True Spies Episode 38: Freeing Meek Mill
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 38: Freeing Meek Mill.
TYLER MARONEY: She mentioned that she had photographs of that day before Meek was hauled off to prison - and he truly looked like he had been beaten up, that he had been abused, that he'd been assaulted - and that was very powerful evidence.
NARRATOR: In 2017, private detective Tyler Maroney landed a job that would be his highest-profile investigation to date. With all other avenues at a dead end, he and a colleague were instructed to dig deep - really deep - to find information that would help get a superstar American rapper out of prison.
TYLER MARONEY: Every day that Meek was still in prison was a reminder that we had not yet finished our job, that we had not cracked this case.
NARRATOR: He’s talking about Meek Mill, hip-hop royalty. He counts Nicki Minaj and Drake as collaborators. He has adoring fans all over the world, powerful friends in A-list circles. You might think someone like that is untouchable but in November 2017 Meek Mill was looking down the barrel of a four-year prison sentence. And it wasn’t his first. You might think: ‘So what? This is hip hop. A musical genre that skirts around the edges of the criminal world.’ But Meek Mill’s crime was, well, not very hip hop.
TYLER MARONEY: Knowing that our client was sitting in prison for popping a wheelie on a motorcycle while making a music video was inspiring to us because it gave us the energy to dig even deeper every single day.
NARRATOR: There’s a video online of Meek Mill and friends riding down a lamp-lit Manhattan street weaving between traffic on dirt bikes. At one point he pops a wheelie - just briefly - riding on his back wheel with his front in the air. Dangerous? Perhaps. A felony? Well the NYPD thought so. When they found the video on his social media page they charged him with reckless endangerment. His lawyers expected it to be treated like a misdemeanor with a caution, or even a fine but Judge Genece Brinkley decided Meek deserved a lengthy stint in prison. This isn’t a cautionary tale about wearing a helmet or posting incriminating videos on the internet. This is the story of a man who became a symbol of the systemic racism rife in the American criminal justice system and the private investigator who exposed the corruption behind his conviction.
TYLER MARONEY: Just because a fact is stated in a court filing or it has a judge's signature on it, or because a police officer has testified to it, doesn't mean that you should believe it.
NARRATOR: So how did Meek Mill arrive at this point? Let’s go back a decade to 2007 when Meek Mill was just plain old Robert Williams, a regular teenager growing up in Philadelphia. Like many, his neighborhood had been ravaged by the crack epidemic that tore through inner-city areas in the 1980s and 1990s, decimating African American communities across the country. The streets where Meek lived were impoverished and dangerous. One dark winter evening a 19-year-old Meek headed to his local store. Having watched a friend get shot and die only days earlier on a nearby corner, he tucked a gun in his waistband for protection. But the moment he stepped out of his front door, officers from the Narcotics Field Unit charged toward him. A witness says they used his head like a battering ram to break into his house, and then they arrested him.
TYLER MARONEY: I believe it was 19 different police officers. It was as if the special forces were raiding his home.
NARRATOR: He was found guilty and sentenced by Judge Genece Brinkley with up to two years in prison and seven years probation. Remember her name? Yes, she’s the same judge who sentenced Meek to prison time for doing a wheelie. It wasn’t a coincidence. Because of probation rules, Meek Mill would spend ten years in and out of prison, finding himself back in front of Judge Brinkley time and time again. He spent essentially his entire adult life on probation so it’s sort of extraordinary that during that decade he became an international rap superstar.
TYLER MARONEY: He had truly gained international notoriety at this point, and the restrictions became tougher and tougher because Meek was now traveling the world to perform. And these types of restrictions are designed to keep tabs on anybody who has been released from the physicality of prison but is still in a kind of figurative prison. Meek was aware of this, but the specifics of all of the restrictions are almost impossible to keep track of. In fact Meek had somebody who was working for him, whose full-time job it was, to alert law enforcement as to what his movements were so that he was staying as compliant as he possibly could be.
