The city's neon lights vibrated in the polished hood of the black BMW as it cruised up Las Vegas Boulevard.
The man in the passenger seat was instantly recognizable. Fans lined the streets, waving, snapping photos, begging Tupac Shakur for his autograph. Cops were everywhere, smiling.
The BMW 750 sedan, with rap magnate Marion "Suge" Knight at the wheel, was leading a procession of luxury vehicles past the MGM Grand Hotel and Caesars Palace, on their way to a hot new nightclub. It was after 11 on a Saturday night--Sept. 7, 1996. The caravan paused at a crowded intersection a block from the Strip.
Shakur flirted with a carful of women--unaware that a white Cadillac had quietly pulled up beside him. A hand emerged from the Cadillac. In it was a semiautomatic pistol, aimed straight at Shakur.
Many of the rapper's lyrics seemed to foretell this moment.
"The fast life ain't everything they told ya," he sang in an early hit, "Soulja's Story."
"Never get much older, following the tracks of a soulja."
Six years later, the killing of the world's most famous rap star remains officially unsolved. Las Vegas police have never made an arrest. Speculation and wild theories continue to flourish in the music media and among Shakur's followers. One is that Knight, owner of Shakur's record label, arranged the killing so he could exploit the rapper's martyrdom commercially. Another persistent legend is that Shakur faked his own death to escape the pressures of stardom.
A yearlong investigation by The Times reconstructed the crime and the events leading up to it. Evidence gathered by the paper indicates:
* The shooting was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier.
* Orlando Anderson, the Crip whom Shakur had attacked, fired the fatal shots. Las Vegas police discounted Anderson as a suspect and interviewed him only once, briefly. He was later killed in an unrelated gang shooting.
* The murder weapon was supplied by New York rapper Notorious B.I.G., who agreed to pay the Crips $1 million for killing Shakur. Notorious B.I.G. and Shakur had been feuding for more than a year, exchanging insults on recordings and at award shows and concerts. B.I.G. was gunned down six months later in Los Angeles. That killing also remains unsolved.
Before they died, Notorious B.I.G. and Anderson denied any role in Shakur's death. This account of what they and others did that night is based on police affidavits and court documents as well as interviews with investigators, witnesses to the crime and members of the Southside Crips who had never before discussed the killing outside the gang.
Fearing retribution, they agreed to be interviewed only if their names were not revealed.
The slaying silenced one of modern music's most eloquent voices--a ghetto poet whose tales of urban alienation captivated young people of all races and backgrounds. The 25-year-old Shakur had helped elevate rap from a crude street fad to a complex art form, setting the stage for the current global hip-hop phenomenon.
Tupac Amaru Shakur was born in 1971 into a family of black revolutionaries and named after a martyred Incan warrior. Radical politics shaped his upbringing and the rebellious tone of much of his music.
His godfather, Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, spent 27 years in prison for a robbery-murder in Santa Monica that he insisted he did not commit. Pratt was freed after a judge ruled in 1997 that prosecutors concealed evidence favorable to the defendant.
Shakur's stepfather, Black Panther leader Mutulu Shakur, was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list until the early 1980s, when he was imprisoned for robbery and murder. His mother, Afeni Shakur, also a Black Panther, was charged with conspiring to blow up a block of New York department stores--and acquitted a month before the rapper was born.
Shakur grew up in tough neighborhoods and homeless shelters in the Bronx, Harlem and Baltimore. He exhibited creative talent as a child and was admitted to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he studied ballet, poetry, theater and literature.
In 1988, his mother sent him to live with a family friend in the Bay Area to escape gang violence in Baltimore. Living in a tough neighborhood north of Oakland, he joined the rap group Digital Underground and signed a solo record deal in 1991.
Shakur's debut album, "2Pacalypse Now," sparked a political firestorm. The lyrics were filled with vivid imagery of violence by and against police. A car thief who murdered a Texas state trooper said the lyrics incited him to kill. Law enforcement groups and politicians denounced Shakur. Then-Vice President Dan Quayle said the rapper's music "has no place in our society."
Shakur's recordings explored gang violence, drug dealing, police brutality, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood and racism. As his stature as a rapper grew, he pursued an acting career, drawing admiring reviews for his performances in "Juice" and other films.
But he never put what he called the "thug life" behind him.
