Randall Sullivan, Labyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002).
Gus Russo, The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America (Bloomsbury, 2002).
Somewhere in the jangled consciousness of many American law enforcement officials last September 11 must have been the sudden, literary realization of the sheer waste and folly of our twenty-year war on drugs. Curiously, though, the most persuasive exposition of this theme comes not in another commemorative volume about the terrorist horror, but in a book on gangsta rap, the booty-thumping bane of every cop on the block. Randall Sullivan’s stated objective in his book, Labyrinth, is to look into the still-unsolved 1997 murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. But what he unearths is a sleazy milieu of corrupt cops and criminal businessmen which—far from being some virus unique to L.A.—is a template for the way cultural capitalism works today.
Sullivan opens on a scene of moody public violence like a late-century noir, only real-life and loaded with the dread of racial caricature. An enraged black “‘full-on gangbanger’” in an SUV chases down a white doper (greasy locks, pot-leaf hat) in a beater, only to find he’s quicker on the trigger. The year was 1997; both men, it turned out, were with the LAPD; the deceased was off-duty officer Kevin Gaines, the one who shot him was undercover detective Frank Lyga, who swore he’d never seen Gaines before.
Detective Russell Poole of the Robbery-Homicide Division (RHO), who was assigned to untangle the mess, feared at first that he’d stumbled into a racial police feud, thanks to early rumors that Lyga was “part of a white supremacist group.” But the truth was that a handful of Gaines’ friends on the force had visited witnesses in order to “‘dirty up Lyga,’” to change their minds about what they saw and what forensic evidence confirmed: that Gaines was the aggressor. All of which was suppressed, though, when the city cut a deal with Gaines’ family in order, some say, to avoid airing the embarrassing matter any further.
After steeping for decades in the fetid stew of resentment generated by the drug war, urban law enforcement has become ruthlessly atomized.
Poole’s investigation of the Gaines-Lyga incident revealed a bizarre backstory: Gaines had been cited for numerous incidents of gun-wielding road rage; he’d even called in a false 911 report (on himself), and then assaulted the responding patrol, apparently hoping to provoke a lawsuit-worthy beat-down of the Rodney King variety. Poole wondered why Gaines was still a cop, since ‘‘‘[A]ny civilian who did what Gaines did would have faced prison time.’” Even more suspicious was the vehicle Gaines died in. A green SUV, “the vehicle of choice for both Crips and Bloods,” it was registered to Knightlife, a production company owned by Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. Gaines, it turns out, was something of a Death Row fanatic. His police locker was decorated with pictures of Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur, and he was dating Knight’s ex-wife when he died. Gaines wasn’t just an ordinary fan, however, and he wasn’t alone: Poole eventually uncovered a clique of young LAPD officers who performed extracurricular “security” work for Death Row Records that superseded their public service responsibility.
While the Gaines-Lyga shooting seemed at first to evoke the familiar template of LAPD racism, what it actually exposed was an equally dangerous and pervasive form of corruption arising from the drug war. Double-dealing officers who would ordinarily be drummed off the force thrive in the compromised milieu of urban drug enforcement. Their sensibilities are distorted by an unforgiving gangsta street culture—in Gaines’ case, by his bizarre obeisance to the all-too-authentic gangsta world of Death Row Records—which, in turn, would not exist without the racially oriented, government sanctioned moral panic of the drug war. And as we learn from the police scandals described in Labyrinth, this underground drug economy, with all its money and flash, is today a more seductive and transforming force than even the most punitive initiatives of the guardians of order.
Gaines’ fatal misadventure was not the result of some covert rivalry with Lyga, it now appears, but rather symptomatic of a broad change among younger officers. After steeping for decades in the fetid stew of resentment generated by the drug war, urban law enforcement has become ruthlessly atomized. With every officer out for himself, a corruption more invisible and malign than the “arm” once ubiquitous in Chicago and New York has emerged. The key to the corruption is the drug war’s potential profits for police forces, through simple old-style payoffs and through the ability of rogue cops to hijack or participate in drug deals themselves, via the “sanctioned” capture of vast quantities of loot. Thanks to the omnibus “anti-crime” bills of the mid-eighties which launched the drug war, law enforcement agencies in the nineties found they could pursue the assets of individuals in civil courts, with their lower burdens of proof, even when those individuals were not criminally charged. These civil-forfeiture windfalls in turn allowed departments to both drastically expand their tactical capabilities and to evade normal bureaucratic oversight while doing so. The potential for corruption was massive, and the estrangement of police from the communities being policed grew and grew.
Sullivan ably separates such issues of law enforcement integrity and the real costs of the drug war from the cacophony generated by Death Row, “the gangsta rap label run by real gangstas.” The story of the record label is fascinating in its own right, however. Death Row’s battle for market share with Puffy Combs’ imitative Bad Boy label ignited an “East Coast-West Coast” rap feud that was comical at first but which soon dissolved into actual violence, including the unsolved murders of Death Row’s Shakur and Bad Boy’s Biggie Smalls. While the second killing was immediately interpreted as payback for the first, some observers have pointed to Shakur’s estrangement from his benefactor as a possible motive for Knight’s involvement in both acts. In Sullivan’s view, Knight was more than the personification of rap chaos: he represented an alarming new business nexus in which cultural entrepreneurship, criminal and corporate financing, and corrupt law enforcement walked hand in hand.
