Tupac & the Cops: Death & Distrust, Part II
By Joel Domhoff, Scott Menscher & Joe Stevens
NEW YORK -- By 1992, the career of 20-year-old rapper Tupac Shakur was zooming upward into the stratosphere of entertainment mega-deals and stardom. But Shakur's personal life was spinning out of control.
"He was never one to back down," recalled childhood friend Danyel Smith. "Even with people he should be afraid of. And he's stupid, because he should have done so. He didn't have that conversation with himself, at least in terms of back off."
"He wasn't anyone different than a lot of clients of his age," observed Shakur's lawyer Michael Warren. "He had his own problems, which were unique to his earlier childhood experiences."
Shakur's childhood as the son of a single mother who first battled the System as a Black Panther activist -- and who later battled poverty and a crack addiction gave Shakur a politicized viewpoint hardened by a life on the lower rungs of American society. He saw the police as his enemy, but knew, too, that he had other enemies in the ghetto.
The violence all around him was brought home by his appearance at a Marin City, Ca., community festival in August 1992. Shakur was back in the poverty-stricken neighborhood where he had spent his teen-age years. Typically, he was flaunting his new-found wealth by arriving at the wheel of a sparkling Jeep.
But Shakur was surprised by the hostility of some of the young blacks who confronted him with unwelcome shouts. Then, they began battering his car and throwing punches at him. A gun slipped out of Shakur's belt and skittered across the road. Someone picked it up and a bullet discharged. It hit six-year-old Qa'id Walker Teal in the head and killed him. According to friends, Shakur was inconsolable about the boy's death, which he memorialized in one of his rap songs, Something 2 Die 4.
Despite his grief, Shakur continued to court trouble. In March 1993, he scuffled with a Hollywood limo driver who accused Shakur of doing drugs in the car. Shakur was arrested, but the charges were dropped. A month later, Shakur was arrested in another incident, for swinging a baseball bat at a local rapper during a concert. This time, Shakur went to jail for 10 days.
In October 1993, Shakur found himself in another shooting incident with two off-duty Atlanta police officers after they stopped and accosted Shakur's entourage. But a hearing found the officers primarily at fault and one of them was charged with aggravated assault. No charges were filed against Shakur.
Less than three weeks after that confrontation, Shakur met a woman in a New York City dance club and had sex with her off the dance floor. Later, she visited Shakur's suite, where she was set upon by several of Shakur's friends. Shakur said he was making phone calls in an adjoining room at the time. But the woman filed rape charges and included Shakur in her complaint.
As Shakur's troubles deepened, the movie studios grew nervous over the adverse publicity. Columbia Pictures forced director John Singleton to drop Shakur from the cast of "Higher Learning." Shakur was also expelled from the set of "Menace II Society," leading him to punch director Allen Hughes. Shakur landed in jail again, for 15 days.
In February 1994 at a music awards show, Shakur made more enemies when he and Death Row records owner Marion "Suge" Knight scuffled with Sean "Puffy" Combs, chief executive officer of Bad Boy Entertainment, and rapper Notorious B.I.G. In one song, Shakur had boasted about sleeping with B.I.G.'s wife. Shakur seemed on the way to becoming the real-life "gangsta" that his music glorified.
On Nov. 30, 1994, Shakur was back in New York City for the sex-abuse trial. Earlier that day, the jury had gotten the case and that night Shakur received an offer to join in a rap recording for $7,000. He needed the money and headed with three friends to Quad Studios in Times Square.
Times Square Mystery
After Shakur and his entourage entered the building's lobby, they were attacked from behind. Shakur was shot five times and robbed. After the attackers fled, Shakur and his friends struggled into the elevator and ascended to the ninth floor. A bloodied Shakur staggered into Quad Studios and was surprised to find rival rappers Combs and B.I.G. there.
Though Shakur was badly wounded, "nobody approached me," Shakur later told Vibe magazine. "I noticed that nobody would look at me. ...Puffy was standing back, too." Because of other odd behavior that night, Shakur also suspected that one of his three companions, "Stretch" Walker, might have betrayed him.
Shakur was convinced that he had been the target of a hit, not a robbery. When an ambulance was rushing him to Bellevue Hospital, he told the attendants, "He wasn't going to rob me, he just wanted to shoot me. I know what I saw, and I saw it in his eyes."
Shakur's lawyer, Michael Warren, told The Consortium that Shakur believed that the conspiracy also might have involved police officers who considered him a black troublemaker. Shakur's suspicions deepened when he discovered that a police detective, Craig McKernan, who had testified against him in the sex-crime case, was at the scene of the shooting. Shakur claimed that McKernan taunted him about the bullet wounds to the groin.
According to Warren, McKernan was in a police car outside the studio before Shakur was shot. McKernan "was the first officer on the scene," Warren said. "The question I have is why he didn't see [the gunmen] leave. He was there before the shooting took place. Sitting there in the squad car. No pursuit to apprehend them. Why?"
Warren advised Shakur not to cooperate with the police. "They have an adversarial relationship with people of color," Warren said. "I urged him not to go."
