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FBI Probing Rap Label for Ties to Gangs, Drugs

Crime: Investigation of Death Row Records began months before the fatal shooting of Tupac Shakur.

September 29, 1996|JEFF LEEDS and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The FBI is probing Death Row Records, the leading independent rap music label where rapper Tupac Shakur recorded his last songs, for links to street gangs and drug trafficking, law enforcement sources said this week.

Federal authorities began investigating the 4-year-old company and some of its officers months before Shakur was fatally wounded in a Sept. 7 shooting in Las Vegas, according to sources familiar with the probe. Shakur was a passenger in a car driven by Death Row's co-founder and chief executive officer, Marion "Suge" Knight, when it was attacked.

Sources said the investigation of Death Row Records extends beyond individual members of the recording company to the activities of the company itself. One source close to the probe said federal officials are trying to determine whether the company was involved in money laundering and racketeering as well as drug trafficking. FBI officials declined to either confirm or deny the existence of a criminal investigation.

Since 1992, the FBI has investigated Southern California street gangs as part of its attempt to crack down on violent street crime. Those investigations have resulted in scores of arrests, mostly on drug-related charges, including interstate trafficking of cocaine.

Asked if the company, which generates $100 million in annual sales, would cooperate with the investigation, Death Row spokesman George Pryce said: "Absolutely no comment," and hung up on a reporter.

Shakur joined the Death Row label last year after Knight put up $1.4 million in bail for him while he was in custody appealing a conviction for sexual abuse.

The federal inquiry into the company's gang connections is likely to be more complex than an examination of Knight's alleged ties to a "set" of the Bloods street gang. His label's success is born of cooperation between rap artists and businessmen tied to rival gangs.

For example, while Knight hails from a Compton neighborhood dominated by Bloods, one of his most profitable performers, Calvin Broadus (known as Snoop Doggy Dogg), has been listed on police records as a member of a Crips set in Long Beach.

The federal probe appears to be the first major criminal investigation of the Los Angeles-based company, but Death Row's executives and marquee artists have faced a raft of legal troubles.

In 1995, Knight, a former defensive lineman for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas football team, pleaded no contest to assaulting two aspiring rappers in a Hollywood recording studio. In May 1994, Shakur served a short jail term for attacking director Allen Hughes on the set of a music video. Last February, Broadus and his bodyguard were acquitted of murder in connection with the shooting of a man in a Westside park.

In a federal cocaine-trafficking case against former Ram football player Darryl Henley, two of Knight's cousins were alleged by investigators to have participated in the operation. The cousins were not indicted and the complaint against them was dismissed.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas homicide investigators say they are still searching for leads in connection with the shooting of Shakur, who died Sept. 13. The singer-actor was riding in the passenger seat of Knight's black BMW one block from the Las Vegas Strip about 11:15 p.m., heading to Knight's club on the outskirts of the city, when a white Cadillac pulled up beside them at a traffic light.

One police source said evidence at the scene suggested that two men opened fire on Shakur with large-caliber handguns as he tried to scramble into the back seat. A metal fragment grazed Knight's head. Shakur was struck four times in the chest, hand and pelvis. He died at University Medical Center in Las Vegas.

Police say their inquiry has been hampered by less-than-candid witnesses and conflicting accounts. Even if investigators uncover evidence linking someone to the shooting, they so far have no witnesses who can identify a suspect.

Investigators in Las Vegas have also reviewed a videotape from a security camera at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, where--hours before the shooting--Shakur and several friends pummeled a young man after a heavyweight fight featuring Shakur's friend, Mike Tyson.

While there was speculation that the man who fought with Shakur was a suspect in the shooting, police say he was detained after the encounter and could not have tailed the Death Row entourage through the city.

Police sources said that after Shakur and his friends left the MGM Grand, they used an overhead walkway to cross the street to the Luxor Hotel, where they were staying and had parked their cars. Later, sources said, the group went to Knight's home in a posh, gated community, finally piling into a caravan of luxury cars to return to the casino strip around 10:30 p.m., bound for Knight's nightclub, Club 662.

The shooting took place just after they turned off the Strip, at Flamingo Road and Koval Lane, across from the Maxim Hotel and Casino. The locale of the shooting is one of the more puzzling aspects of the crime, police say, because the chances of an attacker making a quick getaway in that part of town are minimal.

"I don't know why they'd take the chance to shoot [Shakur] where they did," one law enforcement officer said. "Why shoot him in one of the most gridlocked parts of town?"

Times staff writers Robert J. Lopez and Shawn Hubler contributed to this story.

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