Sullivan examines Death Row’s early association with a variety of colorful figures, including the Mob Piru Bloods, who ramped up the violence surrounding Knight, and Michael “Harry-O” Harris, an imprisoned cocaine profiteer. Their underworld contributions, though, paled next to the investments of Time Warner, their subsidiary Interscope, and Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s MCA-Universal. In the arena of corporatized culture, it now seems, dealers and sharks may sit at the same table.
Labyrinth follows Poole’s investigation of the Gaines-Lyga shooting and then the brazen public murder of Biggie Smalls on Wilshire Boulevard in March 1997. Smalls’ killing resembled Shakur’s streetside execution in Las Vegas six months earlier, and by mid-97, Shakur’s murder had led investigators to an LAPD officer with ties to Death Row, who was mysteriously allowed to resign “in lieu of dismissal.”[*] Meanwhile, a separate LAPD “civil abatement” investigation of the Death Row studio, triggered by complaints from the local homeowners’ association following “an astronomical increase in the number of assaults, auto thefts and armed robberies,” confirmed that still more cops were moonlighting for the label. Yet Poole was repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to expand either the Gaines-Lyga or the Smalls investigations into a comprehensive inquiry.
Gangsta rap has sold well in the hinterlands since because it presents a thrilling, intensely realized, and also parodic vision of the gravest social pathologies of the poor and minority communities.
Poole’s investigation did clarify some links between Death Row and Gaines’ circle, including a particularly scary rogue cop, David Mack, who was arrested for a $700,000 bank robbery after his teller girlfriend was detected for ordering the outsized sum. Poole’s findings were soon engulfed by the Byzantine mess known as “Ramparts” or “CRASH” (the latter one of California law enforcement’s trademark acronyms, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, the tactical teams whose heavy hand was noted years ago in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz). Ramparts turned upon the confessions of disgraced officer Rafael Perez, Mack’s former partner. (Among other things, the pair were implicated in at least one “throw down” shooting, in which cops shoot first and then plant weapons on suspects.) Although Mack was by then linked to the Death Row investigation, Perez was sequestered within the department’s disciplinary structure once the magnitude of his wrongdoing became apparent. Perez first came under suspicion in 1998, for stealing evidence-inventoried cocaine: “Perez had for some time been taking advantage of the LAPD’s absurdly loose system for checking out drugs as court evidence.” Perez’s final theft was a pound of coke inventoried by Frank Lyga, interpreted as a revenge ploy for the Gaines shooting.
Following Perez’s arrest for the cocaine thefts, Poole attempted to link him to the Smalls murder and vigilante violence against gangbangers by Ramparts officers. His superiors derailed this investigative approach, however, after Perez’s hasty trial resulted in a hung jury. Perez then accepted a sweetheart deal for testimony against other officers. He sang obligingly, but excepting a few specimens of untrammeled brutality, Perez’s allegations fell apart when he failed five lie-detector exams.
Meanwhile, Detective Poole’s unblemished career began to fray between the conflicting directives: He had to clear his cases, but not draw attention to police involvement in drug dealing, the rappers’ murders, or the activities of Death Row. But the connections were inescapable, even though the department refused to do a forensic examination of Mack’s black Monte Carlo SS—the primal gangsta ride, and the choice of Smalls’ shooter—and also failed to explore Mack’s possession of thousands of rounds of the same obscure German-made ammunition that killed Smalls. Nevertheless, Poole developed a concise theory of the murder implicating Mack, who was ID’d at the crime scene, and his college friend Harry Billups, a dead ringer for the composite sketch of the Smalls shooter, and the first to visit Mack following his robbery arrest. Furthermore, Poole’s interview of Shakur’s former bodyguard pinpointed Gaines, Mack, and Perez as regulars at Suge Knight’s “private parties.” Yet the LAPD ensured the rogue cops met separate fates: Perez could be paroled as early as 2005, and Mack may well have a bank robbery stash awaiting his eventual release. Their sentences, combined with Perez’s mendacity, allowed the LAPD to hurl a containment net over their own internal investigation.
As for Poole, a white cop repeatedly cited for his compassion in murder investigations in African-American and Latino neighborhoods: When he filed reports that portrayed “a contamination of the LAPD that . . . spread from a crew of black cops affiliated with Death Row Records into the Rampart CRASH unit,” they were rejected, and he was asked to leave RHD. Poole resigned following the prosecutors’ deal with Perez which, he thinks, halts further progress on the Ramparts and Smalls investigations. Eleven months later, Poole filed a civil lawsuit against the LA police chief and the LAPD.
Poole and Sullivan blame “liberal racism” for the lenient treatment afforded this clique of rogue officers who were mostly African-American. And clearly the LAPD will do nearly anything to avoid a reprise of the Rodney King disaster. More important in all this, though, are the opportunities for malfeasance that the drug war presents to officers who believe their deeds are sanctioned by the overall chaos and futility of drug-suppression policing. “Freelancers who made their own rules,” these rogue cops “became untethered from such niceties as due process and probable cause. The worst of them were the best examples of how the War on Drugs had ravaged law enforcement in the U.S.”