During a 1993 concert in Michigan, he attacked a local rapper with a baseball bat and was sentenced to 10 days in jail. In Los Angeles, he was convicted of assaulting a music video producer. In New York, a 19-year-old fan accused Shakur and three of his friends of sexually assaulting her.
While on trial in that case, the rapper was ambushed in a Manhattan recording studio, shot five times and robbed of his gold jewelry. Shakur later said Notorious B.I.G. and his associates were behind the attack.
Shakur, convicted of sexual abuse, was serving a 4 1/2-year prison term when he was visited by Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records in Los Angeles. Knight offered to finance an appeal of his conviction if Shakur would sign a recording contract with Death Row.
Shakur accepted the offer and was released from prison in 1995 on a $1.4-million appellate bond posted by Knight. Hours later, Shakur entered a Los Angeles studio to record "All Eyez on Me." The double CD sold more than 5 million copies, transforming Shakur into a pop superstar whose releases outsold Madonna's and the Rolling Stones'.
On Sept. 7, 1996, Shakur, still out on bond, traveled to Las Vegas to attend a championship boxing match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand Hotel.
The sold-out arena was jammed with high rollers: Wall Street tycoons, Hollywood celebrities, entertainment moguls. The fight also attracted an assortment of underworld figures: mobsters from Chicago, drug dealers from New York, street gangs from Los Angeles.
Shakur arrived around 8:30 p.m. accompanied by armed bodyguards from the Mob Piru Bloods, a Compton street gang whose members worked for Knight's Death Row Records. Shakur and Knight sat in the front row, smoking cigars, signing autographs and waving to fans.
"Knock You Out," a song Shakur had written in honor of Tyson, blasted over the loudspeakers as the boxer entered the ring. Tyson flattened his opponent so quickly that many patrons never made it to their seats.
After congratulating Tyson, Shakur, Knight and a handful of bodyguards in silk suits headed for the exit. In the MGM Grand lobby, one of Shakur's Bloods bodyguards noticed a member of the rival Southside Crips lingering near a bank of elevators.
The Bloods and Crips have a 30-year history of turf wars: beatings, drug heists, drive-by shootings. The Crips dress in blue, the Bloods in red. When the two gangs aren't pushing dope or terrorizing citizens, they take pride in retaliating against each other.
The hoodlum standing in the lobby was Orlando "Baby Lane" Anderson, 21, a Crip who had recently helped his gang beat and rob one of Shakur's bodyguards at a mall in Lakewood. Anderson had a string of arrests for robbery, assault and other offenses. Compton police suspected him in at least one gang killing.
After the beating of Shakur's bodyguard, Anderson had dared to rip a rare Death Row medallion from the man's neck--an affront to Knight's honor and a slight to the Bloods.
The Bloods had been fuming for weeks, waiting to exact their revenge. Now, unexpectedly, there was Anderson, standing before them.
Shakur charged the Crip. "You from the South?" he asked.
Before Anderson could answer, Shakur punched him. His bodyguards jumped in, pounding and kicking Anderson to the ground. Knight joined in too--just before security guards broke up the 30-second melee, which was captured by a security camera.
Shakur and his entourage stomped triumphantly across the casino floor on their way out of the hotel. They walked half a block down the Strip to the Luxor hotel, where Death Row Records had booked more than a dozen rooms. After dropping off Shakur and the bodyguards, Knight drove about 15 minutes to a mansion he owned in a gated community in the city's southeastern valley.
The plan was to regroup later at a benefit concert for a youth boxing program featuring Shakur and other Death Row acts. The midnight concert was to be held at Club 662, a nightspot just opened by Death Row. The club's name was an emblem of how gangs had infiltrated the rap business. On a telephone keypad, 662 spells "mob."
Planning a Retaliation
A bruised and shaken Anderson gathered himself off the floor in front of dozens of startled onlookers. MGM security guards and Las Vegas police tried to persuade him to file a complaint against his assailants, but he declined.
Anderson headed out to the Strip and crossed over a pedestrian bridge to the Excalibur Hotel, where he had checked in with his girlfriend. News of the beating swept through the gang underground. Before he reached his room, Anderson's pager was beeping with calls from his Crips cohorts, according to what he later told associates.
Anderson phoned his comrades and set up a meeting at the Treasure Island hotel. He changed his clothes and hopped into a taxi, heading for the hotel with the huge neon skull and crossbones out front.
