03/11/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Near the front gate of Jayson Williams's 65-acre estate is a bronze plaque that reads, "Who Knew?"—a witty reference to Williams's unlikely ascent from a tough kid raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to multimillionaire. Nowadays, however, the question has a more somber ring.
On Feb. 25, 11 days after a limousine driver, Costas "Gus" Christofi, 55 was found shot to death in the master bedroom of the mansion, police charged Williams, a former NBA star, with manslaughter. Acting Hunterdon County prosecutor Steven Lember said there was evidence that Williams had been "recklessly" handling a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun when it discharged, adding that investigators were looking into the possibility that alcohol was involved. Williams, who turned himself in to police and then posted $250,000 bail, maintained his innocence. His lawyer Joseph A. Hayden Jr. called the incident a "tragic accident."
On the night in question Williams, 34, an NBC basketball analyst, had been out with friends at a Harlem Globetrotters game. Afterward, the group took a limousine, driven by Christofi, to a restaurant and then to Williams's home in the horse country of western New Jersey. Williams, who starred for the New Jersey Nets until a leg injury forced his retirement two years ago, graciously invited the driver, whom he had never before met, in to take part in a tour of the 31,000-sq.-ft. mansion. Roughly an hour later, at about 3 a.m., there was a call to 911 summoning help for Christofi, who was soon pronounced dead.
Despite his reputation for affability, Williams has a history of horseplay with guns. In his 2000 autobiography, Loose Balls, he lightheartedly recalls one incident in which he almost hit New York Jets football star Wayne Chrebet with the bullet from a handgun while target shooting at the estate. The present charges are no laughing matter. If convicted, Williams, who recently married attorney Tanya Young, could face 5 to 10 years in prison.