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"Now we can focus on the real issues at hand facing America, like, 'Did we really land on the moon?' 'What really happened in Roswell?' And, 'Where are Biggie and Tupac?'" – Barack Obama, speaking at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner
"No, we don't know where 2Pac is." – The drone running the CIA's Twitter
With each year, a new Tupac interview, hologram, or previously unreleased song grabs internet headlines and quickly recedes into oblivion. Most recently, Kendrick Lamar concluded his second full-length album with a cut-and-paste of a 1994 conversation between Tupac and the music journalist Mats Nileskar. The Forrest Gump trick rekindled interest in exactly what happened on that night in September 1996. Who killed Tupac? What was their motive? Why does Suge Knight—who's about to go on trial for murder himself—claim that Tupac is still alive?
A wealth of conspiracy theories have sprung up as rich as the soil surrounding JFK's grassy knoll. Innumerable books, documentaries, and Chappelle's Show skits have attempted to offer clarity, but only made things murkier.
The problem is that law enforcement hasn't seemed all that motivated to crack one of the most infamous murders of the last two decades. After all, Chris Rock said it best: "Tupac was gunned down on the Las Vegas Strip after a Mike Tyson fight. How many witnesses do you need to see some shit before you arrest somebody? More people saw Tupac get shot than the last episode of Seinfeld." Unfortunately, law enforcement never interviewed the one witness who claimed he could identity Tupac's assailant(s), Yafeu Fula a.k.a. Yaki Kadafi of the Outlawz—who was gunned down in New Jersey only two months after Tupac. As for others who might know, they're not talking.
You only need to hear "Hit 'Em Up"—the song that typified his beef with Biggie—to remind you that at the time of his death, Tupac's enemies list was Nixonian. He'd also dissed the rest of Bad Boy as well as Chino XL in "Hit 'Em Up," and clowned Jay Z, Mobb Deep, and Nas in "Bomb First (My Second Reply)." "Against All Odds" found Pac calling Dr. Dre gay, referring to the terrifying New York hustler Haitian Jack as a snitch, and emptying verbal clips against Puffy and Nas (again) just for good measure.
For all the uncertainty, seven rivaling theories continue to persist, some more viable than others. All feature multiple permutations, twists, and reasons for skepticism.
They are as follows:
The "Occam's Razor" Theory: The killer was the late Orlando "Baby Lane" Anderson, the Southside Crip who got stomped out post Tyson fight by Tupac and Death Row in the lobby of the MGM Grand. This is the most obvious solution to a very, very complicated problem.
Over the years, I've had several conversations with rappers who have gang ties traceable to Blood and Crip sets in South Central and Compton. For obvious reasons, none will speak on the record, but most believed that the killing was organized in part by Anderson, who was the primary suspect in Pac's murder before his death in 1998.
In one All Hip-Hop interview from 2013, the legendary DJ Quik pinned the onus of the murder on Travon Lane, a Blood and Death Row affiliate. "Bitch ass, scared ass n—ga got that chain took, then got Tupac in that fight," Quik said, implying that Orlando Anderson or his affiliates had robbed Lane. According to Quik, it was Lane who then spurred Suge and Tupac to stomp out Orlando Anderson on his behalf the night of the fight. Anderson, allegedly, crossed paths with Knight and Tupac later that night on the strip, this time heavily armed. "Travon Lane was a bully, a little instigator," Quik added. "It's always the one that don't do nothin' who bring the whole house of cards down."
But holes exist in that story. Despite the common belief that Anderson and the South Side Crips were behind the slaying, both the Los Angeles and Las Vegas police departments found a lack of material evidence to inasmuch indict Anderson for the crime. And while Anderson was murdered in 1998, police deemed the killing unrelated to the murder of Shakur.
The "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It" Theory: Suge Knight and his attorney David Kenner masterminded a cabal to kill Tupac and therein stop him from leaving Death Row, allowing Knight to profit from his golden goose indefinitely.
