Journalist Randall Sullivan explains why he followed up LAbyrinth, his explosive 2002 exposé on the rappers’ deaths, with new book Dead Wrong
In 2002, Randall Sullivan released LAbyrinth, a book that claimed that the Los Angeles Police Department were implicated in the deaths of rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac. The book’s primary source was LAPD detective Russell Poole, who claimed that the murders were tied to a crew of cops associated with Suge Knight and Death Row Records. It caused an uproar at the time, and was later adapted into the Johnny Depp-starring, as-yet-unreleased film City of Lies, in which Depp portrays the since-deceased Poole. 21 years later, though, and there have still been no convictions for the murders, despite all the high-profile attention that the case generates.
Sullivan’s new book, Dead Wrong: The Continuing Story of City of Lies, Corruption and Cover-Up in the Notorious B.I.G. Murder Investigation, released last month, is a follow-up to LAbyrinth, and picks up where the story left off. We talked to Sullivan about his new book, the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, and whether he thinks the mystery will ever be solved.
Why did you feel the need to follow up LAbyrinth with Dead Wrong all these years later?
Randall Sullivan: LAbyrinth was really the story of everything that had happened up to 2002. It’s been 17 years, and a lot of lies have been piled on top of the truth. Those lies have gained traction because nobody was really disputing them. Considering what transparent lies they were, that really amazed me. But it was also clear that Biggie’s murder was going to get buried. The LAPD had no intention of solving the crime, and nobody was holding any of the powers that be in Los Angeles to account – and that includes the media. It was a terrible thing to see. Also, I watched the two people that really tried to solve that crime, Russell Poole and Sergio Robleto, both die unexpectedly of heart attacks. The book is to some degree an honour to their memory, but it’s more than that. It looked like the lies were going to win and the truth was going to get buried, and I just couldn’t stand that.
Do you think Biggie’s or Tupac’s murders will ever be solved?
Randall Sullivan: I don’t think there’s any incentive on the part of the police department in Los Angeles or Las Vegas to solve those crimes. I don’t think they’ll be solved, unless the pressure mounts. I’m hoping that the combination of this book and the City of Lies movie, being released close together, will shine a bright enough light on the LAPD to compel them to explain some things. The FBI actually made a case that supported Russell Poole’s theory and the US Attorney wouldn’t file it. It’s a standard protocol that if the US Attorney’s office turns down an FBI case, they have to write what’s called a ‘letter of declination’ saying why they won’t prosecute the case. In this case, they refused to do that. They didn’t want to be on the record about why they weren’t doing it. It involved money and political power. And that was it. They didn’t give a damn about justice, truth, or any of the things they’re supposed to be about.
Why do you think this ongoing mystery, and the inability to solve the murder of one of the most iconic rappers ever, continues to be so alluring in pop culture lore?
Randall Sullivan: It’s the closest equivalent to JFK’s murder for people of a certain generation. But it’s also evidence that there’s no value placed on their lives. What makes this case so unique and complicated is that it was all racial politics at the very beginning. Then it became about money. But the people who were protecting Bernard Parks – because he was the LAPD’s first real black chief – thought they were politically obligated to do so. They were sweeping Biggie’s murder and Tupac’s murder under the rug because they really didn’t give a shit. All they cared about was protecting themselves. Covering their own asses, politically. Getting justice for Biggie meant nothing to them. To them, he was just another street gangster, who happened to make money. In fact, that’s what the city attorney’s office said when they met with the FBI: ‘Are you going to jeopardise our relationship, all that we’ve got going, just to try to solve the murder of a 400-pound black ex-crack dealer?’ That’s how they saw him.
Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace’s lawsuit against the LAPD plays a big part in the book. Can you explain why?
Randall Sullivan: Voletta Wallace is the heroine of this story because she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept trying to get the truth. It was really complicated and she knew she was going to have to take a hard look at Puffy Combs, who was close and basically co-created Biggie as an artist, but he was going along with the cover-up of her son’s murder (former LAPD detective Greg Karding previously claimed that P Diddy was linked to the murders in his book Murder Rap). She had cops from both New York and Los Angeles coming at her, trying to shut this down, but she wouldn’t back off. She just hung in there, because in her mind there was nothing as important as getting justice for her son. That sort of unyielding attitude and just mental toughness that she showed for 15 years has a lot to do with how I was able to get to the bottom of all this.
You mentioned Puff Daddy, too. What about the accusations against him concerning Tupac’s murder?
Randall Sullivan: I’m not accusing Puffy of having set up Tupac’s murder. There are certainly people who said it, but I wouldn’t make an accusation without knowing. What I (claim in Dead Wrong) is that he basically instructed the key witnesses to Biggie’s murder to keep their mouths shut and not talk to the cops and not give them any information. Maybe that implicates him in some way, I don’t know – but for sure, he didn’t lift a finger, or actively got in the way of the cops trying to solve the murder of his supposed best friend.
Suge Knight has always been considered a suspect. Do you still stick to the original stuff in LAbyrinth? And who, in your mind, is the villain in all this?
Randall Sullivan: Everything I’ve found supports that original theory. When the FBI began an investigation of the case, they (came to) the very same conclusion. They followed in Russell Poole’s footsteps. One of the biggest villains in this to me, even though he’s nobody, is Greg Kading. He wrote Murder Rap. It was from his reinvestigation of Biggie’s murder that the LAPD started in 2006. That investigation was nothing but a smokescreen, they’d just been caught concealing evidence that implicated police officers in trial in the lawsuit that Biggie’s mom filed. They were hit with the biggest fine in the history of a civil case in Southern California for a case without a judgement and the judge made them pay over a million bucks.
William Bratton, the new police chief, says he’s organising this new investigation called Operation Transparency. It was like, ‘Pretend we’re investigating, so we can delay the trial.’ And that’s exactly what they did. They claimed, ‘Well now we’re investigating, so we can’t share any information or evidence.’ And that basically stopped the trial and the real investigation into what happened with Biggie. Kading, who was part of this Operation Transparency, writes his own self-published book, making claims that he solved the case. (In my opinion) the book is full of lies. I’m not talking about mistakes. I’m talking about deliberate omissions of fact or things that are simply not true.
Can you talk about your involvement in the film City of Lies?
Randall Sullivan: Despite all this delay and all the questions that people have tried to raise about it, I think it’s going to be a big success, if for no other reason then Johnny Depp’s performance (as Russell Poole). Johnny’s just brilliant in the role. The script is terrific. I think it’s going to make a huge impact. And the fact that it’s going to come out shortly after the book does, that one-two punch, is the one chance that’s out there that all of this will be opened up again and the truth will finally come out.