Treasure Island had served as a Crips headquarters during boxing matches for years. The gang would rent a fleet of luxury vehicles, ride across the desert in a caravan, hand their keys to the valets and head to a block of rooms booked under fake names. Drug trafficking paid for all this.
The ritual had little to do with boxing. Many gang members never attended the fights. They came to party and bask in the post-fight revelry: the drinking, the gambling, the drugs, the prostitutes. Other street gangs followed suit, flying in from Harlem and Atlanta, taking over establishments up and down the Strip.
By the time Anderson's taxi reached Treasure Island, more than a dozen gangsters were holed up in a Crips-reserved room. Marijuana smoke clouded the hallway. Alcohol was flowing as Anderson opened the door. The gang was furious. The topic of discussion: Who gets to pull the trigger?
According to people who were present, the Crips decided to shoot Shakur after his performance at Club 662. The plan was to station two vehicles of armed Crips outside the nightspot and lie in wait.
The gang put in a call to a Crips hide-out in Las Vegas, a rented house used to stash drugs and firearms and shelter gang members on the run from crimes committed in Los Angeles. They told a man there to bring some backup weapons over to the hotel. Soon.
Killers for Hire
For the Crips, the beating of Anderson was an egregious affront warranting swift and fatal retaliation. Still, the Crips thought, why not make a little money while they were at it? They decided to ask Shakur's biggest enemy to pay for the hit.
The gang arranged a rendezvous with Notorious B.I.G. The Brooklyn rapper, whose real name was Christopher Wallace, hated Shakur and had been feuding with him for more than a year.
Once tight friends, the two entertainers now ridiculed each other at events, in interviews and on recordings. In one song called "Hit 'Em Up," Shakur bragged about having sex with Wallace's wife and vowed to kill him. The threats between the rappers and their labels, Death Row and Bad Boy Entertainment, escalated into a series of assaults and shootings--one of which resulted in the killing of a Death Row bodyguard in Atlanta in 1995.
Fearing for his safety, a friend of Wallace's arranged for the Crips to supply bodyguards for the rapper whenever he traveled west. Over the years, the gang was paid to provide security for Wallace at casinos in Las Vegas, clubs in Hollywood and award shows in Los Angeles. Besides cash, Wallace gave the gang access to stars, groupies and the inner sanctums of the music business.
Wallace began flashing Crips gang signs and calling out to the homies at concerts, sometimes even inviting gang members on stage. Privately, he prodded the gang to kill Shakur--and promised to pay handsomely for the hit.
On Sept. 7, 1996, the Crips decided to take him up on the offer.
They sent an emissary to a penthouse suite at the MGM, where Wallace was booked under a false name. In Vegas to party, he didn't attend the Tyson-Seldon fight but had quickly learned about Shakur's scuffle with Anderson. Wallace gathered a handful of thugs and East Coast rap associates to hear what the Crips had to say.
According to people who were present, the Crips envoy explained that the gang was prepared to kill Shakur but expected to collect $1 million for its efforts. Wallace agreed, on one condition, a witness said. He pulled out a loaded .40-caliber Glock pistol and placed it on the table in front of him.
He didn't just want Shakur dead. He wanted the satisfaction of knowing the fatal bullet came from his gun.
On the Strip
It was a gangsta rap parade. Fans waved. Women flirted and asked for autographs. Photographers snapped pictures.
Knight was leading a caravan of at least five Death Row cars heading toward Club 662. Shakur and Knight turned heads as the convoy proceeded slowly north on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Around 11 p.m., police stopped Knight for cranking the black BMW's stereo too loud and not properly displaying its license plates. Shakur and Knight joked with the officers and talked them out of issuing a ticket. Then the BMW turned right on Flamingo Road and headed east toward the club.
Moments earlier, Anderson and three other Crips took an elevator down to the Treasure Island lobby. They walked out into the valet parking area.
Hovering under the hotel's skull-and-crossbones logo, the four Crips waited silently as the valet brought out a 1996 white Cadillac and opened the doors. They piled in and eased the sleek new sedan into traffic. A fifth Crip in an old yellow Cadillac met them at the curb and followed close behind. He rode solo, with an AK-47 assault rifle lying across the front seat.
The traffic in front of Treasure Island was bumper to bumper. Cars honked. Billboards flashed. Neon-lighted fountains trickled nearby.
