SPECIAL REPORT: An appeal by the ex-girlfriend of jailed rapper Max B that her confession should have been tossed and her sentence reduced for a botched armed robbery at a Fort Lee hotel that left one victim dead has been rejected by a New Jersey court.
Given the circumstances, Gina Conway’s confession to a Bergen County Prosecutor’s detective clearly wasn’t coerced, while her appeal of the sentence was “without sufficient merit to warrant discussion,” the state Appellate Division found.
Conway, 36, will continue serving out her 15-year sentence following the state Appellate Division ruling. She’s eligible for parole in 2019.
Conway was following orders from Charly “Max B” Wingate when she and his brother-in-law, Kelvin Leedram, forced their way into a room at the Holiday Inn on Route 4 in September 2006, then bound and gagged two of the victims.
Leedram later shot and killed a third man, who police said was buying drugs.
Wingate is serving a 75-year sentence and won’t be eligible for parole from Trenton State Prison until Nov. 9, 2042. Leerdam, meanwhile, got life.
Conway got her 15-year deal after agreeing to testify against both men.
Detective Mark Bendul of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office explained during their trial that he and other investigators arrested Conway in a New York City subway station at 12:35 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2006, a few days after the murder.
As they put her into a police car, Bendul said, Conway told them: “I didn’t want to do any of it.”
“[I]t “took a lot to just keep her calm enough so that we could conduct an interview when we got back,” the detective said, because Conway “wanted to talk and tell the story.”
Bendul said he later interviewed her for four hours in a small office at a nearby precinct. She was “a bit distraught” but also “completely coherent” and “relieved from not having to run anymore,” the detective testified.
He emphasized during his testimony that he neither promised Conway anything nor threatened her. “When [she] asked for a cigarette she was given a cigarette; when she asked for water she was given water; when she asked for a bathroom break,” the appeals decision notes. “She was not deprived of food or anything else she requested.”
Bendul advised Conway of her rights on the recorded interview and had her complete a form confirming that she understood those rights, it adds. She also signed a waiver and agreed to speak to the detective, evidence shows.
Superior Court Judge Harry Carroll, who presided over the trial, listened to the recording and read the paperwork before denying Conway’s bid to suppress her confession.
Conway’s rights were “scrupulously read and respected,” Carroll found. The length of the interview wasn’t “prolonged or extended” to the point of her not voluntarily participating, he added.
Conway claimed that Bendul should have taken her crying and yawning as signs that the interview should have ended.
The appeals judges disagreed: At one point during the interview, they noted, Bendul asked Conway: “All right, so you think we’re going to be able to continue with this?”
“Yeah,” she responded.
Although Conway at one point said she was scared, she clearly was referring to “the circumstances of the crime,” and not Bendul’s interrogation, the Appellate Division decision says.
There was “no evidence of any threats, force, or coercion at any point during the interview
which would cause this [c]ourt to conclude that the [l]aw [e]nforcement efforts rendered [Conway’s] resulting statement involuntary in any way,” the appeals court found.
Carroll was correct in concluding that “ample credible evidence” showed her statement was “knowing, voluntary, and intelligent,” they added.
Although he wasn’t at the scene, prosecutors said Wingate orchestrated the robbery/murder.
The rapper, known by the New Jersey State Department of Corrections as “INM 641403,” repeatedly has said in prison interviews that he expected his appeal would be upheld.
“I’m staying strong. I’m focused. I’m praying,” he said from prison last year. “God is good. I’m still wavy, aooww.”
Max B made his name working with the Harlem collective The Diplomats – and, more importantly, with big-name rapper Jim Jones. Wingate is credited as co-writer on one of Jones’ biggest hits, “We Fly High,” and is featured on the single “Baby Girl,” as well as several other tracks by Jones.
The two split over money, leaving Wingate still under contract to Jones’s ByrdGang Records. He began releasing mixtapes and He took the nickname “Max Biggaveli” as an homage to The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur (who used the handle “Makaveli”).
Wingate eventually signed a three-album deal and was preparing to release a debut album, “Vigilante,” when Leerdam and Conway went to the Holiday Inn at his direction.
Their targets: Two men seen driving expensive cars and flashing cash days earlier in Harlem.
Two of the victims were involved in mortgage, real estate and credit card fraud. One of them was known to carry a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with as much as $40,000 in cash.