New York police detective Joseph Babnik, who directed the 1994 investigation, confirmed that McKernan was at the building, but claimed that McKernan arrived after the shooting. Babnik also rejected any suggestion of police negligence or complicity. "I don't care what your religious or political views are or your color," Babnik said. "To me, you're a victim, and I have your case."
But Babnik said lack of cooperation crippled his investigation from the start. "What we did with this case is what we do in any case [in which] we have problems where the complainant doesn't want to speak with us," the detective said. "We do whatever we can. We do the investigation, and we go as far as we can with it without their help. But you always reach that point where you need the complainants' help -- whether it's to view photos, to view line-ups -- because in a case like this, you'd have to do one of those."
Still, NYPD never independently pursued the theory that Shakur might have been lured to Quad Studios as part of a murder plot. According to a review of police records by The Consortium, detectives neglected to pursue any motive other than robbery. At the Midtown North precinct, Babnik did set aside a large black notebook for "Tupac Tips," but only two were volunteered and neither checked out. After a month with no progress, the case was closed.
Meanwhile, a day after the shooting, while he lay in Bellevue receiving treatment for his wounds, Shakur was convicted and sentenced to four-and-a-half years for his part in the sexual assault. While in jail in April 1995, Shakur detailed his account of the shooting for Vibe.
Babnik said he did not see the Vibe story and didn't believe it would have changed much. "Those articles are allowed to deal with allegations," Babnik explained. "I can only deal with fact."
But another development with a possible connection to the Times Square shooting was the execution-style murder of Shakur's suspect companion, "Stretch" Walker in Queens on Nov. 30, 1995, exactly one year after the Times Square ambush. Babnik said he talked to the detective in charge of that case, but concluded that the only connection between the two cases was that rappers were involved.
To some civil rights activists, however, the NYPD's reaction to the Times Square shooting of Shakur and the disinterest in later clues were disturbing. "They have an obligation to reopen a case if a clue comes up," complained Fred Brewington, a prominent New York City civil rights attorney. "This is untracked bureaucratic negligence."
Brewington believed the police were little concerned about solving the Times Square case because of the race and history of the victim. "To put the Tupac investigation into perspective, suppose a cop got shot and no one talked. They'd surely pressure people to talk. Some investigations have priority. [But] Tupac was a young black man that was not respected by the cops, so they think, 'Who cares if he's dealt with? He deserves it.'"
After serving nine months, Shakur left prison and resumed his musical career. He signed with Suge Knight's Death Row records, placing him at the center of the West Coast rap industry, with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Shakur also continued his fast-pace life and a public anticipation of an early death.
In a music video for one song, he performed a scene set in heaven with famous dead black musicians. But Shakur's real-life actions were less fatalistic. He surrounded himself with beefy bodyguards, carried a walkie-talkie and often wore a bullet-proof vest. He knew he was in danger, but didn't know whom to trust.
On Sept. 7, 1996, Shakur attended a Mike Tyson fight at the plush MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Tyson quickly finished off his little-known opponent, Bruce Seldon. But as Shakur was leaving that fight, a Crip gang member taunted the rap star. Suge Knight and other Shakur associates, who were close to the rival Bloods gang, retaliated by beating the heckler.
Shakur was unsettled by the altercation, but agreed to accompany Knight to his night club, called Club 662. Shortly after 11 p.m., Shakur climbed into Knight's black BMW 750 with Knight behind the wheel. Knight spun the car toward Club 662. The Las Vegas strip was teeming with excitement and traffic. Others from Knight's entourage followed.
Only a few blocks from Club 662, Knight's BMW stopped at a red light. A white Cadillac with California license plates pulled up along Shakur's side of the car. Without warning, four gunmen opened fire through the Cadillac's windows. The bullets riddled Knight's car. Four hit Shakur in the chest. Knight was unhurt. The Cadillac sped off, its tires squeeling. Shakur was rushed to yet another hospital. There, as Shakur had foreseen in another rap number, All Eyez on Me, surgeons labored over his body. But the damage was too severe. Six days later, with his mother, Afeni, at his side, Tupac Shakur died.
Like the New York police before them, Las Vegas police struggled to get clear leads from the hostile rap community. Knight bluntly told ABC News that he would not cooperate with the police. A Las Vegas detective did contact NYPD about the Times Square case. But NYPD had little information to share, and the Las Vegas police concluded there was no connection between the two shootings.
In the ensuing months, Afeni Shakur discovered that Death Row records controlled nearly all of Shakur's property, including valuable master recordings of his songs. She charged publicly that Death Row had cheated her dead son. Federal investigators also began probing whether Knight's Death Row records was being run as a criminal enterprise, with alleged links to street gangs, money-laundering, extortion and gun-running.
Knight, who went back to jail in Los Angeles for violating a 1992 assault probation, rejected the allegations. "A black brother from Compton creates a company that helps people in the ghetto, so what does the government do?" Knight asked in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "They try to bring him down."
Amid the death and distrust, the murder of Tupac Shakur -- and his 1994 ambush in Times Square -- remain unsolved mysteries.
(c) Copyright 1997
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