The call came in on the radio just after 11:15 p.m.: Shots had been fired near the intersection of Flamingo and Koval, with possible victims. Several vehicles had made a U-turn on Flamingo and headed west. The bicycle officer who made the call from the Maxim hotel began trailing the cars, but was too far behind to catch them. He could, however, see them turn left onto Las Vegas Boulevard.
Chris Carroll was a sergeant on the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s bike patrol unit on the Strip. The 12 officers under his command rode in pairs, but Carroll was riding solo when he got the call that night, September 7, 1996. Traffic on the Strip is always slow-moving on a Saturday evening, but it was especially thick in the aftermath of Mike Tyson’s first-round technical knockout of Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand a few hours earlier. And, now, somewhere in the midst of all those vehicles was a caravan of cars, one of them perhaps carrying the shooter.
Carroll rode north to intercept them. “I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to stop these cars?’” Carroll says. “Usually on bikes, we used whistles and things like that, or we could call for a vehicle to help us. But as I’m riding toward them, I’m thinking, ‘These guys are on the run, there’s multiple cars and I’m heading nose-to-nose with them.’”
The details surrounding Tupac Shakur’s death have been recounted dozens of times in the nearly 18 years since the night he was shot in Las Vegas. Newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentaries and websites have recapped, analyzed, scrutinized and commodified the rapper and actor’s unsolved murder, ranging from sober accounts to wild-eyed conspiracy theories. There are even those who still hold onto the belief that Shakur is not really dead, with reports over the years having him living in Cuba, New Zealand, Tasmania or rural Pennsylvania.
When Shakur died six days after the shooting, at age 25, he was swiftly elevated from star to legend. In this trajectory, he joined other celebrities who died in their prime: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain. The premise of what might have been captures the imagination; and the intensity of what was never quite lets go.
John Singleton, who directed Shakur in the 1993 movie Poetic Justice, has co-written and will direct a feature film about the controversial hip-hop star, with production scheduled for later this year, and a Tupac-inspired musical, Holler If You Hear Me, is set to open on Broadway on June 19. But even with all the attention given to Shakur’s life and death, there remains one account of the night of the shooting that has not been heard before: from the police officer who was first on the scene.
Chris Carroll is a 23-year metro veteran who retired in December 2010. He is also my cousin. A few months back, he and I were having beers one night when he almost nonchalantly began to tell me a story. It wasn’t the first time I’d sat back and readied myself to hear one of his fascinating cop stories; I’d been listening to them for years. But once I recognized where he was leading me, I realized that this particular story had deep roots not only in his memory, but also in our culture.
On that unforgettable night, he had started his 10-hour shift at 3 p.m. and was around the MGM Grand much of the day for the Tyson-Seldon fight, prepared for the residual turmoil that was likely to accompany it.
“Whenever Mike Tyson would have a fight, it would be like the Super Bowl of the pimp/whore/gangster crowd,” Carroll says. “And a lot of these people aren’t even going to the fight. There would be gangsters all up and down the Strip, in the hotel, everywhere. And, of course, since the fight was at the MGM, that was the nucleus of where everything was happening.
“The night was just starting, and you could just feel in the air that bad stuff was going to happen. Even when it was calm, it was like the calm before the storm.”
It was a night that would be defined by short bursts of violence. As Tyson entered the MGM Grand Garden Arena and made his way to the ring, the public-address system played “Road to Glory,” a song Shakur had written specifically for the boxer. The two men had become friends through correspondence while Tyson was serving three years in prison for a 1992 rape conviction. Shakur himself was found guilty of felony sex-abuse charges in New York on December 1, 1994, one day after he was shot five times inside the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio. He began his sentence in February 1995, a little more than a month before Tyson was released from prison.
When Tyson reclaimed the WBC heavyweight championship with a third-round TKO of Frank Bruno at the Grand Garden Arena on March 16, 1996—his third fight after his release from prison—Shakur was one of the first people to greet him outside the ring. Now Shakur was back in Las Vegas to watch his friend take Seldon’s WBA belt. The fighter and the rapper planned to meet later that night at Club 662 on East Flamingo Road, where Shakur was scheduled to perform.
The friendship between Shakur and Tyson was forged by their common position as men misunderstood by society, says Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Columbia University and hip-hop archive fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University.