NARRATOR: But that sentence in 2017, for the wheelie, triggered a public outcry. Fans, activists, and Meek’s family were enraged. They believed that he was stuck in an endless cycle of parole and incarceration - trapped by a system that disproportionately targets African Americans. You might find it interesting to know that a black person in America is five times more likely to be arrested than a white person and in some states this disparity jumps to 10 times as much. It was clear he’d been failed by the police and failed by the criminal justice system. But how to prove it? Enter one Tyler Maroney, P.I.
TYLER MARONEY: There are so many different definitions of private detective that it's hard to categorize them all. In fact, when I'm at a dinner party, I will identify myself in different ways, depending on who I'm speaking to, because I know that there are so many stereotypes and mythologies around the field of private investigators. Probably the most common misunderstanding is that we are all surveillance experts, former cops, especially in the United States, who spend time in the bushes with long lenses. The other more modern stereotype, I suspect, of the private detective is a former intelligence operative, somebody who comes out of the Mossad or MI6 or the CIA and brings to the private sector the skills he or she had in the espionage field. So I think the two of those stereotypes combined to make it both a frustrating industry to work within because people assume that you have one skill when in fact you have another, but also a thrilling industry to work within because you get to put on different hats every day.
NARRATOR: You probably have an image in your head of a man in a trench coat, right? Trilby pulled down, standing under a lamppost on a rainy street. People often assume Tyler’s work is like the private detectives you read about in the noir novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
TYLER MARONEY: There is some truth to that in the sense that we are often working for companies and families that have some mystery that law enforcement could not solve, but our clothing and our tactics and our tone of voice and our weaponry is often quite different than what's imagined in fiction.
NARRATOR: It’s also more techie.
TYLER MARONEY: The modern private detective is someone who I think can combine, you know, The Continental Op, which is the nameless private detective of Dashiell Hammett novels, and Mr Robot. In other words, someone who can both understand the value of human intelligence but also digital data. And in that sense, I think, it is crucial that the private detective of today is not just a database monkey or a charismatic international man or woman of mystery, but someone who can combine both.
NARRATOR: You might be surprised and disturbed to know just how much someone can find out about you if you live in the United States.
TYLER MARONEY: It is astounding how much information is available about people, such as their dates of birth, their Social Security numbers, the addresses where they live. Companies to which they are linked, how much they paid for their home, the deed for their home, what debts they have, whether they've been sued, criminal records, the list goes on and on and on. And these are all considered public records in the United States and to a lesser extent in some other countries. And the ability to find and navigate those databases, some of which are official - ie, government-run - some of which are commercial, therefore private, is crucial to the modern private detective game.
NARRATOR: Even Tyler, the man whose job depends on this level of snooping, is kind of horrified by just how much there is.
TYLER MARONEY: I was alarmed when I joined the industry 15 years ago, and among my first assignments from my new boss was to run a background check on myself. And the purpose of that was to teach me how much information is out there that the average person does not have access to. And I was trained in using databases that are also used by law enforcement, by the medical industry, by the insurance industry, and others that are granted access to these types of databases. And the first database search I ran was a data aggregator that listed every address to which I'd ever been linked, both personally and professionally. It was my first real revelation about how much information is out there and also how quickly it's sold and disseminated.
NARRATOR: American listeners are you spooked? Well, it might be a slight relief to know that not just anyone can access this information. Your ex-partner can’t just find out where your new house is, if that’s what you’re wondering.
TYLER MARONEY: Almost all of the databases to which we have access require that you have a purpose, some kind of legal purpose to access it. For instance, that you are working on behalf of an attorney as part of a legal proceeding or a regulatory proceeding, whether that be civil or criminal or otherwise, or that you are involved in some kind of a transaction that has been initiated by the subject of the investigation.
NARRATOR: Tyler isn’t a spy in the strictest sense of the word but he does have a nose for sniffing out the truth.
