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In Sandy Springs, Georgia, Northside Hospital is known for its maternity facility. But on June 7, 2012, it was the scene of a violent death: A young man was shot in his car in the parking lot.
The victim, who had four bullet wounds in his back, was pronounced dead in the emergency room. Police identified him using a fingerprint scanner as Melvin Vernell III, a 19-year-old rising rapper known as Lil’ Phat.
“We knew the murder weapon used was a Glock 357 SIG,” JT Williams, a detective with Sandy Springs Police Department, told “The Real Murders of Atlanta,” airing Sundays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Investigators found shell casings near the crime scene, and inside the victim’s blood-spattered car, police found a handgun that had not been fired, Williams told producers. Witnesses had also described seeing two males in the vicinity of the parking lot shortly before the ambush.
They soon learned Vernell had been at the hospital because of his fiancé, Alnese Frazier — she was on bed rest in the hospital awaiting the birth of their daughter
A search of Vernell’s home revealed it had been ransacked. “You could tell that somebody had been in there looking around,” said Matt McGinnis, a sergeant with Sandy Springs PD. A strong smell of marijuana there suggested drugs may have been seized.
Police were convinced the break-in and the homicide were connected. But how? A call from the Atlanta office of the FBI gave officials a new lead.
A confidential informant named two suspects in the murder. Gary “Eldorado Red” Bradford had significant criminal history and ties to guns and the distribution of drugs in Alabama. Decensae “Griz” White had links to marijuana growers in California and to Bradford.
Investigators obtained warrants for the suspects’ phone records. Call histories showed them together on the day of the shooting near Northside Hospital a couple of hours before the murder.
But two weeks after the homicide, an anonymous tipster called a Shady Springs 911 dispatcher and revealed there may be others involved. They named Bradford and Maurice “Da Boi” Conner, a name not on detectives’ radar, as suspects.
Records showed that Conner had gotten a speeding ticket on June 6, one day before the murder, in Alabama across the border from Georgia. The passenger was a man named Deandre Washington. In a chilling bit of foreshadowing, Conner told the trooper they were going to a funeral in Atlanta. Phone records put Washington and Conner at Northside Hospital at the time of the murder.
Investigators now had four main suspects — and a nagging question: How did they know Vernell’s whereabouts?
As investigators grappled with that question they were shocked to learn the identity of the FBI’s confidential informant. The Audi A7 Vernell was driving when he was killed actually belonged to a truck driver in Covington, Georgia. After buying the vehicle, the truck driver sent it to a car rental business, Global Elite, where it would be paid off in about a year’s time. Mani Chulpayev, who ran the car-leasing business, rented pricey rides to individuals in the entertainment and sports industries, said Gabe Banks, former Deputy DA for Fulton County. Chulpayev was the FBI's tipster.
Chulpayev, who, investigators said, kept books for the Russian mob, had turned informant years earlier. He was not to be questioned in the Vernell homicide case.
But the investigation took a twist, thanks to yet another tipster. This one told Williams he had inside information straight from Washington on the slaying.
“He said Eldorado Red recruited Maurice Conner and Deandre Washington to kill Melvin,” said Williams, adding that the caller knew the kind of murder weapon used. That information had never been released.
The informant also said that Vernell’s car had a GPS locator in it and that “a Russian” renting the car helped them track the victim.
“Mani put trackers in his vehicles and so if someone rented a vehicle and didn't make the payment, he would be able to track the vehicle and get it back,” said Banks.
A task force was formed to retrieve the GPS trackers from Vernell’s car. Records showed “somebody was literally hunting Melvin Vernell down like a dog,” investigators said.
Detectives learned that Vernell, who’d had a gun in his car, “took his onstage personality too far by robbing a marijuana courier,” according to “The Real Murders of Atlanta.” That put a target on his back — and a murder for hire was set in motion.
But why would Chulpayev provide GPS information and facilitate the murder? Digging into his criminal history they learned that he had just gotten off federal probation for “car trickery”: title fraud and VIN fraud.
They learned Vernell had just been caught in a traffic stop bust and the car he was driving when stopped had turned out to be stolen. He wasn’t going to take the rap for a stolen vehicle charge. His testimony would incriminate Chulpayev, and his court date on the case was set for just days after he was murdered. They now had a motive for why Chulpayey would get involved.
Two months after the shooting, investigators made their last arrest in the case: Mani Chulpayev.
In August 2014 trials began. White received an eight-year sentence and probation in exchange for full cooperation in the case. White identified Washington and Conner as the individuals who carried out Vernell’s murder at Bradford’s instruction.
Washington was sentenced to life without parole. Conner was sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to commit a crime, and Bradford was sentenced to 25 years. Charges against Chulpayev were eventually dropped.
For more on the case and others, watch “The Real Murders of Atlanta,” airing Sundays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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