The driver of the white Cadillac lighted a cigarette. Behind him sat Anderson. The Crip in the front passenger seat handed Anderson the loaded Glock from Notorious B.I.G. The four men discussed staking out the club where Shakur would perform.
After waiting at a stoplight between Caesars Palace and the Barbary Coast hotel, the Cadillacs turned onto Flamingo and headed east toward Club 662.
As they passed the Bally's hotel on the right, the driver saw a caravan of luxury cars ahead on the left. The vehicles, packed with Mob Piru Bloods and Death Row employees, were stopped at a red light across from the Maxim Hotel. The crosswalk was filled with tourists.
Leading the convoy was Knight's black BMW. Shakur was in the passenger seat. They were alone in the car, unarmed.
The Crips couldn't believe their luck. They decided to chuck their plan and strike immediately.
The Cadillac raced up on the convoy and pulled up beside the BMW. Shakur didn't notice. He was flirting with a carful of women in a lane to his left.
"I saw four black men roll by in a white Cadillac," said Atlanta rapper E.D.I. Mean, who was in the vehicle directly behind Shakur's. "I saw a gun come from the back seat out through the driver's front window."
Bullets flew, shattering the windows of the BMW. Shakur tried to duck into the rear of the car for cover, but four rounds hit him, shredding his chest. Blood was everywhere.
"We heard shots and looked to the right of us," Knight said. "Tupac was trying to get in the back seat, and I grabbed him and pulled him down. The gunshots kept coming. One hit my head."
In the chaos, neither Knight nor Mean could make out who had fired. The driver of the yellow Cadillac just behind the assailants never got a chance to fire his AK-47.
"It all happened so quick. It took three or four seconds at most," Mean said.
Then the white Cadillac screeched around the corner. A bodyguard near the back of the Death Row caravan fired at the fleeing sedan. In a ruse designed to confuse Shakur's entourage, the Crip in the yellow Cadillac chased the white Cadillac around the corner, as if in hostile pursuit.
Knight made a U-turn, his bullet-riddled BMW squealing around the concrete median. The Death Row convoy followed him back to the Strip, where he rammed his car onto a curb.
Las Vegas police were soon on the scene. After summoning an ambulance for Shakur, they ordered everyone else in the Death Row convoy out of their cars at gunpoint. The police forced Knight, who was bleeding from a head wound, to lie face down on the pavement.
By the time the detectives figured out that Knight and his caravan were victims, not suspects, the Crips had returned to their hotel rooms and gathered their belongings.
Staggering their departures to avoid attracting attention, Anderson and his fellow gang members hit the highway, each in a different car. Two younger gang members drove the white Cadillac back across the desert.
Interstate 15 moves fast at night.
It was still dark when the Crips disappeared over the California border.
Surgeons at University Medical Center in Las Vegas removed Shakur's right lung in an attempt to stop the internal bleeding. When his condition deteriorated, they put him on a ventilator. He died six days after the shooting, with his mother at his side.
Wallace returned to New York, where he recorded a CD called "Life After Death," which has veiled references to the shooting in several songs. According to the Crips, Wallace paid the gang $50,000 of the promised $1 million through an intermediary a week after Shakur died.
In March 1997, Wallace discussed his feud with Shakur during an interview with a San Francisco radio station. Asked whether he had a role in the rapper's death, Wallace said he "wasn't that powerful yet."
Three days later, Wallace was in Los Angeles for the Soul Train Music Awards and an after-party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He was gunned down as he sat in his Chevrolet Blazer at a traffic light on Wilshire Boulevard. No one has ever been charged in the killing.
Two days after Shakur was shot, gang warfare erupted in Compton as the Bloods sought revenge on the Crips. A rash of drive-by shootings left three people dead and 12 injured, including a 10-year-old girl. Informants told police that Anderson had been seen brandishing a Glock pistol.
Las Vegas police interviewed Anderson once. They said they could not build a case against him as Shakur's killer because witnesses in the rapper's entourage refused to cooperate with them.
Anderson said he had nothing to do with Shakur's death. "If they have all this evidence against me, then why haven't they arrested me?" he said a year after the shooting. "It's obvious that I'm innocent."
Anderson was shot dead May 29, 1998, at a Compton carwash in a dispute police say was unrelated to Shakur's slaying.
The three other Crips who were in the white Cadillac that night in Las Vegas still live in Compton. None of them has ever been questioned by police about the crime.
Coming Saturday: Why the police investigation foundered.