Grand jury witness testimony describes how hyperlocal clashes between warring gang factions spilled into a fatal dispute that would alter the course of hip-hop history.
In the adrenalized aftermath of a Mike Tyson prizefight in 1996, a black BMW carrying the rapper Tupac Shakur pulled up to a red light just off the Las Vegas Strip, thrilling the women in the car next to him.
As Mr. Shakur hung out of his passenger-side window, his friends in the Lexus behind him assumed that he was inviting the women to his record label’s new nightspot, Club 662 — its numeric name a barely disguised telephone code for “MOB.”
The women pulled away and a white Cadillac took their place. A large, muscular arm emerged from its rear window and fired a barrage of shots from a .40-caliber Glock pistol into the BMW. Shakur was hit four times.
The driver of the BMW, the Death Row Records impresario Marion Knight, better known as Suge, was grazed by the gunfire. But he managed to take off, making a U-turn over a traffic median and driving the wounded Mr. Shakur in the opposite direction before pulling over.
Malcolm Greenidge, a rapper and close friend of Mr. Shakur’s who had been following them in the Lexus, rushed out of the car to check on Mr. Shakur, he testified this summer to a Las Vegas grand jury. Mr. Shakur seemed less concerned with his wounds than with Greenidge’s safety as armed police officers approached the chaotic scene, he recalled.
“Get on the ground, they’re going to shoot you,” Mr. Shakur told him, Mr. Greenidge testified. Mr. Shakur would die less than a week later, at 25.
In the 27 years since, accounts of what happened on Sept. 7, 1996, have existed in an unwieldy tangle of news reports, true crime specials, street gossip, internet innuendo and dubious self-mythologizing. The case went cold.
But with last week’s indictment of Duane Keith Davis, a former Compton gang leader known as Keffe D, who has been saying publicly for years that he was in the white Cadillac when the fatal shots were fired, prosecutors have begun to map out the most detailed narrative yet of the chain of events they say led to Shakur’s death, one that will be tested in court.
While the broad outlines of Mr. Shakur’s killing and its possible motive have long been known, hundreds of pages of grand jury witness testimony reviewed by The New York Times — given under oath and with surprisingly vivid descriptions for a decades-old case — offer new details of how hyperlocal disputes between warring gang factions had spilled into an ultimately fatal rap beef that would alter the course of hip-hop history.
The son of Black Panther parents and a onetime performing arts student turned hip-hop backup dancer, Mr. Shakur had broken out as a solo artist in the early 1990s with a unique blend of introspective street poetry and young man’s fury. A proud antihero whose popularity only grew as he became mired in violence and rivalries, Mr. Shakur transformed in death into a hip-hop icon and pop culture martyr.
On Wednesday, Mr. Davis made his first appearance in Clark County District Court for a scheduled arraignment, which the judge postponed because Mr. Davis did not have a lawyer present, saying that his longtime California-based lawyer, Edi Faal, could not be there. In a brief phone interview, Mr. Faal said Mr. Davis, 60, intended to plead not guilty; he declined to discuss specifics about the case, saying he was in the process of getting Mr. Davis a Nevada lawyer.
“Like in all cases, I think we should allow things to play out in the courtroom,” Mr. Faal said.
Some of the new evidence challenges the conventional wisdom that had formed around the killing. While Mr. Davis had previously told law enforcement officials that the gun had been fired by his nephew, Orlando Anderson, who was killed in a gang-related shooting in 1998, two witnesses shared accounts with the grand jury casting doubt on the widely believed narrative.
Those close to the case have reacted to news of Mr. Davis’s arrest with a mixture of shock and relief.
Allen Hughes, who directed two of Mr. Shakur’s early music videos and worked with his estate on “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur,” a documentary series about the rapper and his mother that was released this year, said the family had wondered if there would ever be accountability for his death.
“All these years, we all knew what it was,” he said. “Just because law enforcement didn’t close the case, doesn’t mean we didn’t feel we knew who the true culprits were.”
Now someone has been indicted in his death. And Greg Kading, a retired Los Angeles police detective who began to reinvestigate the killing in 2006, said, “Tupac Shakur’s murder will never again go down as an unsolved mystery.”