He noticed Conway, a stripper at the Bronx nightclub Sin City, on the street one day, introduced himself and took her to a local bar – then to a Mahwah hotel, where he unsuccessfully tried to seduce her, court papers show.
She left around 4 a.m. and took a cab to the city, where she met Wingate and gave him money.
Two days later, the man picked up Conway and took her shopping in Bergen County. Conway called Wingate in an effort to make him jealous, then went with the man to the Fort Lee Holiday Inn, according to testimony from their trial.
There, he “opened the designer bag several times to impress Conway, who thought it contained approximately $50,000,” court papers show.
Later that night, he dropped her off in Manhattan and met his associate and two women, spent the night in a club, then brought one of the women to the hotel. His associate brought the other. The two couples took separate rooms.
Before going to bed, the man had all but $1,000 of his cash, as well as his wallet, jewelry and car keys under the plastic liner of a trash can. He stashed the cash under the mattress, then went to sleep.
Conway, meanwhile, took a cab to a basketball court near 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, where she met Wingate and some of his friends.
She took Ecstasy and drank some Hennessy, then told Wingate about her new friend.
When he asked her how much money the guy had, Conway testified, she told him “a lot.”
Conway said Wingate vowed “to get him,” but that she took it to mean his money.
After she told him where the man was staying, Conway told jurors, Wingate summoned Leerdam, filled him in, then called a cab and sent the pair to Fort Lee.
The taxi driver stopped for gas on the way. Conway pulled up in another car, Conway said, and told her he would love her forever if she “pulled it off.”
The cabbie and the couple went to two other Holiday Inns before they found the right one. They told the driver to wait while they went inside.
On the way to the room, “Leerdam put on gloves, took duct tape from his pocket, and displayed a handgun,” court records show. “Conway, who had not seen any of these items previously, became nervous because this was not part of the plan.”
Conway used her key card, but it wouldn’t open the door to the room. She called the man’s cell and could hear it ringing, but he didn’t answer. So she knocked on the door.
The hooker answered, “told Conway and Leerdam that [their target] was sleeping, and tried to close the door,” the decision says. “Conway used her foot to prevent the door from closing, and she and Leerdam entered the room.”
Leerdam grabbed the woman by the hair, pointed the gun at her head, and demanded the money and the man’s car keys.
Conway said she searched the room as he slept.
She said Leerdam shoved the hooker into the bathroom and told her to “tape her up, which Conway did, duct taping [her] wrists, mouth, and ankles.”
The victim “got a good look at Leerdam and noticed a scar on the left side of his face,” according to court papers.
Conway said she then woke the man. She said Leerdam told him not to look at him or he would be shot, so he did.
Conway said she duct taped his hands and eyes. He then told them about the money under the mattress.
While the couple searched the room, the victim lifted some of the tape and saw what was happening.
“He eventually told Leerdam and Conway that the rest of the money was downstairs in a friend’s room,” the decision says.
Holding the gun to the man’s head, Leerdam forced him to call his friend, David Taylor.
When Taylor came to the room, Leerdam pointed the gun at his face.
The man reached for the gun and it went off, prosecutors said.
The man fell dead, shot in the head and neck.
Conway scooped up cell phones, a laptap and clothes the first man bought during their shopping spree. She also went through the dead man’s pockets and took $800.
Leerdam, meanwhile, took Taylor’s watch and changed into his clothes. He then smashed the other man in the face with the gun, while Conway took the hooker’s purse, threatening to kill her and her family.
Before leaving, the couple told the man they would come back and kill him if the money wasn’t in his friend’s room.
The man freed himself, though, and chased after them. He punched Conway, who screamed. Leerdam turned toward him with the gun and the man ran.
The cabbie noticed Leerdam in the new clothes, then drove the couple to Leerdam’s city apartment.
Leerdam then called Wingate, records show.
Conway took a bag containing the stolen items to New York, where she met one of Wingate’s friends. They then took a bus to his Bloomfield apartment, the decision says.
She left the bag there, took another and went to Wingate’s sister-in-law’s house. She called Wingate from there and he said “he was sorry for what had happened and would take care of her,” according to the decision.
Investigators later found two Holiday Inn key cards, cell phones, a laptop, car keys, clothing, a wallet, and a camera in the bag. When they arrested her, “she gave them a statement implicating Wingate and Leerdam,” court papers show.