TYLER MARONEY: When I discovered investigative work, it really gave me a sense of purpose because I had previously been a generalist, meaning one day I would cover diplomacy, the next day I'd cover sports. The day after that, I'd cover an art opening. And although that was thrilling, I felt like I wasn’t swimming in very deep and all of that, and I didn't really have a sense of purpose. But when I discovered investigative work, the hunt for hidden information and exposing things was just really a thrilling turn in my career. And it was truly a rite of passage for me.
NARRATOR: By chance or fate, he met somebody at Kroll, which is this kind of legendary private investigation firm that’s been around since the 1970s. He took a job there and...
TYLER MARONEY: I learned quickly that my experiences as an investigative journalist included everything from being a contrarian - which means, you know, not trusting the official line - to being a bit paranoid and neurotic about everything and anything, which is an incredibly valuable skill in this business.
NARRATOR: And in 2010, he started his own private investigation firm which...
TYLER MARONEY: Focuses on what we call large, sophisticated projects that benefit the public interest. And by that, we mean cases that are brought to us by large companies. NGOs, individuals, anyone who is involved in a large either legal dispute or business transaction, where they need help.
NARRATOR: They come to Tyler when they’ve tried every avenue they can think of; when they’ve Googled to the ends of the earth; when they’ve hired consultants and specialists and still can’t figure out the answer to their problem. And Tyler gets approached with all sorts. This includes everything from searching for stolen assets that have been squirreled away offshore to proving that trade secrets from a software company have been misappropriated, to conducting a background check on a prospective CEO to exposing evidence that a politician has been accepting bribes for contracts. So it's a huge range of assignments, all of which have this quest for hidden information at their core.
Big clients go to him to get hold of information that, more often than not, someone doesn’t want them to have and that’s how the Meek Mill case landed on his lap. So, it’s your job to uncover the evidence that will get Meek Mill out of prison, for good. Where do you start? Ten years have passed since Meek was raided by the Philadelphia Narcotics Field Unit. The case is closed and, as a private investigator, you don’t have the same resources as law enforcement.
How are you going to unpick this case? What’s your first step? You need to get hold of copies of all the official documentation of Meek’s arrest which included lists of police officers who were there that night, affidavits by the police officers who had made the arrest that described their reason for the arrest such as evidence that the day before they had seen Meek being involved in what they claimed was a drug deal on the corner a few blocks from his arrest. At first glance, these documents look pretty boring but if you read them closely, they are full of colorful information that could prove very useful.
TYLER MARONEY: It described very specifically what the police officers witnessed Meek do before they arrested him, including walking from the house where his cousin lived about a block and a half away to a street corner where they claimed they witnessed a drug sale.
NARRATOR: But as a P.I. Tyler’s come to know that you should never take the official documents at face value. There was enough detail in this alleged drug sale that we decided to recreate it ourselves. So, Tyler in true gumshoe style, returned to the scene of the crime, to see if the alleged drug deal really went down the way the report said it did, or, if at all. So he wears out his shoe leather by walking the route.
TYLER MARONEY: Not only walked it, but measured it foot by foot to make sure that what was written down in the official record reflected reality, and we discovered a few things quite quickly. One is that many of the statements by the police officers do not appear to have been accurate. For instance, they mentioned in a few places that they could see Meek coming out of a building while the police officers were sitting in a car. But we discovered that the car could not have been parked where the police officers claim it was parked while also seeing the door of the house and also with the vantage point of the alleged drug deal. So the police officer would have had to have gotten out of his car and followed Meek down the street in one direction and back up the street and the other direction without Meek noticing.
NARRATOR: While pounding the pavement, Tyler discovered more.
TYLER MARONEY: Another point that we noticed quite quickly is that the description of Meek was not reflective of what Meek looked like at the time, whether it had to do with his height or the style of his hair or the color of his skin. And there were enough details that, although not every one of them was inaccurate, this was essentially what we were saying was ‘death by a thousand cuts’, so much so that it was almost shockingly so, as opposed to one big mistake. And that was enough to inspire us to take this case to the next level, which meant tracking down and interviewing every one of the cops who were there that day that we could find.
