Book Reviews

LAbyrinth * Randall Sullivan – A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

When Los Angeles detective Russell Poole began investigating the killing of a black off-duty cop by a white undercover cop, little did he know that he was opening one of the wormiest cans in the history of American police enforcement. Before long Poole had established solid links that connected Suge Knight and his infamous label, Death Row Records, to the murders of both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls and to an alarmingly large number of black cops in the LAPD. “Rolling Stone” reporter Randall Sullivan supports this unravelling of the truth through meticulous journalism, following up hundreds of leads that the LAPD chose to ignore, interviewing many key witnesses and having had the complete co-operation of Russell Poole. “LAbyrinth” offers an insider’s look into the worlds of renegade cops, rival gangs and hip-hop celebrities.

“Roll that window up, you punk motherfucker!” the black man shouted back.
“Get out of my face or I’ll put a cap up your ass!”
“What’s your problem?” the white man asked.
“I’m your problem, motherfucker!” the black man shouted.
“Pull over right now and I’ll kick your motherfucking ass!”
“Yeah, sure,” the white man replied. The black man became so enraged that his eyeballs bulged.
“I’ll cap your ass, motherfucker!” he screamed.
“Pull over right now!” The man in the Montero punctuated his threat with a series of curious hand gestures, then pointed to the side of the road. The white man nodded and said,
“All right, let’s go. Pull over.”

When they were gunned down in separate – but equally murky – episodes, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were two of hip hop’s biggest stars. Their murders remain unsolved.

“As soon as we found out that the dead guy was a black police officer, we knew we were stepping into a political minefield,” recalled Russell Poole, who would become lead detective in the LAPD’s criminal investigation of the shooting.

Now, in the best traditions of investigative reportage, Randall Sullivan traces the work of homicide gumshoe Russell Poole, to present a compelling solution to these murders; and, in so doing, exposes the sinister political cover-ups and cop-to-criminal crossovers which have hampered official investigations.

LAbyrinth is a riveting account of police corruption and rap violence that reads like a hybrid of LA Confidential and Ronin Ro’s Have Gun Will Travel.

This book took stones to write. Sullivan takes the hoary, clichéd tale of race in the LAPD, and turns it into a story of police corruption and of the sheer stretchiness of power. Being racist was what it took to gain and retain power in Ye Olden Days, and so that was what was done. And when being antiracist became what was needed, that was what was done.

“I may be a big, black, ugly dude,” he once told an interviewer, “but I got style.”

Style for gangsta rappers was the product of an outlandish cross-cultural fertilization that combined ghetto gangbanger attitudes and Rastaman spirituality with the patois of Hollywood mafiosi, and Biggie had a natural affinity for all the form’s origins.

Perez’s statement at his sentencing hearing on February 25, 2000, would be published by newspapers around the world. It was a model of contrition that began with the disgraced cop’s admission that nothing he could say “would be strong enough or genuine enough to warrant my pardon.” The “atrocities” he and other officers in his CRASH unit had committed, Perez told the court, were the result of an “us-against-them ethos” that allowed those in the loop to believe “we were doing the wrong things for the right reasons.” At the end of his statement, Perez quoted the mottoes that were posted above the entrances to the LAPD’s CRASH units, then said he would like to add one of his own: “Whoever chases monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself.”

Most of the spectators in the courtroom looked moved, and a few wept openly. Among those closest to the investigation, however, there was a palpable sense of unease. Perez had been just as convincing, they all knew, and every bit as emotive, when he perjured himself at trial after trial during the past several years.

Tupac Shakur backstage at KMEL Summer Jam 1992 at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View CA on August 1st, 1992. Image By: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

While it seemed certain that the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls would never be solved by the police in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, that did not mean the killers were in the clear. Two days before Thanksgiving 2001, a team of FBI agents arrived at the home of Russell Poole to collect copies of the investigative files he had kept in storage for more than three years now. The bureau had decided to proceed without asking for any assistance at all from the Los Angeles Police Department, the agents told Poole. “They said they didn’t want their investigation to be ‘contaminated,’” reported Poole. “I never thought I’d get satisfaction from hearing a word like that used to describe contact with the LAPD.”