By Samuel Maull
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK Rap mogul Sean "Puffy'' Combs' weapons and bribery trial began yesterday with prosecutors for the first time alleging he fired a gun inside a Times Square nightclub as one of his proteges allegedly shot and wounded three people.
"Mr. Combs fired a shot'' into the club's ceiling, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos said in opening statements. "Witnesses will say they saw the muzzle flash.''
Combs, 31, is not accused of shooting anyone in Club New York on Dec. 27, 1999. He was arrested after he fled the club with his girlfriend, actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, who has not been charged.
Defense attorney Benjamin Brafman said in his opening statement that prosecutors targeted Combs because he is famous. Combs has denied having a gun at the club.
"This was a star-struck selective prosecution of a superstar,'' Brafman said. "This prosecution is about fame and celebrity, not about a search for truth and justice.''
Rapper Jamal "Shyne'' Barrow, 21, is charged with attempted murder and assault for allegedly wounding three club patrons. He was accused of firing a 9mm pistol during a dispute in which another man insulted Combs and threw money in his face.
Also charged with illegal gun possession is Combs' bodyguard, Anthony "Wolf'' Jones, 34.
Bogdanos said Combs' part-time driver, Wardell Fenderson, saw Combs leave the club, climb into the back seat and slip a gun into his waistband before re-entering the club.
Fenderson was expected to testify for the prosecution and has sued Combs for $3 million. Brafman said greed was the driver's motive.
"The plan is, 'How do I, Wardell, capitalize on this case? How do I get a huge payday even though I don't deserve a nickel?''' Brafman said.
Bogdanos said most club patrons are required to walk through a metal detector, but Combs and his entourage were not.
Lopez, who may be called to testify, reportedly told a grand jury she did not see Combs with a gun.
Police officer Paul Franco yesterday testified he heard gunshots from outside the club and then saw Barrow run out. Franco said he tackled and handcuffed Barrow, and found the gun in his waistband.
The accusations against Combs involve his actions after leaving the club. Bogdanos has said that as Combs, Lopez and Jones drove away from the club with Fenderson, someone threw a handgun out the window.
Bogdanos said police stopped the vehicle after it ran several red lights and found another pistol on the floor in front. No one claimed the gun, so police took everyone into custody.
At the police station, Bogdanos said, Combs and Jones tried to bribe Fenderson into claiming the gun was his. Combs allegedly offered Fenderson $50,000 to take the rap, with a $40,000 diamond ring that Lopez gave him for his birthday as collateral.
Bogdanos said Fenderson initially agreed under "relentless, unremitting'' pressure to claim the gun. Two days later, the prosecutor said, Fenderson changed his mind and told police officers: "I can't do this. I'm not taking the rap for these guys.''
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