How Vegas Police Probe Foundered
LAS VEGAS--Six years ago today, rap and film star Tupac Shakur was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting on a crowded street a block from the Las Vegas Strip.
Despite the public setting and the victim’s notoriety, no one has ever been arrested for the killing. Shakur’s family, many of his followers and some black entertainers cite the case as evidence of a double standard in the justice system. Had a white celebrity been gunned down in the open, they contend, police would have found those responsible without delay.
Las Vegas police say their investigation stalled not for lack of effort, but because witnesses in Shakur’s entourage refused to cooperate.
That, however, is only part of the explanation. A Times review found that police committed a string of costly missteps:
* They discounted an incident, hours before the shooting, in which Shakur took part in the beating of a gang member in a Las Vegas hotel lobby.
* They failed to follow up with a member of Shakur’s entourage who witnessed the shooting and told police he might be able to identify one or more of the assailants. The witness was killed several weeks later in an unrelated shooting.
* They did not pursue a lead about a sighting of a rented white Cadillac similar to the car from which the fatal shots were fired at Shakur and in which the assailants escaped.
Las Vegas homicide Sgt. Kevin Manning, who oversaw the investigation, defended his department’s work. He said detectives fielded thousands of phone tips, interviewed hundreds of witnesses and chased numerous leads during a year when the homicide unit was besieged with a record 168 murders.
“Tupac got the same treatment as any other homicide here,” said Manning. “But you know what? We can’t do it alone. We rely on cooperative citizens to step forward and help us solve crimes. And in Tupac’s case, we got no cooperation whatsoever.”
The Times reported Friday that court documents as well as interviews with investigators and gang members, including witnesses to the crime, indicate that Shakur was attacked by the Southside Crips, a Compton gang, to avenge the earlier beating of one of their members. The Times also reported that the man who had been beaten fired the fatal shots.
The following account of how the Las Vegas police investigation went aground is based on the same sources and on interviews with Nevada police, six Los Angeles-area investigators involved in the probe and three independent gang experts.
Gang killings are extremely difficult to solve because there is usually little evidence and few witnesses are willing to talk. Shakur’s associates were particularly unlikely to volunteer information. Like the rapper himself, many had criminal records and a deep-seated hostility toward police. To some extent, the feeling was mutual: Shakur first gained notoriety with lyrics depicting violence against police.
There was a deeper problem: Las Vegas police were slow to grasp that the roots of the killing lay in a feud between rival gangs in Compton, and were slow to act once they did realize it. To identify those responsible, police would have to take their investigation to Compton and develop informants within the gangs.
The Vegas cops were ill-suited to do that. They had little experience with gang investigations or gang culture. The Compton Police Department did have entree to the gang underworld. Its investigators had known many gang members since they were babies. They took their first mug shots. They testified at their trials. They visited them in jail. In return, they often got valuable information.
But Las Vegas police worried that the Compton investigators were too close to the gangs and their rap-industry patrons and might leak information. The Vegas detectives kept their distance from the gang squad, and their investigation quickly hit a dead end.
“How is a cop from Vegas supposed to go out to Compton and get a powerful street gang to cooperate in a murder probe?” asked Jared Lewis, a Modesto police detective who is director of Know Gangs, a group that presents seminars on gang homicides for police agencies nationwide.
“Gang homicide investigations are very complex,” he said. “This was no easy case to solve, by any stretch of the imagination. I can understand why it ended up the way it has.”
Sept. 7, 1996
On the evening of Sept. 7, 1996, Shakur and his record company chief, Marion “Suge” Knight, attended the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon heavyweight boxing match at the MGM Grand Hotel. Also in Las Vegas for the fight were scores of gang members from Los Angeles.
As he was leaving the hotel after the fight, Shakur attacked a man in the MGM lobby. Shakur’s bodyguards and Knight joined in the beating. The victim was Orlando Anderson, 21, a member of the Southside Crips. Shakur and Knight were affiliated with a rival Compton gang, the Mob Piru Bloods. Shakur’s bodyguards were members of the Bloods.