“What Mike Tyson was in a boxing ring, Tupac was for the music industry,” Emdin says. “When Tyson came out—young, brash, unapologetic, said what he felt, would knock you out in one shot and intimidate the world by his physical brute strength—he also scared people by the fact that this kind of black person exists. When Tupac came out for the first time with the Digital Underground, he also came out bold, unapologetic, abrasive, intimidating. His presence alone was like a fear for white America, because they couldn’t ignore him.”
Mainstream America, Emdin says, had a love-hate relationship with both Tyson and Shakur, marked by fear and a “lust for that crazy, aggressive black figure.”
“In many ways, that’s what shaped Tyson into what he is today,” Emdin says. “They didn’t give him a chance to grow beyond that hyper-aggressive thug who would knock a motherfucker out in a second. That’s what they wanted, and they tried to do the same thing with Tupac. When Tupac would do ‘Dear Mama,’ and speak about the Black Panther Party and black empowerment, they wanted to strip that away from him and present him in the media as just this hyper-aggressive, angry thug.
“What connected Tyson and Tupac to each other was they were both able to experience an institution, an industry, that hated them but needed them because it satisfied their lust about what was awful about blackness. ’Pac would always fight against that image, but he himself was conflicted: He wanted to represent the ’hood, but he wanted to be bigger than that. And the same thing inevitably ended Mike Tyson’s boxing career, because Mike Tyson wanted to be a super boxer, but Mike’s career ended because he also wanted to be a thug. He could not deal with the tensions of who he was and who the world wanted him to be. That’s the same thing that Tupac experienced. When the world gives you this conflict, you almost inevitably self-destruct, because you’re not allowed to be more than one thing at one time. Tupac recognized that in Mike Tyson; that’s why the two of them got along so well.”
Barely a minute into the fight, Tyson dropped Seldon with a seemingly invisible punch, then finished him off seconds later. Shakur watched the fight ringside with Marion “Suge” Knight, a former UNLV football player who had co-founded Death Row Records in 1991. Shakur had signed with Death Row after Knight posted a $1.4 million bail to get him out of prison on appeal in October 1995.
After the fight, Shakur and Knight were making their way through the MGM with members of their entourage when Shakur confronted and punched a man later identified as 21-year-old Orlando Anderson of Compton, California, a gang member with the South Side Crips. Shakur and Knight were both affiliated with the rival Mob Piru Bloods, and Shakur’s bodyguards proceeded to attack Anderson, beating and kicking him while he was on the ground. Following the melee, which was stopped by MGM security guards and captured on hotel surveillance cameras, Shakur, Knight and their crew were allowed to leave the MGM without being questioned. Anderson refused medical treatment, declined to file a complaint and headed out to the Strip. Carroll was in the arena for the fight, but immediately headed back outside afterward, unaware of what had happened in the casino.
Gang violence had become a growing concern in Las Vegas in the mid-1980s, and by October 1991 The New York Times identified the city as one with a major gang problem, largely because of the increasing migration of the Los Angeles-based Crips and Bloods amid the Valley’s record-setting population boom. By 1996, the infiltration of the gangs had only become more prominent.
The growth of the Las Vegas gang scene also coincided with the rise of gangsta rap, which began to gain mainstream popularity in the late 1980s through artists such as Ice-T and N.W.A., who rhymed about police persecution, gang violence, drug use and misogyny. Songs such as “Fuck tha Police” and “Cop Killer” became anthems for young black men in urban neighborhoods who identified with the raw lyrical tales of the hardcore rappers.
Shakur released his first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now, in 1991, riffing on the usual topics of racism and police brutality, but the young rapper also addressed social issues such as poverty and teenage pregnancy. Born in the East Harlem section of Manhattan in New York on June 16, 1971, Shakur was raised in an environment of political unrest and social upheaval. His mother, Afeni, was an active member of the Black Panther Party, and named her son after Tupac Amaru, a 16th-century Incan emperor who had resisted Spanish colonialism. It was that revolutionary spirit—part of a childhood in which his mother battled drug addiction, and she and other family members spent time in prison—that helped shape Shakur’s views.
By 1996, Shakur—whose family moved to Marin City, California, in 1988—had become a lightning rod in the growing East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry. He publicly accused New York-based rappers Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.) and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs of orchestrating the 1994 attack on him, and he bragged in the 1996 song “Hit ’Em Up” about having sex with Smalls’ wife.