Gangsta rap has sold well in the hinterlands since Straight Outta Compton because it presents a thrilling, intensely realized, and also parodic vision of the gravest social pathologies of the poor and minority communities. In Sullivan’s book we see these same abstractions of commerce and violence, many years later, now infecting the players on both sides of the drug war.
Angelenos looking for a longer-term perspective on the links between crime and the culture industry should consider Gus Russo’s The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America, a scrupulously presented business chronology of the remarkable reach of Messrs. Accardo, Ricca, Giancana, et al. Starting with Al Capone’s beer wars, Russo traces the Outfit’s persistent incursions into the “upperworld” of legitimate business. Capone’s Depression-era successors became obsessed with proto-corporate discretion in their hunt for “the new booze,” muscling in on businesses which would allow them upper-class gentility even as it built a system of corruption that ruled Chicago for some forty years.
In the thirties and forties, the Outfit’s financial specialist Murray Humphries engineered takeovers of laundry chains and dairies; by the fifties, the Outfit’s “silent partners” included Western Union and AT&T and the cowed and compromised Hollywood studios. Similarly, the Outfit’s early interest in mechanical vending created the local slot machine, pinball, and jukebox industry; their investment in the latter led to gangster influence in the nascent pop music culture of the forties and fifties, as surely as the experiences of a later generation of gangsters propelled the hip hop juggernaut.
Indeed, details aside, these books tell startlingly similar stories: of enterprising individuals pilloried by class and ethnicity, who developed perverse business plans in concert with a legal and corporate upperworld that held the upstarts in contempt. Chicago syndicate leader Sam Giancana, for example, recognized the radical power of selective violence in the business arena in ways similar to Suge Knight’s followers. Knight’s alleged looting of artists from other labels, and odd-handed accounting practices with those artists, were likewise reminiscent of organized crime’s own cornering of the market in jukeboxes and crooners.
Should the drug war continue for another twenty years in its present form, it will render the national landscape unrecognizable.
Both books provide astonishing glimpses of the violence and schemes of “secret” America, one sepia-tinged as a Chicago typewriter, one postmodern as a Glock 9. Yet beyond the colorful antics of true crime they also imply that for all the skills and overkill of America’s law enforcement structure, we have not yet established a way to police desire. We cannot fight addiction (a state of absolute wanting captured so long ago in the urban setting of The Man With The Golden Arm), nor the desire for base entertainment and release from mortality so well marketed throughout the Rust Belt by the Outfit through mid-century. And while law enforcement’s ideas on self-policing have not moved much beyond the “one bad apple” thesis, the small cells of rogue cops centered around drug interdiction have grown more adept and violent in the last fifteen years. The world of the corrupt Ramparts cops in LA had precursors in the seductive, blustering insider’s culture of police forces in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Miami. In trying to criminalize inchoate desire—as in the prohibition years which spawned the Outfit, and the last twenty years of the drug war—we create great shows: dynamic entries, enormous prison sentences, villains of swarthy and fearsome visage, the gangbangers and hypes, the rappers and dealers, the easily condemned and telegenic American villains of our own streets. But it was all shown as fraudulent last September.
Meanwhile, the punitive and arbitrary drug war regime, combined with its massive profitability, continue to bring mutations in the tactics of the players. Urban-style drug crime is exploding in rural America, for example, which will surely soon lead to a heavy-handed backlash. Much of this drug crime—not just in the sticks, but in the suburbs, those bastions of privilege—now revolves around innovative use of dangerous drugs which must be considered as “crack analogues,” including deliberate misuse of the synthetic opiate OxyContin, widespread grassroots manufacture of methamphetamine, the cult popularity of animal tranquilizers like Ketamine, and the explosive mainstream popularity of Ecstasy.
Should the drug war continue for another twenty years in its present form, it will render the national landscape unrecognizable. If actual drug usage were prosecuted accurately with unforgiving “mandatory minimum” sentencing, huge numbers of wage-earning taxpayers in our hospitality, entertainment, advertising, and sports industries would disappear overnight. In rural areas as well as the burbs, the war itself is the ironic catalyst, transforming the doomed Shakur’s “Thug Life” into something more than escapist fantasy: into a mutable philosophy of belligerence, with a ready-made soundtrack, legitimately attainable capitalist goals, and untold martyrs, the killed and imprisoned, languishing within memory’s jail.
[*] As this issue went to press, followers of the Biggie-Tupac investigations were startled by a Los Angeles Times investigative report which concluded that the Notorious B.I.G. offered $1 million and his own pistol for Shakur’s murder to gang members, including one who’d been publicly humiliated by Shakur and his associates hours before. While the Times‘ scenario is plausible, it is improbable: besides suggesting that a grievance, murder-conspiracy meeting, and murder occurred with remarkable rapidity, it fails to explain why a celebrity at the height of his fame would take such a wild risk. Even if this Grand Guignol revenge scenario turns out to be accurate, however, it does not challenge the basic findings of Labyrinth.