The Bloods had been spoiling for revenge against Anderson because he had beaten one of their members at a Lakewood shopping mall several weeks earlier.
Now, the attack on Anderson became the basis for another act of retaliation--this time against Shakur. The rap star was shot 2 1/2 hours later as he and Knight waited at a red light on a street teeming with tourists and other onlookers. The shots were fired from a white Cadillac carrying four Crips. Shakur suffered massive chest wounds and died a week later.
Immediately after the shooting, the assailants returned to Compton, where they bragged to their friends and girlfriends. The Compton gang unit was soon deluged with tips implicating the Crips and “Baby Lane,” Anderson’s gang nickname. Informants reported that Anderson had been seen brandishing a Glock semiautomatic pistol, the kind of weapon used to kill Shakur. Investigators passed this information on to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas police had heard about the beating in the MGM Grand lobby and reviewed a security videotape of it. But they did not know who Anderson was or why the incident mattered. Manning, the homicide commander, issued a statement at the time saying, “Investigators have no reason ... to believe that the altercation has any connection to the shooting.”
A week after the shooting, Compton gang investigators reviewed the videotape at the request of Las Vegas police. They identified the beating victim as Anderson, explained his gang affiliation and said the bodyguards seen flailing at him were Bloods.
“We told Vegas right then we thought the Southside Crips were responsible for the murder and that Orlando was the shooter,” said Bobby Ladd, then a homicide investigator with the Compton gang unit and now a Garden Grove police officer.
Las Vegas police stuck to their position that the beating was irrelevant. Manning told an interviewer, “It appears to be just an individual who was walking through the MGM and got into an argument with Tupac.... He probably didn’t even know it was Tupac Shakur.”
Having ruled Anderson out as a suspect, Las Vegas police did not try to track him down for questioning or show his photograph to members of Shakur’s entourage, a dozen of whom remained in Las Vegas for a week after the shooting while the rapper fought for his life in a local hospital.
Police also failed to retrieve additional security video that might have captured Anderson’s movements after he was beaten. Security cameras are pervasive in Las Vegas, sweeping hotel lobbies, hallways, parking areas and other public places around the clock.
Crips gang members say Anderson and his accomplices passed in front of video cameras as they gathered at the Treasure Island and MGM Grand hotels to plot the killing and, later that night, when they picked up the white Cadillac in the valet parking circle outside Treasure Island.
Because casinos routinely tape over surveillance footage every seven days, the potential evidence was lost.
“Overlooking the gang fight at the MGM was a mistake,” said Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Assn. A retired gang intelligence sergeant for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Operation Safe Streets division, McBride runs a gang training program for police academies.
“In gang culture, that fight was a killing offense,” he said. “If you embarrass a gang member in public, they will retaliate with a vengeance.”
Lou Savelli, a New York gang-unit sergeant and vice president of the East Coast Gang Investigators Assn., concurred.
“If a drive-by shooting happened in New York and we found out that there was a gang beating three hours earlier involving the murder victim, I guarantee that would be my No. 1 lead,” he said.
Manning now says Las Vegas police may have misjudged the significance of the fight in the MGM lobby. In a recent interview, he said police discounted Anderson as a suspect based on information that he had been detained by hotel security long enough that he would not have had time to arm himself and organize the Crips’ ambush of Shakur several hours later.
Manning said that information had proved incorrect. He declined to elaborate.
Working With Gang Members
Investigators say it takes special effort to develop a rapport with gang members. Because gang culture places a premium on respect, gang detectives will treat thugs and their families with great courtesy, even deference. In return, they sometimes provide confidential information that helps solve crimes.
That did not happen in the Shakur case.
From their first moments on the scene, Las Vegas police unintentionally alienated the witnesses most likely to be able to identify the rapper’s assailants. After summoning an ambulance for Shakur, police ordered Knight, bleeding from a head wound, and other members of Shakur’s entourage out of their cars at gunpoint.
