Without researching it too deeply, it's probably safe to say Randall Sullivan is the only person in Portland ever to have been directly threatened by Suge Knight on television.
"After the book came out, he was giving an interview, and somehow I came up, and he said, 'I'm going to take care of that motherfucker,'" says Sullivan, author of LAbyrinth, the 2002 book implicating the once-fearsome rap impresario in the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. "He said, 'Take care,' not 'I'm going to kill him.' His defense was, 'I'm going to sue him.' In fact, he never did a damn thing."
In 2000, while researching a story on the Los Angeles Police Department's notoriously corrupt Rampart Division as a staffer for Rolling Stone, Sullivan met Russell Poole, a retired detective convinced that the department had assisted in covering up Knight's involvement in the slayings. As the title of the subsequent book suggests, it's a labyrinthine conspiracy, involving not just crooked cops but dirty politicians and news media complicit in their timidity. As time has passed, though, with no arrests in either crime, the theory put forth in LAbyrinth has been accepted as, if not quite fact, the closest thing to truth we might ever get.
A decade and a half later, Knight is on trial for an unrelated murder, Poole is dead from a heart attack, and the assassinations of Biggie and Tupac remain, arguably, the greatest unsolved murders in modern American history. But Sullivan—who, in the intervening years, wrote about his spiritual conversion in The Miracle Detective and hosted a show by the same name on the Oprah Winfrey Network—has not lost his interest in the case, nor his beliefs. A movie based on LAbyrinth is inching closer to reality, and he's entertained the idea of writing a follow-up.
With the impending 20th anniversary of Tupac's death on Sept. 13, WW spoke to Sullivan about how his views of the killings have changed, being blackballed by the Los Angeles Times, and the moment he thought Knight had come to make good on his promise.
Willamette Week: From what I understand, you didn't necessarily set out to write about the murders of Biggie and Tupac.
Randall Sullivan: Far from it. I had no idea that's where it was going to lead. Back in 2000, Rolling Stone magazine asked me write an article about the so-called Rampart scandal. I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, but I said, "OK, I'll go to L.A. Send me everything that's ever been written about the Rampart scandal, and I'll spend a couple days in my hotel room reading it all, and I'll get back to you about where I think it goes." I went to the D.A. who prosecuted Rafael Perez, who was the instigator and really the source of the Rampart scandal, as dirty a cop as there ever was. At some point during the conversation, we started talking about the Rampart Task Force, which was set up to investigate the growing scandal. But he said it didn't start as the Rampart Task Force, it started out as a unit headed up by a detective, Russell Poole, who had some theories about the murder of Biggie Smalls. I said, "What?" So I decided I better go find this Russell Poole, and I found out Russell Poole had resigned from the police department after protesting for some considerable amount of time that the police were involved in the coverup of Biggie's murder and, by extension, Tupac's.
He lived down in Orange County. I go to meet him for lunch, we talk for a while, and I can just feel the guy was bursting at the seams—he needed to unburden himself and tell somebody. He said, "I want to show you something." He takes me over to a storage unit, opens it up, and it's filled with documents he basically took from the LAPD when he left, the entire history into the investigation of Biggie's murder and what they did on Tupac's murder, which is a fair bit—they were trying to tie it in. So I wrote back to Rolling Stone and said, "I've got a story how the Rampart scandal is a big scam, but underneath the scam is a really great story about Biggie's murder and Tupac." Obviously, they were very interested in that. So I wrote that article, and the article turned into a book, and the book has almost been turned into a movie a number of times, and now it looks like it's going to be.
Prior to making this connection, what relationship did you have to Tupac and Biggie as artists?
Really very little. I really never gave either of them a fair listen until I started working on this book, but then their music sort of became the soundtrack of the book as I was working on it. I really didn't understand what a significant figure Tupac in particular was, and how much he meant to so many young people, younger than me, black and white. Biggie was easier for me to listen to, to be quite honest. He's a little more musical. Tupac was tougher to love. But eventually, the realization that these murders of these two young men had been swept under the rug—I realized that it really was as if Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin had been killed by the Vegas mob and the thing had just been covered up. It was the equivalent to that. To this day, I still have a hard time believing these thing has not only remained unsolved but been so unattended to by the media.
Was there any single "holy shit" moment for you, when the whole conspiracy became clear to you?
There were a number of moments connected to the involvement of police officers. It was more in Biggie's case, though it was certainly there with Tupac—I mean, there were cops there working for Suge in Las Vegas when Tupac was killed. Two cops on Suge's payroll were the ones who took Tupac's ashes back to L.A.—and why he got cremated so quickly is another whole story. It was all the stuff that implicated police officers in Biggie's murder, and there were a number of those things that happened. There wasn't any single one, but some were bigger than others. In terms of Tupac, I guess the moment that most stunned me was when I found this secret report where Snoop Dogg had told the cops that Suge had Tupac killed. He made the statement to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department when they interviewed him after a riot that broke out at a concert he was giving at an amusement park, Universal Studios. There was a written report produced by the Sheriff's Department Captain who spoke to Snoop.
Why did Suge want Tupac dead?
The putative motive for Suge wanting Tupac dead was that Tupac had initiated the process of leaving Death Row Records at a time when he was by far the biggest selling artist in rap music. Tupac had just created his own production company, and the attorney he hired to set that up worried publicly that Tupac's life might be in danger after he fired Suge's attorney, David Kenner. Basically, it was money, pride and power.
Can you tell me about some of the harassment you received after the publication of the book and the article?
