Have Gun Will Travel (Ronin Ro)

book cover

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tupac and suge knight

Tupac and Suge on the night of the fatal shooting.

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suge knight

Suge Knight and friend

  At the MTV Awards you could see these [Death Row] guys walking in like they were King Tut," said one East Coast music executive. "Everybody else, including label heads, just waited in line. But these guys just walked right down the aisle."

It was September 4 and Tupac Shakur looked nervous. It had been four months since his single "Hit Em Up" attacked Biggie Smalls, Puffy, Bad Boy, and Mobb Deep. During a recent interview with Vibe, Puffy seemed to have lost patience with Suge and Tupac. "What it's been right now is a lot of moviemaking and a lot of entertainment drama," Puffy said. "Bad boys move in silence. If somebody wants to get your ass, you're gonna wake up in heaven. There ain't no record gonna be made about it. It ain't gonna be no interviews; it's gonna be straight up. 'Oh, shit, where am I? What are these wings on my back?' "

A Vibe reader, Tupac knew that Puffy had ended the "East vs. West" cover story feature by saying, "I'm ready for [this beef] to come to a head, however it gotta go down. I'm ready for it to be out of my life and be over with. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I just hope it can end quick and in a positive way, because it's gotten out of hand."

Surrounded by security guards at the MTV Awards, Tupac also carried a walkie-talkie. His girlfriend, Kidada Jones, daughter of Vibe owner Quincy, reported that he was changing. "Instead of going to strip clubs," she explained, "he was cooking." He had finished recording an album (the last covered by the contract signed in prison) and told Kidada he wanted to move out of the Death-Row-leased home they inhabited and into one located in another part of town. Then they could work on having that kid they always discussed, and he could see if Warner Bros. would be interested in signing him. He also mailed David Kenner a letter, firing him.

Entering the awards show, he stopped for a film crew. Asked what would happen if Death Row met Bad Boy, he replied, "We are businessmen. We are not animals. It's not like we're going to see them and rush them and jump on them. If they see us and they want drama, we're going to definitely bring it like only Death Row can bring it." By night's end, Bad Boy and Death Row did meet up, and had to be separated by the NYPD.

"The last time I talked to him," said Curtis Hall, writer-director of Gridlock'd, "he said to me,'Suge told me the movie was great. I'm going to the MTV Music Awards, I'm going to Vegas to see Mike [Tyson] fight, and I'll come and see it on Monday.'" Tupac Shakur was shot that weekend.

Weary of battle, Tupac began taking steps to repair bridges he'd burned throughout his career. Some of his new songs were political. He had plans to have children with his girlfriend, two movies about to hit theaters, hundreds of new songs recorded, and renewed relations with his estranged mom. He formed a company named Euphanasia and sifted through incoming scripts. He planned to finance a youth center, sports teamS in South Central, and an 800 number for troubled youths.

On September 7, 1996, he told his live-in girlfriend he felt uneasy about attending the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon boxing match with Suge. Kidada advised him to wear his bulletproof vest; he said the weather would be too hot for it. Against his better judgment, he went to the fight, which was held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and attracted celebrities like Roseanne Arnold, Wayne Newton, Keanu Reeves, Jenny McCarthy, Charles Barkley, and Magic Johnson. After the fight ended with a quick knockout, Suge, Tupac, and other members of the Death Row entourage were in the MGM Grand lobby.

"Did you see Tyson do it 'im?" Tupac asked a film crew. "Tyson did it to 'im!" He leaped around. "Did y'all see that?" He became more agitated. "Fifty punches! I counted! Fifty punches! I knew he was gon' take him out! We bad like that. Come out of prison and now we running shit."

Having seen how Dre and Sam Sneed left the label, Tupac wanted to keep up appearances, especially with big Suge standing behind him, smiling, acting like his best friend, grabbing his thin arm, and physically leading him away.

As they walked, one of Suge's friends, a short, burly Mob Piru gang member named Travon Lane, recognized a sullen black guy standing across the lobby. "Tray" remembered him from an afternoon the past July when he decided to go to the Foot Locker store in Lakewood Mall. That afternoon Tray was wearing his diamond-covered Death Row pendant, and hanging with fellow Pirus Kevin Woods ("K.W.") and Maurice (Lil' Mo) Combs. Seven to eight Crips appeared in the store, leaped on them, and snatched Tray's Death Row chain.

This guy right across the lobby, Tray told Suge and Tupac on the night of September 7, this guy was one of the Crips involved in that robbery in the summer. Tupac approached the guy and asked, "You from the South?" Before he could answer, the Death Row entourage piled onto him, giving another of their trademark beatings. "Suge's boys beat down the Crips," said a witness. By participating, Tupac had crossed the tenuous line between rapping and gangbanging. After the assault, Suge and Tupac led the entourage through the casino like an occupying army. Hotel security approached the victim and urged him to file a report, but the guy refused and quietly left.

Tupac returned to his room at the Luxor, a hotel shaped like a giant pyramid; he was upset that his friends the Outlaw Immortalz hadn't met up with him at the fight. In his room a close friend said, "He complained of getting into a scrap with a Crip."

Despite his foul mood, Tupac rejoined the party. Outside the MGM Grand, an amateur videographer recorded Suge and Tupac waiting for their car. Tupac had changed from a silk shirt to a black basketball jersey and diamond-encrusted medallion; they were surrounded by women.

They went to Suge's house nearby.

