The Consortium

Tupac & the Cops: Tale of Death & Distrust

By Joel Domhoff, Scott Menscher & Joe Stevens

NEW YORK -- Shortly before midnight on Nov. 30, 1994, rap star Tupac Shakur and three members of his entourage pulled up in a car along glitzy Times Square in the heart of Manhattan. Fresh from a party in Harlem, Shakur fit the image of the glamorized "gangsta rapper" depicted in his songs and movies.

Around his neck hung several gold necklaces. On one finger was a diamond ring. A gold-studded Rolex watch adorned his wrist. At the base of his 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound muscular frame, hidden beneath the leg of his pants, was a pistol.

Shakur had gone to Times Square to record a song with rapper Little Shawn at Quad Studios. Shakur had a reputation for recording with other artists for free. But that night, short of cash, he agreed to help only after a man called Booker offered the rap star $7,000.

As Shakur stepped to the curb, Times Square's colorful whirl of lights whipped around him. Taxis honked. Voices shouted. His entourage opened the doors to the lobby and strode toward the elevators. Suddenly, three black men approached from behind and ordered Shakur's group to lie on the floor. One of Shakur's associates, "Stretch" Walker, flopped immediately. Shakur hesitated and shots rang out.

In a flash, Shakur lay groaning, his body riddled with bullets: two in the head, two in his groin and one in his hand. Shakur reached for his gun but didn't fire. According to newspaper accounts and interviews with Shakur, the attackers then stripped Shakur of his jewelry and made off with an estimated $40,000 in loot. Shakur, who recovered, called the shooting an ambush with him the target.

But the New York Police Department brushed off the shooting as a simple robbery. After a month of lackadaisical investigation with little cooperation from the victims, the police closed the case. There were no arrests and no serious leads ever pursued.

Less than two years later, on the night of Sept. 7, 1996, Tupac Shakur was the target of another ambush, this time along the Las Vegas strip. He and Marion "Suge" Knight, the controversial owner of Death Row records, were driving from a Mike Tyson heavyweight fight to a nightclub when a car pulled alongside and gunmen opened fire. This time, the popular singer and aspiring actor did not recover.

After six days in a coma, Tupac Amaru Shakur, the son of a female Black Panther who named her child after a legendary Inca warrior, died. He was 25 years old.

In the months following Shakur's murder, a new legend began to rise around the handsome rap star. His kerchief-covered head dominated the covers of magazines popular with black youth. His last album -- released posthumously under the pseudonym, Makaveli -- jumped to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in its first week. His last movie role in "Gridlock'd" drew strong reviews for his portrayal of a hapless junkie. "The List" -- The Washington Post's snobbish ranking of who's "in" and who's "out" for 1997 -- put Shakur in the "in" column, opposite the late grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, who fell among the "outs."

But Shakur was not just another pop star who died tragically and young. His fans saw him as a ghetto-born genius whose life and death symbolized the harsh reality of race in today's America.

Cops & Rappers

A three-month investigation by The Consortium also discovered that police nonchalance toward internal gangsta rap violence -- and antagonisms between police and rappers -- contributed to the circumstances surrounding Shakur's death. The New York Police Department appears to have made only a half-hearted attempt to catch the Times Square assailants, despite the fact that an internationally known celebrity had been gunned down in the center of Manhattan.

Police did little to locate and interview independent witnesses. Police also displayed little interest in possible motives for an attempted murder of Shakur. When questioned about the case two years later, NYPD detectives were ill-informed, even about basic details of the 1994 shooting. On police reports, the NYPD listed the stolen items as "assorted bracelets or rings with no value," in contrast to press accounts placing the jewelry's worth at $40,000. Police were not even sure how many times Shakur was shot or how many gunmen there were.

Months after the shooting, as new details appeared in pop music magazines, including Shakur's speculation about who was responsible, NYPD took no steps to reopen the case. In one Vibe interview, Shakur expressed amazement that Craig McKernan, a police detective who had testified against Shakur in a then-ongoing sex-crime case, was one of the first officers on the scene.

"First cop I looked up to see was the cop that took the stand against me in the rape charge," Shakur said. "He had a half-smile on his face, and he could see them looking at my balls. He said, 'What's up, Tupac, how's it hanging'."

The Las Vegas investigation of Shakur's 1996 murder has followed similar patterns, with police always moving a step too slow to take advantage of possible breaks in the case. For instance, Las Vegas police had wanted to interview rapper Yafeu Fula, who was in a car behind the one carrying Shakur when he was shot. Fula saw the killers and offered to help the police identify the gunmen.

Over the next six weeks, Las Vegas police tried to negotiate with lawyers for Death Row records to arrange a time and place for a full interview with Fula. But Fula stood the police up a half dozen times. Yet, instead of taking aggressive action to bring Fula in, the police continued using Death Row lawyers as intermediaries -- despite suspicions that Death Row and its alleged ties to organized crime might have been a factor in Shakur's murder.

In November 1996, after another Mike Tyson fight, this time in New Jersey, Fula was shot and killed. The police had lost their best potential witness. "We're at a standstill," Las Vegas police Sgt. Kevin Manning told The Consortium. "Our last good hope was killed in New Jersey. He [Fula] was our number one witness."

'Open Season'?

Given this bumbling behavior, some of Shakur's friends blame the police of creating something like an "open season" on Shakur. Shakur's lawyer, Michael Warren, said Shakur himself saw the police reaction to the 1994 shooting in Times Square as "a real conspiracy" against him or at least an invitation to other assassination attempts.