“The police shoved guns in our faces and threatened us,” said rapper E.D.I. Mean, who was in the car directly behind Shakur’s. “They made us lie face down in the middle of the street. Even after they realized we were telling the truth, they never apologized.”
Las Vegas police say they had no way of knowing at first whether Knight and the others were victims or suspects. After establishing that they were the former, patrol officers had them sit along a curb until homicide detectives arrived. That took nearly two hours.
Then Manning and his men ushered the witnesses one by one into squad cars and took their statements.
They were, Manning said, “extremely uncooperative.” Knight, founder of Death Row Records in Los Angeles, summed up relations between the witnesses and the police during an interview with ABC-TV’s “PrimeTime Live” two months later. Knight said that even if he knew who killed Shakur, he would not tell Las Vegas authorities.
“It’s not my job,” he said. “I don’t get paid to solve homicides. I don’t get paid to tell on people.”
Las Vegas detectives were disgusted. “It’s the typical gang mentality,” Manning said. “Their best friend got shot and nobody saw nothing. The way I see it, if somebody tells me they don’t want to talk, what’s the point of calling them back over and over again? In this country, citizens have rights.”
There was, however, one witness willing to help: a 19-year-old rapper named Yafeu “Kadafi” Fula. He had spent part of his childhood in the same households as Shakur and was particularly close to him. Fula, who was with Mean in the car behind Shakur’s that night, told police he might be able to identify one or more of the assailants.
Fula was among the dozen or so members of Shakur’s circle who remained in Las Vegas after the shooting, keeping vigil at University Medical Center, where Shakur was on life support. During that week, detectives made no attempt to follow up with Fula.
His only contact with police was confrontational. On Sept. 9, two nights after the shooting, patrol officers stopped a motorist outside the hospital. Fula and some other Shakur associates who knew the man protested and got into a scuffle with police. Fula was handcuffed and searched but not charged.
After Shakur’s death on Sept. 13, Fula left Las Vegas, traveling to Atlanta and Los Angeles and then New Jersey, where his relatives lived.
Compton investigators, meanwhile, had assembled mug shots of a handful of gang members, including Anderson. They hand-delivered the photos to Las Vegas.
Manning said detectives called Fula’s lawyer to set up a meeting with the teenage rapper so they could show him the pictures. Manning said the calls were not returned.
Police did not try to locate Fula on their own. By Nov. 10, it was too late. Fula was gunned down in a housing project in Irvington, N.J.
Potential Witnesses Dismissed
Early on the morning of Oct. 2, 1996, Compton police, FBI agents and members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department swept through Compton, arresting nearly two dozen gang members and seizing weapons and ammunition. Their aim was to stifle a gang war that had erupted after the shooting of Shakur.
Orlando Anderson was among those sitting in the Compton police lockup. He had been picked up on a warrant stemming from a gang killing six months earlier. The other gang members were being held on drug, weapon and other charges. Compton police believed that some of them were involved in Shakur’s slaying or knew something about it.
Two Las Vegas detectives took part in the roundup at the invitation of Compton police. One of them questioned Anderson for about 20 minutes.
The visiting detectives brushed aside a suggestion that they question the other gang members. This stunned the Compton cops and sheriff’s deputies, who thought the obvious thing to do was to use the threat of prosecution to try to extract information about Shakur’s killing.
“We had a bunch of gang members in custody who knew exactly what happened with Shakur--some who we believed were in the Cadillac,” said Ladd, the former Compton investigator. “Las Vegas expressed no interest whatsoever in talking to any of them. They barely even interviewed Orlando.”
Anderson was released two days later; prosecutors had declined to file charges against him for the gang killing. Las Vegas investigators never spoke to him again. He was killed May 29, 1998, in a drug-related shooting at a Compton carwash.
Savelli, the New York gang investigator, said the arrests in Compton were a missed opportunity.
“The success rate on these kinds of homicides hinges completely on having informants inside of the gang,” he said. “You lean on gang members with rap sheets for information about the crime. If you don’t get the information the first time, you go back. You get in their face. Two. Three. Four times. Eventually they talk. But relentless follow-up is essential.”