Then at ten-thirty, Suge and Tupac entered Suge's rented black BMW 750. They turned off Boulevard onto Flamingo and headed east toward Club 662, an establishment with a name that had mainstream journalists commenting that the numbers stood for "MOB" on a telephone keypad, when more accurately the digits represent the California penal code for "Death Row."

They were most likely going to party; they would eventually get around to discussing the beating they administered at the Grand. Suge wore a colorful short-sleeve shirt, and a thick bracelet on his left wrist. In the shotgun seat, Tupac had his window down, yelling at fans, telling them to join the party. There were between six and fifteen cars in the convoy, a spectacular sight noticed by police cruisers as it left Suge's home at about 10:30 P.M. "There was a black BMW, a black Lexus 400, a white Suburban, a black BMW station wagon, a light gold Mercedes-- they stood out," said Las Vegas Metro Police Sergeant Greg McCurdy.

The BMW stopped at a red light in front of the Maxim Hotel. This was where the neon of Vegas gives way to dark desert terrain. Hundreds of people walked the streets but didn't notice the late-model Cadillac with California plates pull up to the right of the rented BMW.

One of its four passengers pulled a firearm. "I heard these sounds and thought it was someone shooting in the air," an eyewitness told Vibe. Between ten and fifteen shots rang out. Glass shattered. "Two men got out of the [Cadillac] because the traffic was stalled," said a member of the entourage. "Then they just started spraying bullets. I could see Tupac trying to jump into the backseat. That's how his chest got exposed so much." Two bullets tore into his chest. Another through his hand. One more in his leg. Bullet fragments grazed Suge's head. The Cadillac peeled off to the right, toward Koval Street. The group, one witness said, returned fire.

With two tires blown out and the windshield shot through, Suge floored the BMW. He threw a U-turn against oncoming traffic. Vehicles scattered. Two policemen at the Maxim heard the shots and saw the caravan making U-turns. They leaped into their car and chased Suge's BMW. Bleeding through his jersey, Tupac told himself, "Gotta keep your eyes open."

Suge stopped the car. The police arrived. Tupac stretched out on the backseat, bleeding heavily. Ambulance lights flashed. A witness said, "There was blood everywhere." Suge's face was covered with blood; he tried to tell an officer he had been shot in the head. The officer raised a shotgun. "If you don't get down on your knees right now, buddy, you're going to get shot in the fucking head again."

Suge tried to answer.

The officer kept his shotgun aimed at Suge. "Get down!"

"I gotta get my boy to the hospital."

"Shut up! Get down!"

Suge kneeled.

The white Cadillac left Las Vegas, Nevada.

At Club 662 the mood was festive. People were dancing, having drinks, throwing up their gang signs on their fingers, and enjoying a performance of rap classics by the legendary group Run-D.M.C. "They were right in the middle of a song, when Eric B came up to me," a former Death Row employee said. "He said, 'They shot him.' I didn't know who he was talking about. I said, 'Who?' He said Tupac. I asked, Where did they take him? He didn't tell me. Wouldn't say it out loud. He took out a pen, grabbed a napkin, and wrote it down. The letters: UMC."

As Tupac was wheeled into the intensive care unit at University Medical Center, he said, "I'm dying, I'm dying!" Police accompanied Suge to the hospital but were unable to question him while he was being treated. After being released, he vanished.

Tupac, meanwhile, underwent a complicated operation in his chest area. In the waiting room, his mother, Afeni, pugilist Mike Tyson, actress Jasmine Guy, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and others waited for news. First they were told he had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. Doctors later said his chances of survival were good: Despite a tremendous loss of blood, he was stabilizing. Rising to her feet, his mother approached a hospital chaplain and said she needed to pray. "I'm a strong believer in God," she said quietly. "And I know he'll make it."

The next day Tupac Shakur underwent another operation. Hospital spokesperson Dale Pugh told MTV, "He has been conscious." On Monday he was still in critical condition, his injuries now described as severe. During this ambush, Shakur had been shot four times--at least twice in the chest, which explained the loss of one lung. He was likely to survive, the UMC spokesperson said. The "Thug Life" tattoo on his torso had been riddled with bullets.

At eight o'clock that night, outside UMC in Vegas, Tupac's backup group, the Outlaw Immortalz, held prayer sessions with his fans. A large group gathered and rebuffed the media. One photographer across the street raised a camera; supporters rushed over and pushed his lens aside.

Fearing that Shakur's shooting would lead to more violence, the Las Vegas police had gang units patrol the area near the hospital. When these vigilant officers stopped one car to question its driver, however, things took a turn for the worse. "We had pulled up to see how things were going," said a Metro Police sergeant. "It was completely in a friendly mood. One guy misunderstood and wouldn't cooperate." The officers were shocked to see twenty of Tupac's distraught friends charge across the road. "The crowd came not knowing what was going on and got in the way and were pushing some of the officers."

Luckily, one of Tupac's female friends helped police calm the group: Four handcuffed men were released despite the fact that butts of marijuana cigarettes were found on two of them. "We let them go because they were grieving," said the sergeant. "Besides, it was such a small amount. These people are human. We detained them, hoping to get their emotions calm and logic rolling. At first they wouldn't listen, but after twenty minutes, when we explained where we were coming from, they were very easy to get along with."

On Friday, September 13, 1996, at 4:03 p.m., a report aired on L.A.'s Channel 7: After six days in critical condition at University Medical Center, twenty-five-year-old Tupac Shakur was pronounced dead from respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest.
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Excerpted from Have Gun Will Travel by Ronin Ro. Copyright © 1998 by Ronin Ro. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photos copyright © Jaques M. Chenet, Gamma Liason; L. Greenfield, Sygma