"I still think the shooter was who everyone thinks it was: Orlando Anderson," says Randall Sullivan, author of the meticulously reported LAbyrinth, which traces the connections between the disgraced Rampart officers of the LAPD and their potential connection to the death of The Notorious BIG.
"If it wasn't him, it was one of his associates. And the ties between Anderson and Knight still buttress each other. Who else had a motive to kill Tupac other than Suge?"
The ties between Anderson and Knight are largely rooted in speculation about why Anderson switched his story on the witness stand at Suge Knight's parole hearing, as reported in the Guardian. When Las Vegas police initially interrogated him, he claimed that Suge had stomped him out that night at the MGM. But on the stand, Anderson said that, "Suge was the only one I heard saying, 'Stop this shit!'" Rumors later circulated that Anderson had been paid off by Knight to reverse his testimony.
This theory wagers that Suge killed Tupac as revenge for leaving Death Row. And LAbyrinth reveals that it's true that Shakur had fired Death Row attorney David Kenner shortly before his murder, and took steps towards forming his own independent production company, Euphanasia. By stopping him in his prime, Suge theoretically would have stood to capitalize on 'Pac's inevitable posthumous superstardom—which he did.
But despite his Grecian villain's hubris, it still never made sense why Suge would arrange a hit with himself in the car. And ample opportunities existed for him to orchestrate a hit on Tupac—all of them with fewer eyewitnesses than a Tyson fight in Vegas.
"The rebuttal is that [Knight] was in the car when Tupac got shot, but if you look at the police report, the shooter's car pulled up and shot at an angle that could really only hit Tupac," Sullivan continues. "No shot really came close to hitting Suge," who, according to
news stories from when the incident occurred, was only struck by bullet fragments.
The "You're Nobody Till Somebody Kills You" Theory: Biggie, or one of his people, slipped into Vegas on the night of the Tyson-Seldon fight and paid the Crips ("My team in the marine blue" from "Long Kiss Goodnight") to kill Tupac. This is a widely discredited theory propagated in print by former LA Times Reporter Chuck Phillips, who based his theory off of FBI documents that turned out to have been falsified.
The "Feds Watching" Theory: The FBI, hell-bent on eliminating radical black rappers, orchestrated the killing.
I've spoken extensively with John Potash, the author of The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders. While he articulated his points with intelligence and lucidity—that Shakur's mother and Black Panther associates had been heavily monitored by the Feds, Haitian Jack and Jimmy Henchman were allegedly FBI informants who set Tupac up for the fall, the government hated rappers, etc.—it's unlikely that the United States government would have the motive to mount a serious assassination plot against Tupac, let alone keep it under wraps in the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.
"I give the FBI conspiracy theories as much credence as those who believe that Tupac is alive," Sullivan says, dismissing that angle.
The "Murder Rap" Theory: In which Duane "Keffe D" Keith Davis was paid a million dollars by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs to wipe out both Suge Knight and Tupac. Davis also claims his nephew, Orlando Anderson from Theory Number One, was one of the shooters. Detective Greg Kading set forth this hypothesis in his 2011 book, Murder Rap. Death Row's former head of security Reggie Wright Jr. has been vocal in his support of Kading's police work, which hinges on a 2008 taped confessional from Davis. (Combs's representatives did not respond to a request for comment, but in a 2011 e-mail to the LA Weekly, he called the allegations "pure fiction and completely ridiculous.")
The "Island in the Sun" Theory: Tupac is alive and hiding in Cuba, or some other tropical island hideaway—possibly in subterfuge with Elvis. Not only has Suge recently claimed that Tupac was alive, every few years a photo circulates of a Tupac doppelganger hanging out on Bourbon Street. Or at the Warriors-Celtics game. Or appearing in Kendrick Lamar's dreams to explain what the yams stand for. But as amazing as it would be for 'Pac to still be alive, it has been definitively proven that he is indeed deceased—his Outlawz crew even claimed on record that they smoked his ashes.
