The notion that members of the Los Angeles Police Department — along with rap mogul Suge Knight and members of the Bloods street gang — were allegedly involved in the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls should be the domain of crackpots. But in the wake of Mark Fuhrman, Rodney King, and the Rampart scandal, America’s most wanted police department is hardly above reproach. That the murders of hip-hop’s two biggest stars — both committed in public view — remain unsolved some five years later only adds to our collective readiness to consider such a disquieting premise. B
But Randall Sullivan’s dense chronicle, LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal, goes far beyond a conspiracy theory. Sullivan, an esteemed journalist, lays the groundwork for his story by providing readers with just enough background on the intertwined histories of hip-hop, street gangs, and the LAPD to process the deluge of data that follows. Then he goes on to construct a compelling story, involving Knight and members of the LAPD, with a collection of department interviews, reports, and affidavits – courtesy of former detective Russell Poole.
In March 1997, Poole, a decorated officer praised for his tenacity and attention to detail, was assigned to investigate the shooting of off-duty cop Kevin Gaines. Poole quickly discovered that Gaines seemed to have lived a double life, working in LAPD’s Pacific division while moonlighting as a security guard for Knight’s Death Row Records. As Poole tugs on this thread, he unravels a truly labyrinthine knot of street thugs, rogue cops, and some of the most prominent names in rap.
At the center of the fray, Poole finds Suge Knight, whom Sullivan describes as an entrepreneurial thug and alleged member of Compton’s Piru Bloods who used intimidation and brutality to shove his way into the hugely profitable hip-hop business. Death Row albums by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg sold millions of copies and introduced America to the breezy California G-funk style. But according to the author, behind the music label was a vast criminal enterprise.
Sullivan claims Knight recruited police officers to do security work for him partially because they were already permitted to carry concealed weapons, and partially because their fear of getting caught for unauthorized moonlighting gave him leverage. Poole soon realized that Knight’s hired hands gave him a powerful card to play against the LAPD, which worked out to be a brilliant strategy given the department’s desire to avoid scandal.
Poole’s investigation eventually led him to David Mack, an LAPD officer and, according to Sullivan, a Death Row employee who owned a black Impala SS and German-manufactured bullets, both of which matched the ones used in Biggie Smalls’ murder. After Mack’s arrest for a bank robbery, the first person to visit him was Amir Muhammed, who distinctly resembled the composite drawing of Biggie’s suspected killer (Sullivan smartly includes a photo of Muhammed next to the police sketch of the shooting suspect).
Plunging deeper still, Poole investigates Tupac Shakur’s murder. The book cites several insiders – including Snoop Dogg – implicating Knight. A witness describes Knight’s curious behavior on the night of the murder, orchestrating Tupac’s every movement. (Tupac’s friend Yafu Fula, who saw the killing, was murdered before he could be interviewed by police.) Sullivan suggests Death Row owed Tupac $3 million and Knight didn’t want to pay up. In the days leading up to his assassination, Tupac fired his Death Row attorney, and it was clear that he planned to leave the label.
According to Sullivan, despite an amazing array of evidence, some of his LAPD superiors who were leery of further scandal ordered Poole not to pursue leads that pointed either to officers or to Death Row (Knight would complain volubly to the media about racism whenever his name was linked to the murders). When Poole disobeyed orders, department brass censored his reports and removed him from the case (the LAPD chief declined to comment on specific allegations and maintained that one of his reports was merely edited). Despised by his colleagues and thwarted by his bosses, Poole resigned from the LAPD.
These details represent just the tip of Sullivan’s mountain of data, so exhaustive as to be unreadable at times. The author writes like a man on a mission, forsaking graceful prose for scholarly precision. For those who have followed the cases, not many of Sullivan’s theories are new: Stories in the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, the author’s own story in Rolling Stone, and Nick Broomfield’s documentary Biggie and Tupac contain much of the same information. But no single source presents so complete or damning a record as LAbyrinth. Augmented by a roster of more than 130 key players, a detailed timeline of events, and reference to 224 supporting documents, the book offers a blueprint for federal authorities to investigate the grave injustices it alleges. At the end of the book, Sullivan reports that in response to heightened publicity, the FBI is launching an investigation into Knight’s alleged role in the murders of Tupac and Biggie. One can only hope its inquiry is as thorough as Sullivan’s.