“Tupac was probably the one artist who was able to capture all the multiplicities of what hip-hop was in that era—and also in many ways capture what we want hip-hop to be,” Emdin says. “He was this non-apologetic revolutionary who was able to take a stand against the police or against anybody who seemed to speak in a negative manner about the hip-hop generation. But at the same time, he was also this man who adored women and who was able to write a song about his mother.
“Even in his misogyny, there were all these glimmers of hope and love, but at the same time he was able to capture the sentiments of an N.W.A., with the hyper-aggressive, hyper-thug imagery. Because he was able to carry all those things, all in one person, he redefined what ‘thug’ is. By being this complex person, he said that a thug is more than just this violent, angry person—that there were nuances to it.”
Carroll approached Harmon Avenue on his bike in response to the shooting call when he caught sight of the convoy erratically heading his way down Las Vegas Boulevard. “They were running traffic signals, blowing through lights the whole way,” he says. “And there’s about four to five cars—I still can’t tell you exactly how many there were; I want to say five. They made a hard left turn onto Harmon, and they did this right as I’m pulling up. Now, we knew the vehicles were in a shooting, but we don’t know who fired, which car fired, which one has the shooter, who’s chasing who.”
About 15 minutes earlier, at 11:05 p.m., another officer on the Strip had stopped Knight for playing his car stereo too loudly and for not having his black BMW’s license plates displayed. Shakur was in the passenger seat. Knight was let go without being ticketed, and soon turned onto Flamingo Road to head toward Club 662. It was on Flamingo that a white Cadillac with three or four men inside pulled up to the right of Knight’s BMW. One of the men stuck a weapon out of the back window of the Caddy and fired at least 13 rounds into the side of Knight’s car, four of which pierced Shakur’s body. The Cadillac then took off south down Koval.
Knight managed to make a U-turn on Flamingo, as Shakur sat bleeding in the passenger seat. After turning onto the Strip, Knight weaved the BMW through traffic, blowing out two of the car’s tires and denting the rims as he drove over the median, and ran a red light at Harmon in the frantic escape. The car came to a halt near the center divider while attempting a left turn. The vehicles trailing Shakur and Knight also stopped at the intersection.
“As that happens, I hop off the bike and let it go flying,” Carroll says. “I still don’t know who the shooter is, and as soon as they stopped, almost all the car doors go flying open. So I pulled out my gun, and there’s maybe 10 people. And it was apparent immediately after they got out of the cars that this wasn’t Joe Citizen driving with his wife; these were hard-ass guys. So I’ve got my gun out, and I think one of them is probably the shooter. So I’m yelling for everybody to get down; there’s a ton of people up and down the Strip. I’m concerned about crossfire; I’m concerned that I don’t know who the shooter is. I’m trying to point a gun at five different cars at once, anticipating gunfire. And to my surprise, the gunfire never comes.
“So I’m pointing my gun, and I’m yelling at guys to get down on the ground. Some of them do, and some of them don’t. Some of them were kinda thinking about it, and they’re looking at each other, almost like, ‘Do we run? Do we do like he says and get on the ground?’ They’re trying to figure out the situation just like I am. We’re all just staring at each other in this semi-standoff as I’m yelling at them to get on the ground.”
As Carroll approached the BMW, he saw someone sitting in the front passenger seat. For a moment, he thought it was the shooter until he saw the bullet holes in the car door. He then turned and saw the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Knight approaching him from behind, bleeding profusely from a bullet fragment that had lodged in the back of his skull.
“I grab the car door and I’m trying to open it, but I can’t get it open,” Carroll says. “[Knight] keeps coming up on my back, so I’m pointing my gun at him. I’m pointing it at the car. I’m yelling, ‘You guys lay down! And you, get the fuck away from me!’ And every time I’d point the gun at him, he’d back off and even lift his hands up, like ‘All right! All right!’ So I’d go back to the car, and here he comes again. I’m like, ‘Fucker, back off!’ This guy is huge, and the whole time he’s running around at the scene, he’s gushing blood from his head. Gushing blood! I mean the guy had clearly been hit in the head, but he had all his faculties. I couldn’t believe he was running around and doing what he was doing, yelling back and forth.”
