The suspects were identified in court papers as Ronald Washington, 56, who is currently serving a federal prison sentence stemming from a string of robberies while on the run from police after Jay’s 2002 death, and Karl Jordan Jr, 36, who is also charged with engaging in a cocaine distribution conspiracy in 2017.
Jason “Jay” Mizell, known professionally as Jam Master Jay, formed Run-DMC with Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniel in the early 1980s. Together, they helped take hip-hop mainstream with hits like It’s Tricky and the Aerosmith remake collaboration Walk This Way.
Jay’s death, following the long unsolved killings of rappers Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas in 1996 and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace in New York City in 1997, shook the hip-hop world.
Chuck D of Public Enemy compared his death to that of John Lennon. More than 60,000 dollars in rewards was offered, but witnesses refused to come forward and the case languished.
“This is a case about a murder that for nearly two decades had gone unanswered,” acting US attorney Seth DuCharme said at a news conference announcing the charges.
“Today, we begin to answer that question of who killed Jason Mizell and why, and we’re confident that we can prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Washington, who had reportedly been living on a couch at Jay’s home in the days before the killing, was publicly named as a possible suspect or witness as far back as 2007. Prosecutors allege he waved a handgun and ordered another person at the recording studio to lie on the ground while Jordan shot Jay in the head October 30 2002.
According to prosecutors, Jay had brought in bulk amounts of cocaine to sell retail and was killed as retribution for cutting Washington out of a plan to distribute 10kg in Maryland.
“They walked in and murdered him in cold blood,” Mr DuCharme said.
Run-DMC performed anti-drug concerts, established scholarships and held voter registration drives at their live shows. In Hollis, the Queens neighbourhood where he grew up, Jay was seen as a role model. Friends were puzzled by his death, thinking him an unlikely target for violence.
If convicted, Washington and Jordan face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life in prison, or the death penalty. Prosecutors said in court papers that attorney general William Barr had not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Jordan pleaded not guilty at an arraignment by videolink because of coronavirus-related precautions. Washington, who is imprisoned in Kentucky, will be arraigned later this week, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors have asked that both be jailed pending trial.
Jay, 37, was shot once in the head with a .40-calibre bullet by a masked assailant at his studio in Hollis. Police identified at least four people in the studio with Jay when he was killed, including the two armed gunmen.
At Jay’s funeral, McDaniels remembered his fellow Run-DMC star as “the embodiment of hip-hop”. He was also a husband and a father of three children.
“Jam Master Jay was not a thug,” McDaniels said. “Jam Master Jay was not a gangster. Jam Master Jay was a unique individual.”
Prosecutors now say he had been bringing cocaine into the New York area since 1996.
At the time, his acquaintance with Washington — a repeat offender with convictions dating to 1982 — worried and upset his family.
Before ending up on Jay’s couch, Washington served prison time for grand larceny, assault, criminal use of a firearm, heroin possession and other charges. He was been linked to the fatal 1995 shooting of Randy Walker, a close associate of the late Tupac Shakur.
Afterwards, prosecutors said, Washington hopped from motel to motel and robbed businesses including supermarkets and a Burger King while detectives pursued him in connection with Jay’s killing. He remained at large for nearly three months until police on Long Island caught him for robbing a motel.
Last month, as prosecutors were preparing to seek a grand jury indictment against him for Jay’s death, Washington filed a handwritten petition asking to immediately be released to home confinement, arguing his medical history put him at risk of complications from coronavirus.
Federal prosecutors responded by asking for more time to respond, delaying any decision until after Washington was charged.
Jordan, who was a teenager when Jay was killed, was declared a juvenile delinquent after a 1999 robbery arrest and had a firearm case dismissed when the complaining witness refused to co-operate with law enforcement.
In recent years, prosecutors said, he has been caught on audio and video surveillance six times selling cocaine to an undercover federal agent.