiffany.” He’s like, “Oh, I’ve been tired since I’ve been here.” And I said, “Dad, why are you tired?” And he said, “I’ve been working on this deal with Biggie and Tupac.” And I woke up and I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
Reggie: That’s amazing!
Tiffany: That, that’s exactly what he would be doing if there is an afterlife.
Reggie: That’s amazing.
Tiffany: Working on a deal with Biggie and Tupac!
Reggie: And them stressing him the fuck out.
Tiffany: Yeah! And so he’s—
Reggie: Tupac’s crazy ass—and Big.
Tiffany: Yeah. So actually, it made me smile and it made me happy to know that he was still doing, you know, what he loved.
Reggie: It’s like almost a perfect ending to the story.
Tiffany: Mhmm. Mhmm. Yeah.