The following description of events differs significantly from what has been reported previously, most notably in the book The Killing of Tupac Shakur by Las Vegas-based author Cathy Scott. Shakur bodyguard Frank Alexander, in his account, says he identified himself and Knight to police, who then let the two men up and allowed them to open the BMW’s door. Carroll dismisses that story, saying there’s no way he would have simply taken Alexander’s word that they were not participants in the shooting, and that he most definitely wouldn’t have let them approach the BMW to open the door. Carroll tells the story of what followed:
“I finally get the car door to open, and as I pull it open, the guy inside came right out, like he was leaning against the door. And at first I thought the guy was going to bust out of the door right on top of me; I thought this was his plan of attack, so to speak. But then I notice that he’s not coming out of the door; he was falling out of it. So I grabbed him with my left arm and he falls into me, and I’ve still got my gun in the other hand. He’s covered with blood, and I immediately notice that the guy’s got a ton of gold on—a necklace and other jewelry—and all of the gold is covered in blood. That has always left an image in my mind.
“I’ve got him in one hand, I’ve got the gun in the other hand, I’m still yelling at the other guys, and I pull him out of the car. Well, right about then, thank God, another bike cop shows up. He was probably the guy who was chasing the cars initially. He gets Suge off my back, because Suge was somewhat of a threat to me; the other guys were kinda listening—some proned out, some on their knees, some standing around.
“The other cop pushes Suge away from me, and I look down at the guy I’m holding: He’s still conscious. I could see he’s shot several times, but I can’t tell where he’s shot. And as I pulled him out of the car, he was wincing in pain. He’s looking at me; he’s groaning. I laid him down on the pavement, and then I looked inside the car to see if there was anybody else in there, but there wasn’t.
“After I pulled him out, Suge starts yelling at him, ‘Pac! Pac!’ And he just keeps yelling it. And the guy I’m holding is trying to yell back at him. He’s sitting up and he’s struggling to get the words out, but he can’t really do it. And as Suge is yelling ‘Pac!,’ I look down and I realize that this is Tupac Shakur. At the time, it didn’t really mean much of anything to me. I was more concerned that this was a bad situation to be in with just one other cop.
“There’s something in police work called the ‘dying declaration,’ a legal concept that, in a nutshell, basically says that if someone who believes they’re going to die gives out the name of a suspect or is able to explain what happened, that’s not considered hearsay in court when they’re not there to testify; it’s admissible evidence.
“So I’m looking at Tupac, and he’s trying to yell back at Suge, and I’m asking him, ‘Who shot you? What happened? Who did it?’ And he was just kind of ignoring me. He was making eye contact with me here and there, but he’s trying to yell at Suge. And I kept asking over and over, ‘Who did this? Who shot you?’ And he basically kept ignoring me. And then I saw in his face, in his movements, all of a sudden in the snap of a finger, he changed. And he went from struggling to speak, being noncooperative, to an ‘I’m at peace’ type of thing. Just like that.
“He went from fighting to ‘I can’t do it.’ And when he made that transition, he looked at me, and he’s looking right in my eyes. And that’s when I looked at him and said one more time, ‘Who shot you?’
“He looked at me and he took a breath to get the words out, and he opened his mouth, and I thought I was actually going to get some cooperation. And then the words came out: ‘Fuck you.’
“After that, he started gurgling and slipping out of consciousness. At that point, an ambulance showed up, and he went into unconsciousness.
“As the paramedics loaded him up, more and more cops are showing up. The threat was gone, but we’re trying to find out what’s going on. It’s a complete mess. They started putting Tupac in the ambulance, so I grabbed one of the guys who worked for me and said, ‘Hop in the ambulance and ride with him, and don’t let him out of your sight at the hospital just in case he talks, just in case he says something, and maybe we can still get a dying declaration.’
“As soon as he got to the hospital, he went into surgery and was heavily sedated, and I guess he went into a coma and really never came out of that, until they took him off of life support. So that moment I talked to him was his last real living moment where he was speaking. I talked to the cop who rode in the ambulance with him. He said Tupac never came out of it, and he never said anything at the hospital. There was nothing else.”
Shakur was taken to University Medical Center, where he underwent the first of several surgeries. Doctors tried to stop the internal bleeding, and removed his right lung as part of the effort. He was placed on life-support machines and put into a drug-induced coma before dying on September 13.