NARRATOR: This is hard, relentless, unforgiving work - often with no leads - but it’s what you have to do to reach a breakthrough. And while Tyler and his team found the first clues that suggested the night in question didn’t happen as the official documents stated, Meek Mill’s mother soon provided more.
TYLER MARONEY: In conversation with her one day, she was describing how bloodied up Meek was on the day that he was arrested and one thing led to another. And she mentioned to Luke that she had photographs of that day before Meek was hauled off to prison and she gave those photographs to Luke. And many of those photographs ended up in the media, and those were incredibly valuable because they, you know, are visual evidence of what happened to Meek that day.
NARRATOR: Evidence contradicting the official report was stacking up and most of those official report details had come from the witness testimony of the arresting officer Reggie Graham. Had he lied in front of the judge? Was he the reason Meek Mill was in this hell? Tyler and his partner turned the investigation toward Reggie. They decided to try and track down former officers who had known him on the job. They eventually found an ex-officer called Jeffrey Walker. Jeffrey wasn’t there on the night of Meek’s arrest, but he knew Reggie Graham and he was willing to talk.
TYLER MARONEY: So Jeffrey Walker is a former member of the narcotics field unit who had worked with Reggie Graham, we wanted to talk to Jeff Walker, but we had a problem because Jeffrey Walker had spent time in prison himself - in federal prison - and the reason that Walker had spent time in prison [is] that he'd been caught stealing from other drug dealers and he was, of course, a former police officer.
NARRATOR: So, he had credibility problems but there was still a likely chance he’d have some useful information.
TYLER MARONEY: We had a huge advantage in this case because we could say that we were Meek Mill's private eyes, and that gets you a long way in Philadelphia because everybody knows who Meek Mill is. And at this point, we also knew that Jeffrey Walker had gone through a real rite of passage himself. He was now a former inmate, a convicted felon himself, and had been very public previously in testifying in the cases of other police officers who'd been alleged to have engaged in crimes themselves. So he had become somebody who was very publicly willing to speak out against police misconduct, and he was very willing to tell us about the nefarious behavior of his former colleagues in the narcotics field unit.
NARRATOR: Jeffrey told them stories of himself and his fellow officers stealing from drug dealers, of planting evidence, raiding homes without warrants.
TYLER MARONEY: Doing anything that he could do and that other police officers could do to get overtime, which would essentially double or triple their salary, so even if it was something small that would allow them to say that they had witnessed an arrest. If that arrest then allowed the police officer to show up in court the police officer would get paid for that. So they were not only, quite literally, pocketing money from the drug dealers they were arresting but they were also stealing from the taxpayer in the sense that they were working overtime on cases that they had no business working.
NARRATOR: They met with Jeffrey Walker roughly a dozen times over a few months and eventually he told them what he knew about Reggie Graham.
TYLER MARONEY: And ultimately we were able to get an affidavit from Jeff Walker that said that he had witnessed Reggie Graham commit crimes and that he knew that Graham probably lied many times in arrest records and other official documentation. So although Jeff Walker was not there the day that Meek was arrested, he was able to give us incredible detail and testimony that helped chip away at the credibility of Reggie Graham.
NARRATOR: With the doubt sown, the next step was to try and find evidence that would exonerate Meek Mill. Remember that one of the charges that had landed Meek in prison in 2007 as a 19-year-old was pointing his gun at officers. Day and night they sifted through reports and papers. They scoured criminal investigations into the narcotics unit, civil investigation reports, internal investigations, and complaints from Meek’s relatives. But then, the breakthrough they needed.
TYLER MARONEY: One of the documents we got in our official records request was a list of all of the police officers who were there at the scene of the crime, so to speak, when Meek was arrested and there were 18 or 19 names on them. And through other investigative methods, we were able to discover that there were people who were there that day who were not on this list. And this was another turning point in the investigation because we wanted to know why names had not appeared on that list. Were they intentionally excluded? Is there something that those police officers knew that the government did not want the world to know? So we tracked down those police officers.