Brawls and Retaliation
Mr. Shakur’s music and public persona had taken on a darker edge following his 1993 arrest and subsequent conviction for sexual abuse, as he aligned himself with the gangster rap label Death Row Records and its leader, Suge Knight, who orchestrated his $1.4 million bond pending appeal.
While still awaiting the verdict in the case, Mr. Shakur had been ambushed, robbed and shot in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio, an attack he later blamed on his former friend the Notorious B.I.G. and affiliates of the New York-based label Bad Boy Records, including Sean Combs, known then as Puff Daddy. (They denied involvement, with the Notorious B.I.G. claiming that his taunting track “Who Shot Ya?” had been written before the incident.)
After Mr. Shakur responded with the furious, personal diss “Hit ’Em Up” in June 1996, what was once a simmering competition between the hip-hop vanguard on the East and West Coasts became a boiling feud, with each side relying on support from sworn enemies in the gang underworld for protection and street credibility.
Those rising tensions began to boil over as players from each side prepared to travel to Las Vegas to watch Mr. Tyson fight Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Not long before the fight, a brawl at the Lakewood Mall in Southern California set off a sequence of retaliation.
Denvonta Lee, who said he was an affiliate of Compton’s South Side Crips, told the Las Vegas grand jury this summer that Mr. Davis — who called himself “the five-star general” of the local Crip set — had given a local football player $4,000 to shop for clothes before heading to college and told other gang members to accompany him to the mall.
There, the group of young Crips collided with a Death Row-affiliated group of Mob Piru Bloods, their nearby rivals, resulting in a struggle over a Death Row chain. “That’s like taking somebody’s crown,” Mr. Lee testified. “It means something.” Within 24 hours, he added, “a war” had broken out locally. “There was shootings everywhere,” he said.
One of the participants in the mall fight, witnesses said, was Orlando Anderson, a nephew of Davis’s known as Baby Lane. That September, Mr. Anderson traveled to Las Vegas with his uncle and other Crips for a weekend of boxing, gambling and revelry.
The heavyweight fight ended in less than two minutes with a first-round Tyson knockout. Some ticket holders hadn’t even made it to their seats before it was over.
As those gathered plotted their next moves for the evening, Mr. Anderson, brushing off the need for backup, found himself alone near the MGM hotel elevators and face to face with Mr. Shakur and his entourage of Bloods, including the same man whose Death Row chain had been targeted at the mall in California.
In a scuffle that was captured by security cameras at about 9 p.m. that night, the group began to punch and kick Mr. Anderson, who declined to cooperate with the police and hotel security after his assailants scattered.
Now, it was Mr. Anderson who was looking to exact revenge. “He wasn’t coming back to Compton with nothing being done,” Lee told the grand jury.
A Fatal Encounter
Mr. Davis, a successful drug dealer and “shot caller” for the Crips at the time of Mr. Shakur’s death, wrote in a 2019 memoir, “Compton Street Legend,” that on the night of the shooting he obtained a Glock pistol from a drug associate from Harlem before setting out with Mr. Anderson to find Mr. Shakur and Mr. Knight.
A childhood friend of Mr. Knight’s — the two played Pop Warner football together — Mr. Davis had found himself enmeshed throughout the 1990s in the growing gangster rap nightlife scene, but his relationship with Death Row soured as the label became more closely associated with the Bloods. Mr. Davis instead aligned himself with their cross-country rivals at Bad Boy, supplying his Crip soldiers as West Coast security for the label’s artists and executives, in exchange for access to concerts and parties.
Following a failed stakeout targeting Mr. Shakur and Mr. Knight at Club 662, the white Cadillac that Mr. Davis and Mr. Anderson were riding in came upon Mr. Shakur’s BMW by chance, spotting him as he leaned out from the passenger side.
“If Pac had not been hanging out of the window, we would have never seen them,” Davis wrote. “Like two rams locking horns, Suge and I looked each other dead in the eye.”
According to witness testimony and law enforcement accounts, Terrence Brown was driving the white Cadillac that night; Mr. Davis rode in the front passenger seat, with Mr. Anderson behind him and Deandrae Smith, known as Big Dre, also sitting in the back. (Mr. Davis is the only person in the vehicle who is still alive, the police said.)
In describing the shooting, Mr. Davis wrote in his memoir that he had tossed the Glock into the back seat before the encounter at the traffic light. While he has sometimes refused to say who fired the shots that night, he told law enforcement officials in interviews about 15 years ago that it had been Mr. Anderson.