Manning said his detectives, operating outside their home state, lacked authority to interrogate the Compton gang members--that morning or later. Los Angeles authorities took issue with that assertion. They said that once local police invited the detectives to question the suspects, there was no legal reason for them not to do so.
Manning also said his detectives asked Los Angeles County sheriff’s officers to question gang members on their behalf. Sheriff’s investigators said they were not asked to interrogate the suspects about Shakur’s killing. Rather, they said, the Las Vegas detectives asked them to pass on anything they learned about the case while questioning the gang members on the local charges.
Manning said he had no regrets about how his officers handled the situation.
“You can’t just go in and push everybody aside and say, ‘OK, we’re taking over,’ ” he said. “Even if we did, do you think these guys are going to talk to us simply because we walk up and ask them to? Do you think we scared them so bad they would just puke their guts out and admit to everything?”
The White Cadillac
Two days after the shooting of Shakur, two Crips were seen in Compton driving a white 1996 Cadillac bearing a rental sticker. An informant told the local gang unit that the Crips had visited a car stereo shop whose owner also did bodywork. In Las Vegas, one of Shakur’s bodyguards had gotten off a shot at the white Cadillac as it fled. The word on the street in Compton was that the Crips brought the car to the stereo shop to have the damage repaired.
Compton police relayed this information to Las Vegas investigators, who added it to their file.
The Compton gang investigators then canvassed every rental agency in the area to determine whether any had rented a white Cadillac that had been driven to Las Vegas around the time Shakur was shot. They found that a Carson agency had rented such a car to a man with possible ties to the gang underground. They took a photograph of the car and detailed their findings in a report.
Compton investigators say they gave this additional information to Las Vegas police.
Manning said his detectives never received it.
“We thought there was a possibility that we had located the Cadillac used in the crime,” said retired Compton Sgt. Robert Baker. “It was a solid lead that should have been pursued.”
Concerned About Corruption
Investigators say it was understandable that Las Vegas police would have concerns about cooperating closely with their Compton counterparts. Compton had a history of political corruption, and some Police Department figures had been alleged to have gang ties.
In 2000, after years of feuding with the police brass, Compton Mayor Omar Bradley and City Council members disbanded the department and contracted with Los Angeles County to provide police services. But at the time of Shakur’s shooting, the gang squad was regarded as one of the finest in Southern California.
People familiar with the investigation say Las Vegas police were concerned that city officials were too cozy with Suge Knight, who grew up in Compton, contributed money to Bradley’s political campaigns and knew members of the police force. Knight’s security chief, Reginald Wright Jr., is a former Compton police officer whose father ran the gang unit.
Knight’s name had figured in some of the speculation about Shakur’s death. One theory was that Knight arranged the rapper’s killing so he could exploit his martyrdom commercially. Las Vegas detectives worried that Wright’s father and other officers might protect Knight or pass information to him. Knight’s refusal to cooperate with them sharpened the Nevada detectives’ suspicions.
To ease those concerns, Hourie Taylor, then Compton chief of police, removed the elder Wright from the Shakur investigation and replaced him with Baker. Nevertheless, Las Vegas investigators continued to keep their distance.
“The investigators with the best inside information about the Southside Crips worked in the Compton gang unit,” said McBride, the former Sheriff’s Department gang investigator.
“They were good investigators. But even if Las Vegas didn’t trust them, what did it hurt to listen? It’s not like Vegas had to give up anything. In my mind, if you aren’t even close to solving the case, what do you have to lose?”
Though the investigation into Shakur’s slaying has been dormant for years, some former Compton officers refuse to give up hope of catching some of those involved.
“I believe Tupac’s murder could have been solved--and it still could be,” said Tim Brennan, a Compton gang investigator now with the Sheriff’s Department. “All the clues are right there. What the investigation lacked was input from detectives who understood the gangs involved and how they operate and who all the players are. I believe justice could still be served.”