LAS VEGAS — The city's neon lights vibrated in the polished hood of the black BMW as it cruised up Las Vegas Boulevard.
The man in the passenger seat was instantly recognizable. Fans lined the streets, waving, snapping photos, begging Tupac Shakur for his autograph. Cops were everywhere, smiling.
The BMW 750 sedan, with rap magnate Marion "Suge" Knight at the wheel, was leading a procession of luxury vehicles past the MGM Grand Hotel and Caesars Palace, on their way to a hot new nightclub. It was after 11 on a Saturday night--Sept. 7, 1996. The caravan paused at a crowded intersection a block from the Strip.
Shakur flirted with a carful of women--unaware that a white Cadillac had quietly pulled up beside him. A hand emerged from the Cadillac. In it was a semiautomatic pistol, aimed straight at Shakur.
Many of the rapper's lyrics seemed to foretell this moment.
"The fast life ain't everything they told ya," he sang in an early hit, "Soulja's Story."
"Never get much older, following the tracks of a soulja."
Six years later, the killing of the world's most famous rap star remains officially unsolved. Las Vegas police have never made an arrest. Speculation and wild theories continue to flourish in the music media and among Shakur's followers. One is that Knight, owner of Shakur's record label, arranged the killing so he could exploit the rapper's martyrdom commercially. Another persistent legend is that Shakur faked his own death to escape the pressures of stardom.
A yearlong investigation by The Times reconstructed the crime and the events leading up to it. Evidence gathered by the paper indicates:
* The shooting was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier.
* Orlando Anderson, the Crip whom Shakur had attacked, fired the fatal shots. Las Vegas police discounted Anderson as a suspect and interviewed him only once, briefly. He was later killed in an unrelated gang shooting.
* The murder weapon was supplied by New York rapper Notorious B.I.G., who agreed to pay the Crips $1 million for killing Shakur. Notorious B.I.G. and Shakur had been feuding for more than a year, exchanging insults on recordings and at award shows and concerts. B.I.G. was gunned down six months later in Los Angeles. That killing also remains unsolved.
Before they died, Notorious B.I.G. and Anderson denied any role in Shakur's death. This account of what they and others did that night is based on police affidavits and court documents as well as interviews with investigators, witnesses to the crime and members of the Southside Crips who had never before discussed the killing outside the gang.
Fearing retribution, they agreed to be interviewed only if their names were not revealed.
The slaying silenced one of modern music's most eloquent voices--a ghetto poet whose tales of urban alienation captivated young people of all races and backgrounds. The 25-year-old Shakur had helped elevate rap from a crude street fad to a complex art form, setting the stage for the current global hip-hop phenomenon.
Tupac Amaru Shakur was born in 1971 into a family of black revolutionaries and named after a martyred Incan warrior. Radical politics shaped his upbringing and the rebellious tone of much of his music.
His godfather, Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, spent 27 years in prison for a robbery-murder in Santa Monica that he insisted he did not commit. Pratt was freed after a judge ruled in 1997 that prosecutors concealed evidence favorable to the defendant.
Shakur's stepfather, Black Panther leader Mutulu Shakur, was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list until the early 1980s, when he was imprisoned for robbery and murder. His mother, Afeni Shakur, also a Black Panther, was charged with conspiring to blow up a block of New York department stores--and acquitted a month before the rapper was born.
Shakur grew up in tough neighborhoods and homeless shelters in the Bronx, Harlem and Baltimore. He exhibited creative talent as a child and was admitted to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he studied ballet, poetry, theater and literature.
In 1988, his mother sent him to live with a family friend in the Bay Area to escape gang violence in Baltimore. Living in a tough neighborhood north of Oakland, he joined the rap group Digital Underground and signed a solo record deal in 1991.
Shakur's debut album, "2Pacalypse Now," sparked a political firestorm. The lyrics were filled with vivid imagery of violence by and against police. A car thief who murdered a Texas state trooper said the lyrics incited him to kill. Law enforcement groups and politicians denounced Shakur. Then-Vice President Dan Quayle said the rapper's music "has no place in our society."