I mean, Suge Knight threatened me on television. But being in Portland gave me some sense of distance from it. And also, it sounds terrible, but I couldn't help observing as I was doing it, all these murders were of young black men by other black men. They weren't killing white people. There was an accountant that got slapped around, and that was the worst of it. So it was as if, in their minds—it almost seemed to me, I don't know if it's true—that as long as we keep this among ourselves, as long as we're killing other black folks, the cops aren't going to get that excited. So it's terrible to say, but I felt a certain protection just being white, and I also felt protection from being in Portland.
But there were moments when I was frightened by things that happened. One was completely absurd, which happened in my driveway in Portland. I have a long private driveway, but I heard this screeching—someone was going really fast and had spun out, and I wasn't sure what had happened. I thought it was an accident—someone going 80 miles on curves when you shouldn't be going more than 30, that's what it sounded like. I get to the top of the driveway, and there's a white Mustang with a young black driver behind the wheel. I realized, in retrospect, that he'd spun out and probably banged his head and was sitting there stunned. But I got to the top of the driveway and he looked up at me and I thought, "Oh shit, this is it." I ended up finally going up and making sure he was OK, and helped him out of the car just before the cops arrived to arrest him for stealing the car that he'd spun out in. That was a moment of comedy that had a few moments of panic in it.
In what ways do you feel the murders of Biggie and Tupac and the alleged cover-up are related to the ongoing debate about policing and race in America?
Well, they were very symptomatic but not exactly in the way you're proposing. On the one hand, the murders of these two young men were swept under the rug by a power structure that didn't see them as very significant. But the fact is, those murders were covered up to cover up for the criminality of other black men—I mean, a Chief of Police and police officers the social structure was invested in. Basically, wiping away what happened to Tupac and Biggie was justified in the minds of the media, mainly, and the media in Los Angeles, because they were protecting the black Chief of Police and all these black cops that were involved. Basically, they were a criminal gang within the police department. So it doesn't quite conform to the Black Lives Matter narrative. But certainly, other than that, it's ample evidence that those two black lives didn't matter much to anybody who had any power, even though they were probably the two most famous black men in the country. So it cuts both ways. And it bothers me when people try to put it into a single, simple, convenient political capsule, because it doesn't fit. But certainly, elements of the capsule those people are trying to construct do apply.
Earlier, you brought up the hypothetical scenario of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin being murdered on the Vegas Strip and having it covered up. Similarly, it's hard to imagine something like that happening today, in digital age, to, say, Kanye West and Drake.
It is, but the political strictures are—I mean, how many young black men have been murdered in Chicago this year and last year? But they're being murdered by other young black men, so no one is really talking about it. When one young black man gets shot by a cop in Chicago, that's big news. But when 200 get killed by other young black men, it's basically not discussed. Again, the politics of the situation have really suffocated the truth and any kind of open discussion about it. So I really don't know. If it was the same situation, of course it would get more massive coverage because of the power of the internet and social media. But would the media really be comfortable going after that story? I don't know. They're as afraid today as they ever were of anything that is racially loaded.
Going after the L.A. Times as harshly as you did, were you ever worried about being journalistically blackballed?
I certainly suffered consequences. The L.A. Times wouldn't review the book. I was invited to speak at various events, at UCLA and places, and L.A. Times reporters threw fits, going around to various other media and badmouthing the story. The reporter who was, to me, the center of what should've been treated as the biggest journalistic scandal of the 20th century, was eventually fired by the L.A. Times—he should've been fired for 15 things before that, but they eventually did fire him over the fraudulent Puffy letter. So I was vindicated, I suppose.
I know you went through a spiritual conversion that's informed a lot of what you've done since then. I'm wondering what impact that's had on your reporting.
I wish I could say yes or no simply. What happened to me in Bosnia, which was now 20 years ago, it probably my affected my life more than anything except becoming a father of children. But when I approach a story like this one, I revert back to who I've always been and the approach I take. The one difference is I'm more empathetic. Probably the connection I had with Biggie's mom, I wouldn't have had otherwise. She's a deeply religious woman, although she's a Jehovah's Witness, which isn't a faith I feel any kind of kinship with, but she's a spiritual and fierce woman. Winning her respect, however I did it, I think it had something to do with the fact that I respected her faith, and she knew it. I'm not sure I would have respected her faith when I was younger. Who knows what that would've meant?
Has anything changed for you in regards to how you view anything involving the book or the murders?
I maintained a relationship with Russell Poole, who was just obsessed with these cases, and it really drove him to his death. I mean, he literally died trying to convince the sheriff of Los Angeles County to reopen the case against the LAPD. He was literally in a room, trying to convince this guy, when he died, and there's all kinds of questions about what happened there that I need to look deeper into. But, I mean, basically no. The City of Angeles got fined a million dollars for hiding information that implicated the LAPD in Biggie's murder. Also, the biggest single thing that's happened—which certainly will be a significant part of the [next] book—is a young FBI agent, based on the Rolling Stone article before LAbyrinth was even published, undertook an investigation and he was ready to make arrests. He was convinced he had the case, and basically the case was closed down from up above and he was removed from it. He was so scared by whatever the threat was to his career that he would never talk to me again after that. So that was a shocking moment to realize the stakes are so high, because the liabilities for the City of L.A. were enormous. I mean, it could've been half a billion dollars, and the damage to the LAPD's reputation and all that. And you know, this case is never going to be solved unless you look at the police officers involved.
Do you think we'll ever officially know what happened or are we passed the cultural statute of limitations for that to even be possible?
You know, I can't completely rule it out. But law enforcement isn't going to do anything. Various people come forward with stories, and many times they're just self-serving hustlers trying to sell something, like the two anonymous gangbangers who came up with the story that Biggie had Tupac killed that the L.A. Times ran and retracted and eventually fired the reporter who wrote it—the guy I was talking about earlier. At this point, we might know, but a criminal conviction would be almost impossible because the waters are so muddied.