The seventh one, The Russell Poole Theory, is the one you should be particularly interested in. If you're reading this on your phone (or at one of those standing desks), you may want to sit down. This one also finds its roots in LAbyrinth, and is expanded upon in the recent book Tupac 187: The Red Knight, written by Richard "RJ" Bond and Michael Douglas Carlin, with contributions from Poole himself.
Russell Poole was the decorated LAPD detective who helped unravel the late-90s Rampart Scandal, uncovering widespread police misconduct throughout the LAPD's Community Resource Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit. His work revealed that off-duty LAPD officers handled security for Death Row, many of whom were dirty cops engaged in criminal mayhem.
Related: Radley Balko on the Militarization of America's Police Force
Poole emerges as LAbryinth's inadvertent hero. He's the one who opened up thousands of highly classified files to Sullivan. He's the one who was forced to retire from the LAPD after his superiors did everything in their power to thwart his dogged pursuit of the truth. He comes off like a cross between Captain Ahab, Philip Marlowe, and Matthew McConaughey at the end of True Detective. While some have expressed doubts about his conclusions, few have cast aspersions toward his honesty or integrity. And now he's convinced that he knows who killed Tupac.
According to Poole, his first break in the case came in 2013, when he reached out to Fox-11 KTTV investigative reporter Chris Blatchford, locally famous for his reporting on the Mexican Mafia. Blatchford alerted him to a never-pursued clue that he'd had since 1998: a confession that purported to be from one of Tupac's alleged killers, Malcolm Patton.
Allegedly, Patton dictated the note to the sister of Robert Soria, one of Blatchford's long-time contacts, who then slipped it to the reporter. In the letter, Patton claimed that he, along with his brother Danny and Donald Smith (more on Smith later), had carried out the hit on Tupac, and that Reggie Wright, Jr.—then head of Death Row security—had supplied information as to his and Suge Knight's whereabouts. The letter goes on to claim that the weapon used in the killing would be dropped off at the security booth of Fox 11. (A Fox 11 representative told VICE over the phone that the weapon was never dropped off.)
"He wasn't really sitting on the clue," Poole tells me over the phone, in his first interview since last December's release of the little-read Tupac 187: The Red Knight. "[Blatchford] had given it to the Las Vegas Police Department in 1998, but they basically shined him off." It's important to remember that since the letter was supposedly dictated by Patton to Soria's sister, it's entirely possible that Soria and his sister made the whole thing up. To that end, VICE attempted to get in contact with Patton. A Lexis Nexis search for a Malcolm Patton with a brother named Daniel offered two potential phone numbers. Both were disconnected.
According to the alleged shooter's confession letter, which can be read in The Red Knight (you can find the first page in this press release), the shooting in Las Vegas was an intended regicide of Suge Knight and Shakur.
Poole has become convinced that the chief conspirators were Sharitha Knight and Reggie Wright Jr., head of Death Row Security. With Knight embroiled in a divorce from her husband Suge, Poole believes that Sharitha and Wright Jr. cooked up the murder plot to assume control of Death Row—a scheme somewhere between MacBeth, Hamlet, and Hype Williams' 1998 feature film debut, Belly.
"Suge wasn't divorced yet and if he died in that hit, she'd get most of everything," Poole said. "So she went to Wright Jr., who was in charge of Death Row and ran it while Suge was in prison," he theorized.
"[Wright Jr.] has gotten away with it this whole time," Poole continues. "They floated a whole lot of propaganda to former LA Times reporter Chuck Phillips—calling in hundreds if not thousands of fake clues." It's worth emphasizing that this is all conjecture on Poole's part.
From here, the Poole theory gets increasingly byzantine and bizarre. According to Poole and the letter, the three shooters were the brothers Malcolm and Danny Patton, and a Long Beach Crip named Donald Smith. You may know Smith better by his rap name, Lil ½ Dead—a Death Row affiliate who released a pair of albums in the mid-90s. He's also indirectly famous for allegedly putting his dick on an unnamed woman's head in Dr. Dre's "Fuck You" (as narrated by Smith's cousin, Snoop Dogg).