Six nights earlier on Las Vegas Boulevard and Harmon Avenue, detectives had interviewed the members of Shakur’s entourage after the shooting, including Knight. But the interviews proved fruitless. If any of the men knew the shooter’s identity, they didn’t tell the police.
When asked if the murder of Shakur has had any lasting effect on him, Carroll says it was no more significant than other fatalities he dealt with as an officer.
“You have to understand, a cop—especially a Vegas cop working on the Strip, swing shift—you see dead people, shot people, suicides, car deaths, all the time. You’re very accustomed to it. And, for me, Tupac Shakur at the time, I knew who he was, but that was about it. I didn’t know anything about the guy.”
The intersection where Carroll tended to Shakur barely resembles what it looked like on September 7, 1996. Las Vegas Boulevard is now significantly wider, flanked by new developments such as CityCenter and the Cosmopolitan. There were also no ubiquitous camera phones to capture the events following the shooting.
As for who murdered Shakur, the general consensus among law enforcement officials in Las Vegas and Los Angeles is that Orlando Anderson—following the beating he received at the MGM Grand, which was originally thought to be an isolated incident—planned to shoot Shakur at Club 662. But the Cadillac he was riding in happened to come upon Knight’s BMW at Flamingo and Koval, providing him with an earlier, unexpected opportunity.
If Anderson was indeed the killer, we’ll likely never know for sure, as he was murdered in an unrelated shootout at a car wash in Compton on May 29, 1998.
“[Shakur’s murder] is still considered an unsolved homicide,” says Carroll, who was not involved in the investigation after the night of the shooting. “And an unsolved homicide case is technically never closed. But nothing more is ever going to happen with it. I’ve heard all the conspiracy theories that have come out, that Suge had something to do with it. And I’ll tell you, that didn’t happen. And one reason is: You don’t hire somebody to kill the guy who’s sitting next to you. And second of all: When we were at the scene, and he was yelling at Tupac, it was clear he had legitimate concern for him. It wasn’t acting; you could see it was the heat of the moment. This is not the guy who had him killed; it’s ridiculous.”
Despite having been the commanding officer for Metro’s bike patrol unit on the Strip, as well as the first officer on the scene, Carroll says he has never been contacted by an attorney, family member or anyone else representing Shakur to recap the events of that night.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff on the Internet about what happened that night, and it’s almost all wrong,” he says. “I’ve seen TV reports that have said stuff like, ‘This is the investigation that leaves no stone unturned.’ And I always think, ‘Well, they never talked to me.’”
Stories that Shakur is still alive persist today, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Shakur’s mother positively identified her son at the hospital after his death, the Clark County Coroner’s office certified the death certificate and, most disturbing, a photo from Shakur’s autopsy leaked out of the coroner’s office, showing the rapper laying with his upper chest sliced open and the first word of his “Thug Life” tattoo visible on his stomach. His remains were cremated at his mother’s request.
Even Suge Knight has fed the rumors that Tupac lives. When interviewed by TMZ earlier this month, Knight accused Combs of having Shakur shot before proclaiming, “Tupac’s not dead. If he was dead, they’d be arresting those dudes for murder. You know he’s somewhere smoking a Cuban cigar on the islands.”
“For any population who feels that they don’t have folks to speak for them,” Emdin says, “there’s always the hope that an icon like Tupac still exists. And when you hear Tupac’s music today, it reignites that hope; it reignites that wish that he was still around. And through his music, he will always be around.”
As for Carroll, he gives two reasons for waiting so long to go public with his account of the night Shakur was shot. First, his retirement from Metro has given him the freedom to tell his story without possible reprimand. “There’s still an open homicide case,” he says. “It just wasn’t time to speak earlier. Now it’s been almost 18 years; there’s clearly never going to be a court case on this.
“The second main reason I didn’t go public with this before is I didn’t want Tupac to be a martyr or hero because he told the cops ‘Fuck you.’ I didn’t want to give him that. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Even when the chips were down, his life on the line, he still said “Fuck you,” he still wouldn’t talk to the police.’ I didn’t want him to be a hero for that. And now enough time has passed, well, he’s a martyr anyway; he’s viewed as a hero anyway. My story, at this point, isn’t going to change any of that.”
Tupac: A Timeline
Produced by Tye Masters
Sean DeFrank talks about Tupac Shakur’s last words on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.