NARRATOR: They found a man called Gerald Gibson, another ex-officer. Unlike Jeffrey, he was there on the night of Meek’s arrest.
TYLER MARONEY: The most explosive piece of information Gibson had for us was that he had no recollection at all that Meek had pointed a gun at any police officer as he was accused to have done.
NARRATOR: This was huge. Here was a witness deliberately left off the official record that said that had never happened. They kept going. They spoke to more officers and corroborated his testimony.
TYLER MARONEY: Every single police officer we spoke to said that there's no way that he could be alive today had that happened because their training requires them to pull out a weapon and likely shoot if a defendant or a suspect pulls out a weapon.
NARRATOR: There it was. The relentless hours of paper shuffling, the dead-end leads, reading every tiny footnote and middle initial had finally led to the witnesses Meek’s lawyers needed to appeal the original drug and gun charges and try and get him out of prison for good. It felt, well, great.
TYLER MARONEY: That's the most thrilling part of private detective work is to come across some gem that is going to be useful to you. And not only the information itself, but to have a witness, multiple witnesses who are willing to testify to that in a document or in court to put their credibility on the line, to put their reputations on the line in support not of Meek, but perhaps of the truth.
NARRATOR: The investigation wasn’t over just yet. There was still one more witness they needed to find: Reggie Graham, the man whose testimony had put Meek in prison in the first place.
TYLER MARONEY: Reggie Graham had left the police department and had moved to Florida. He'd gotten involved in church activities and, if I remember correctly, was even considering a career in music so he kind of changed his life quite drastically. We got to the suburban subdivision where Graham lived and we were quite nervous about this approach because it was a very quiet, family-oriented community. There were children's bikes on [the] lawns. There were people sitting outside enjoying the afternoon sun. And so people could see us walking up to Graham’s house. His neighbors noticed us. Children noticed us.
NARRATOR: Stop. You’re on the lawn of the man who your lawyers are about to discredit in court based on testimonies you’ve collected. You’re going to put the allegations that he’s a corrupt police officer to him. He’s never been indicted or found guilty so, in a way, you’re kind of asking him: is this true? Did you do the things people say you did? This is not an easy task.
TYLER MARONEY: You have to anticipate that everything will go wrong, that you will be rejected, that you will be lied to, that the record that you have compiled will be refuted. And maybe even that you will be harmed. I mean, to be completely honest, we don't carry weapons in our work but when approaching a former police officer there's always a possibility that he or she is carrying a weapon. And so there is a component of danger that we consider. We were determined not to make this an adversarial conversation.
TYLER MARONEY: And if it turned into that, we had decided we would likely just walk away. But we also had an obligation to talk to Graham. I mean, you can't accuse someone of a crime or of any kind of wrongdoing or fraudulent behavior without getting their take on it and that's something I learned as an investigative journalist. You must give defendants or witnesses or suspects an opportunity to respond to what they've been accused of.
NARRATOR: You’re on his doorstep. He has no idea who you are and you have no idea he’s going to react. How are you going to approach this?
TYLER MARONEY: One of the things that private detectives don't have is the ability to compel someone to speak. We knew that Graham could simply slam the door in our face. We knew he could tell us to get off of his property. We knew he could refuse to talk. So our goal was to try to prove to Graham how hard we worked and how credible we were and to essentially convince him to hear us out, and that worked.
NARRATOR: He’s opened the door but now you’ve got to get him to talk. You aren’t law enforcement, so how are you going to give off a sense of authority? That’s right. Show him your workings.
TYLER MARONEY: I mean, there were days when we would carry three-ring binders stocked full of documents and that we would show to people maps, witness testimony, trial testimony, media reports, police arrest records, affidavits. You name it. We had everything and they were dog-eared and they were wrinkled and they had Post-it Notes on them and we wanted to make sure that we were able to be convincing to anyone we spoke to. And again, that goes back to the fact that we don't have the ability as private detectives to force anyone to speak to us, so we have to use our credibility to do so.
NARRATOR: And how did Graham react to the allegations?