For its part, NYPD denied any prejudice. Police insisted that they treated the Shakur-Times Square shooting as a "high-priority" case, throwing significant manpower at the case for the first two weeks. Their professionalism was not affected, they said, by Shakur's reputation as a "gangsta rapper" who sang on one of his albums, "fuck the coppers." The NYPD blamed the dead-end investigation on the failure of Shakur and his friends to cooperate.

"Any detective is basically only as good as the complainants," explained NYPD robbery detective Joseph Babnik, who was in charge of the case. "Besides the initial statement Tupac gave us in the bus [police slang for ambulance], we had nothing." As Shakur was being rushed to the hospital, he managed to describe the clothes worn by the assailants, but he did not give names or other details. Distrustful of police, Shakur and his friends volunteered little more. "I did the best I could, considering the circumstances," insisted detective Babnik.

Still, the police did little to investigate the growing violence that was enveloping the world of rap -- and closing in on the talented rapper, Tupac Shakur. The unspoken police attitude seemed to be that it wasn't so bad if these troublemakers took care of each other.

That cynical view -- and black-youth distrust of the police -- were two factors that led a frightened, fatalistic Shakur to conclude in chilling lyrics that his days were numbered. In one of his last music videos, he posed in heaven surrounded by dead black musicians. He expected a violent end, almost from the beginning.

Shining Serpent

Tupac Amaru Shakur was born on June 16, 1971, named after the words "shining serpent" in the Inca language. Tupac Amaru also was the name of an Inca leader who was murdered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 18th Century, a legendary figure who inspires Peruvian revolutionaries to this day. The guerrillas who stormed the Japanese Embassy in Lima on Dec. 17, 1996, called themselves the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

The choice of her son's name was a political statement, too, by Shakur's mother, Afeni, a former Black Panther once jailed -- and later acquitted -- for conspiring to blow up several buildings in New York City. Afeni had two different lovers when she became pregnant with Shakur and insisted that she didn't know who was the father. During her pregnancy, Afeni spent time in prison on the conspiracy charge. But she held extraordinary hope for her unborn son. "This is my prince," she told friends. "He is going to save the black nation."

After winning acquittal on the bombing charges -- acting as her own attorney -- Afeni continued her struggle for social justice, as a paralegal representing tenants in rental cases. According to a Vanity Fair profile of Shakur, his mother would punish her bright young son by forcing him to read The New York Times front to back. She also enrolled him in a Harlem theater group where he excelled as a 13-year-old actor in A Raisin in the Sun.

But poverty dogged the family. After Afeni gave birth to a second child (a girl) and after the imprisonment of Shakur's step-father, Mutulu Shakur, for a armored-car robbery, the family landed in a homeless shelter in the Bronx.

In 1986, hoping to find work, Afeni moved the family to Baltimore. She placed Shakur in the Baltimore School for the Arts where he showed a natural talent in ballet and acting. But two years later, the family moved again. "Leaving that school affected me so much," Shakur later told Vibe. "I see that as the point where I got off track."

The family settled in Marin City, California, a poverty-stricken neighborhood near Oakland. There, the troubles only worsened. Afeni drifted into a crack addiction and lost hope. At 17, Tupac moved out of the house and soon was hustling drugs. By then, a near-decade of Reaganomics had alienated many urban black youths. Their fury began pouring out in nihilistic rap lyrics.

In 1988, rapper Ice-T released "Cop Killer," a heavy-metal song about a young black man repeatedly pulled over and beaten by police until his anger drove him to murder the next police officer who stopped him. President George Bush denounced the song as "sick." Soon, this new rap genre had its own name: "gangsta rap." And it was raking in millions of dollars.

Life Imitating Art

The gangsta rap genre and its money appealed to Shakur as the strong-headed youngster honed his skills as a dancer and rapper. "He was a little bit crazy, a little bit crazier than the rest of us," said childhood friend Danyel Smith. "But he had a way about him."

In 1990, Shakur hooked up with Digital Underground, a modestly successful hip-hop music group. But his career took off a year later, when he signed with Interscope Records and released his first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now. Shakur used violent and often graphic language to describe the frustrations of life in the ghetto. But the album was a commercial hit, generating more than $100 million in record sales. It won an audience among many young whites and garnered a Grammy nomination for the single, "Dear Moma," a touching tribute to his crack-addicted mother.

Shakur's good looks and charisma brought him opportunities in Hollywood, too. In his first film, Juice, Shakur played a chilling inner-city youth lured by the power of murder. In July 1993, he starred with Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, a John Singleton film about a young black man undergoing a personal transformation. In 1994, in the movie Above The Rim, Shakur was a gangster bullying young playground basketball stars.

But Shakur's real life often imitated his art. In 1992, police departments all over the country were outraged when a 19-year-old shot and killed a Texas state trooper while the teen-ager played Shakur's 2Pacalypse Now album on his tape deck. Vice President Dan Quayle declared that the album "has no place in our society."

Danyel Smith recalled Shakur telling her about a run-in with Oakland police over a jaywalking incident. "You're not fucking with me because I jaywalked," Shakur yelled at the police. "You're pissed with me because I'm with a white girl." The encounter allegedly ended with the police spitting on him, Smith said.

Violence and notoriety had become part of the price for Shakur's riches and fame.

Tupac & the Cops: Part II -- Next Issue

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