The Poole theory holds that Lil ½ Dead possessed his own motive to kill Shakur. According to the story, the teenaged Lil ½ Dead first met 20-year-old Tupac in 1991, when the latter was recording his debut, 2Pacalypse Now. ½ Dead supposedly passed on his demo to the rising star and never heard from him again. According to the confession, Lil ½ Dead's demo allegedly contained "Brenda's Got a Baby," which Tupac ostensibly stole and turned into his first hit single.
Whether or not you believe this to be true, it's easily a Top Five contender for most engrossing murder conspiracy ever—up there with the Magic Bullet that supposedly killed JFK and Cleopatra being taken out by poison (rather than committing suicide via the bite of an asp).
If this theory belonged to anyone but Poole, it would be immediately dismissed for being overly fantastical. And there are certainly reasons to be skeptical. For one, none of the principals in the case ever received fatal retribution—street justice in place of legal justice, if you will. Secondly, it's almost inconceivable that Lil ½ Dead ever wrote a song as good as "Brenda's Got a Baby," let alone had it ripped off by Tupac. (Through an intermediary, Lil ½ Dead declined to be interviewed for this story.) But Poole's reputation is enough to warrant some legitimate consideration to his theory.
"Poole's a tremendously accurate detective," says Perry Sanders, the attorney who represented the family of Christopher Wallace (aka the Notorious BIG) in the wrongful death suit filed against the city of Los Angeles. "Of course, he got yanked off the Biggie case, but the detective work he did was really solid, intuitive, smart, and fact-driven."
"Do I agree with 100 percent of his conclusions? No," Sanders continued. "But he did good work without an agenda. Everything else I've seen since then from other people on the case has had an agenda or bad motives."
Wright Jr., for one, has claimed Poole's allegations are false. In a 2014 interview with the LA Weekly's Jake Paine, Wright Jr. (who didn't respond to emails to speak for this story) had this to say when asked about Poole's claims that he had something to do with the murder of Tupac (or Biggie, for that matter): "Neither one is true. The Biggie thing doesn't bother me, but when you have [allegations] over somebody who you would consider a friend, it hurts." The son of a Compton police lieutenant described himself as a regular married churchgoer, a Deacon, "Just trying to live my normal life and pay my bills. No more going to the club."
In that same article, Wright Jr. voiced his support for Detective Kading's theories. However, he's never convincingly accounted for the decision, as reported in LAbyrinth, to tell Death Row security not to carry weapons on that blood-soaked night in Las Vegas. Even if, as LAbyrinth reports, Suge's lawyers had advised against Pac's security carrying weapons in Vegas due to a lack of permits, it's almost unfathomable that the head of security for the most infamous rap crew in history would order everyone to go unarmed right after stomping out a Crip in the middle of the MGM Grand—unless something more sinister were afoot. After all, LAbyrinth reports that the entire Death Row crew made a pit stop at Suge's house after the MGM Grand incident before heading to the 662 Club (Pac was shot on the way there), giving them a theoretical opportunity to arm themselves.
What's clear is that as we're coming up on the 20th Anniversary of Shakur's death, a conviction for the murder is next to impossible. And the quest for clarity and closure seems ever more elusive. Outside of the victims' families, most parties have given up their quest to find the true killer. And the police never seemed much interested in the first place.
In recent months, Poole has launched a campaign to get the LAPD to re-open the case. His monomaniacal zeal is inspiring. Whether he's right or wrong, he refuses to stop until he has a final answer. And with fewer and fewer parties invested in the case, he perhaps represents the best hope of getting that answer. "If this was Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra who got murdered, there would've been arrests a long time ago," Poole says. "This case can be solved, but needs police follow-up. There are clues sitting right in front of the police. It's a travesty of justice."
Jeff Weiss is the co-author of 2Pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Hip-Hop's Greatest Rivalry. He's on Twitter.