Back In The Line Of Fire

TOM MORGANTHAU WITH JOHN MCCORMICK IN MINNEAPOLIS, GREGORY BEALS AND ALLISON SAMUELS IN NEW YORK, VERN E. SMITH IN ATLANTA AND MELINDA LIU IN WASHINGTON

No one who was in new York's Audubon Ballroom on that cold Sunday afternoon, Feb. 21, 1965, will ever forget the sequence of events. First there was some sort of commotion -- a scuffle, an argument -- in the audience. Malcolm X, waiting to begin his speech, stepped forward on the stage to call for calm. A smoke bomb exploded at the rear of the auditorium, adding to the confusion in the room. Suddenly, a man in the fourth row rose and coolly fired a sawed-off shotgun at the leader's chest. Two other men, one armed with a .45-caliber automatic, the other with a Luger pistol, also opened fire. Malcolm X raised his hands and fell backward, his black suit and white shirt drenched in blood. "They're killing my husband," screamed Betty Shabazz. Four-year-old Qubilah Bahiyah Shabazz, at her mother's side, watched her father die.

This is the stuff of legend and of cinema -- the 1992 film "Malcolm X" by Spike Lee. But last week, according to authorities in Minneapolis, the 30-year-old mystery produced an improbably lurid sequel -- a nine-count federal indictment charging Qubilah Shabazz with plotting to kill Malcolm's rival and successor, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, for his reputed complicity in her father's murder. Qubilah, now 34 and the mother of a son named Malcolm, was released on bail and is expected to plead "not guilty" when she is arraigned this week. Farrakhan, now 61, issued a typically strident denial of any involvement in Malcolm's assassination through aides at his Chicago mosque. And Betty Shabazz, now the director of public relations at Medgar Evers College in New York City, insisted that her daughter was incapable of plotting murder. "That's what they've done to my daughter because she did not have a father -- Farrakhan and all those people, they did all of that," she said bitterly.

Despite recent attempts by various black leaders to bring about a reconciliation, those who know the Shabazz family say the hatred of Farrakhan runs very deep. Asked whether she believed Farrakhan was involved in her husband's murder, Betty Shabazz replied "Of course, yes" during a television interview last year. A black leader in the Midwest, similarly, says Dr. Shabazz was even more outspoken about Farrakhan when he met her at a dinner not long ago. "I was stunned," this man said. "If she was that blunt with a total stranger, you know what those kids heard around the household." And a friend who met Qubilah during the filming of Spike Lee's movie said, "Betty and her daughters have held in a lot of pain and anger about Malcolm's death. [They] have watched Farrakhan climb into this authority position in the black community with no one calling him out on his [alleged] involvement in Malcolm's death."

But these are only rumors. Farrakhan has conceded in recent years that he helped to create the hostile atmosphere that led to Malcolm's death, but he has many times denied any direct involvement in the plotto kill his rival. The investigation of Malcolm X's murder ended with the conviction of three black Muslim men in 1966, and the case is officially closed. Still, some who have studied the case have long suspected that Farrakhan, then the leader of a Muslim mosque in Boston, may have been involved somehow. They cite an article publishedin a Muslim newspaper not long before the shooting in which Farrakhan wrote that Malcolm X was "worthy of death." And some say two of the convicted men were scapegoats: most of the real killers, they say, were never caught.

But the case against Qubilah Shabazz gets stranger by the day. Her public defender, Scott Tilsen, says the charges are almost entirely based on her relationship witha man federal sources identify as Michael Kevin Fitzpatrick, 34, a former high-school friend from New York City. Fitzpatrick, who has lived in the Minneapolis area for several years, is also known as Michael Kevin Summers -- a name he apparently acquired while in the federal witness-protection program. Persistent digging by Newsweek reporters suggests that Fitzpatrick has a curious past. Sources say he was once a paid informer for the FBI in an investigation aimed at Jewish militants in New York. He now faces a cocaine-possession charge stemming from a bust by Minneapolis police in November 1993. "He has the ability to look you in the eye and say one thing, then do another," says a former employer. "He's an extremely good salesman, very believable." But, this man says, Fitzpatrick is "very deceptive."

According to Tilsen, Fitzpatrick "enticed, lured and seduced" Qubilah Shabazz into discussing revenge on Farrakhan. But "wishing somebody dead is not a crime," Tilsen told Newsweek. "Plotting to kill is something different." According to last week's indictment, Qubilah Shabazz made eight phone calls from New York to Minnesota in July and August 1994during which she discussed the possibility of assassinating Farrakhan. Fitzpatrick is not named in the indictment, but the calls evidently were to him: an FBI spokesman said last week that only two people were involved in the alleged murder plot. The calls apparently were recorded by investigators, and Qubilah was placed under surveillance when, in September, she and her son moved from New York to Minneapolis. The indictment also said she made a "partial payment" to her co-conspirator. A source said the payment was $250 -- an absurdly low amount for such a hit.

So none of it makes sense -- or if it does, Malcolm X's daughter may be guilty of one of the most amateurish murder plots in the history of crime. Newsweek sources suggest a different motive: love. By all accounts, Qubilah Shabazz is a shy and quiet woman who rarely lets strangers into her life. But Fitzpatrick was an old friend, and one acquaintance says she moved out to Minneapolis because "she was really into the guy." There is no indication Fitzpatrick shared her feelings. "It may have been that they never had an intimate relationship, but that she deeply admired him," a source in Minneapolis says. "She may have had hopes of a relationship that were never on his agenda." As for Fitzpatrick, this source said, "we may be talking about a man who has motives to turn on trusted friends and fabricate something." Defense sources hint they will portray Shabazz as a grief-stricken daughter who was merely trying to unravel the mystery of her father's assassination.

Last week Farrakhan aides described Qubilah Shabazz as "a troubled young woman" and said the FBI and the Justice Department were attempting to "create conflict and hostility between the Nation of Islam and the family of Malcolm X." That may seem more than a bit paranoid -- but there was no doubt that the strange case of Malcolm's daughter had revived the questions about his death.

PHOTOS: Stuff of legend: Police carry the slain leader from the Audubon Ballroom in 1965, Malcolm X with Farrakhan at a 1063 rally, a young Qubilah with her father, with her mother at the 1992 opening of Spike Lee's film

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