TYLER MARONEY: To Graham's credit, he was not confrontational in the way that I suppose he could have been, and although he spoke to us for more than an hour he didn't budge at all, and he did not acknowledge that any of the work we did was accurate. That didn't matter, however. It's not our job, ultimately, to make those decisions. We are fact-gatherers who present our information in court. Certainly, if Reggie Graham had confessed to a crime, if he confessed to lying and documentation, it would have been even more explosive but we didn't expect him to. We had done our job by tracking down every document and every person who was there and then allowing Graham himself the opportunity to respond to it.
NARRATOR: It would be up to Meek’s lawyers to make an appeals case based on what Tyler and Luke had found. But would it be enough? Well, in the weeks that followed, another piece of explosive evidence came to light. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office disclosed what became known as the ‘Do Not Call’ list. It was a list of current and former police officers whom prosecutors had sought to keep off the witness stand over allegations of misconduct. And on that list was... you guessed it. Reggie Graham. Under his name, the list noted that Reggie was investigated by federal authorities for several alleged acts of corruption and had retired before his hearing. This revelation bolstered the witness statements Tyler and his team had collected that undermined the credibility of Reggie’s testimony that Meek had pointed the gun at officers that night in January 2007. When Tyler and Luke went back and confronted Reggie about the Do Not Call list he responded in the same way he had throughout.
TYLER MARONEY: Confrontation, to him, was not something new, which is probably why he wasn't very intimidated by us. Also, to his credit, he didn't have any reason to alter the record. He had not been disciplined for any wrongdoing. He has not been accused of a crime.
NARRATOR: In April 2018, five months into Meek Mill’s four-year sentence, his legal team took the evidence to a Pennsylvania Court of Appeals and he was granted bail. The appeals court removed Judge Brinkley from the case and granted him a re-trial for his 2007 arrest, due in large part to the evidence Tyler and his team uncovered about Reggie Graham. In August 2019, Meek Mill’s legal battle was declared over. After 12 years of agony for his family, it was an indescribable relief. For a man dogged his whole life by accusations that he was nothing more than a criminal it was public vindication, a success for social justice, and the spark for parole reform in Pennsylvania. And for Tyler and his team, it was an exceptional victory. All their meticulous work had paid off. A man was free.
TYLER MARONEY: The day that it was announced that Meek was off probation and had put his legal troubles behind him was among the most thrilling days of my career as both a private detective and a journalist because it was the culmination of six months of work - weekends, nights - all geared toward revealing some kind of hidden information. But much more than that it was an opportunity to work outside the system, to examine the system itself in the United States. One of the issues that anyone accused of a crime has is that they are always facing a government and a prosecutor's office and a police force that is funded and resourced much more so than a defense - and in the sense that anyone has been accused of a crime has a huge uphill battle. And with Meek's case, we knew that we had the resources and the support, not just of me and his family and his advocates and his lawyers, but of the public as well. And that gave us tremendous energy and, in fact, has inspired us.
NARRATOR: As a private investigator, Taylor says this case has been one of the most formative of his career. Here are some of the things he learned from it.
TYLER MARONEY: Not to trust the official record. The second big takeaway from Meek's case is, for us as an investigative firm, to think much bigger about our role as private detectives in the world instead of being simply opportunists. Meek's case has inspired us to seek out many other investigations that benefit the public interest, whether it's reforming the criminal justice system, uncovering official political corruption, or exposing the causes of climate change, and these are all kind of big-picture ideas that we keep in the back of our heads so that in many ways we can reverse engineer an investigation. By which I mean, instead of waiting for a client to come to us with an assignment, [we] will often look at an issue and figure out where we can play a role.
NARRATOR: Tyler Maroney. You can delve behind the scenes in the fascinating world of private investigations in his book The Modern Detective. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another secret operation with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Tyler Maroney is the cofounder of a private investigations firm and his work has been featured in documentaries on HBO and Amazon. Before becoming an investigator, he was a Fulbright scholar and worked as a journalist. He lives in Brooklyn and is a SPYEX consultant.