But new testimony in the case suggests a different version of events.
Mr. Lee, the grand jury witness, was Mr. Smith’s roommate at the time, and told the court in July that Mr. Smith had admitted at the time that he fired the shots that killed Mr. Shakur and injured Mr. Knight. “Orlando didn’t have a clear shot,” he said, adding, “Dre said, ‘Hey, give me the pistol,’ got the pistol, boom, did his thing.”
In the aftermath, however, speculation spread in Compton and beyond that Mr. Anderson had pulled the trigger as retribution for his beating at the MGM. Mr. Brown let Mr. Anderson have the “glory,” Mr. Lee testified. “He didn’t want to take the credit for Orlando.”
The indictment of Mr. Davis does not identify the shooter, stating that Mr. Davis provided the gun to Mr. Smith “and/or” Mr. Anderson “with the intent that said co-conspirators commit said crime.” Mr. Kading, the former Los Angeles detective, said in an interview that he believed that the “overriding evidence is Keffe D’s own admissions within his law enforcement interviews that he handed the gun to Orlando Anderson and Orlando Anderson pulled the trigger.”
Mr. Anderson, his friend said, often stopped short of claiming the murder. “‘You all crazy, man, don’t believe everything you hear,’” Mr. Lee recalled him saying.
Sharing His Story
Immediately after the killing, as a related gang war broke out in Compton, the police there arranged what Robert Ladd, a former Compton Police Department detective, described to the grand jury as a “massive multi-gang search warrant,” arresting known gang members to try to reduce the violence in the streets and searching the homes of Mr. Davis and the others from the white Cadillac.
But the initial investigation stalled, with the police blaming a lack of cooperation from witnesses. It was revived in 2006 when the Los Angeles Police Department opened a task force into the still-unsolved 1997 killing of the Notorious B.I.G. in a shooting long thought to be related to Mr. Shakur’s death.
It was during that inquiry that Mr. Kading, the Los Angeles police detective, persuaded Mr. Davis to speak with him after dangling the threat of a drug trafficking prosecution.
In 2008, Mr. Davis agreed to what is called a proffer agreement, in which Mr. Kading promised to not prosecute Mr. Davis using what he told him about Tupac and Biggie, so long as nothing he said proved to be a lie.
Mr. Kading taped Mr. Davis’s interview, and after retiring from the Police Department, the detective used the contents of the confession in a 2011 book called “Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations.” In 2015, the recording was included in a documentary based on the book.
Mr. Davis was irritated by Mr. Kading’s disclosures. Eager to share his story after recovering from colon cancer, he began talking publicly about the case. It was a risky step. Although Mr. Davis — who has spent a quarter of his life in prison, partly on drug trafficking charges — would have been protected from prosecution for what he told Mr. Kading during their meeting, his later public disclosures were not protected, legal experts said.
Mr. Davis gave his first public interview on the subject of Shakur’s death for a 2018 docu-series called “Death Row Chronicles.”
“He was trying to word things careful enough to walk a tightrope between taking credit, but not getting arrested,” said Mike Dorsey, the director of “Murder Rap,” who consulted on “Death Row Chronicles.” He said Mr. Davis arrived with a lawyer.
After the series aired without leading to charges, Mr. Davis wrote about the case in his memoir; his interviews on the subject, including with prominent YouTubers, grew “looser and looser,” Mr. Dorsey said.
Police officials and prosecutors in Las Vegas were watching Mr. Davis’s interviews closely.
“Since 2019, he has appeared at least eight separate times in promotion of this book and repeated various versions of these events, all of which he acknowledges that he is in fact the person that ordered the death of Mr. Shakur,” Marc DiGiacomo, a prosecutor on the case, said in court on Friday.
In his memoir, Mr. Davis at times softened toward Mr. Shakur and his family, writing that he had “deep sense of remorse” for the pain his death caused.
Still, he held firm that revenge was necessary for the beating of his nephew, going as far as to say that for some of the Crips involved, the killing earned them “some stripes.”
“But it generated too much attention,” Mr. Davis went on, “and put us under a microscope by law enforcement that would not cease and eventually brought us down. It was a big-time loss for everybody involved.”
Lynnette Curtis contributed reporting from Las Vegas.