Labyrinth A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records' Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal
By Randall Sullivan
Grove Atlantic, Inc. Copyright © 2002 Randall Sullivan
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8021-3971-X
It was after dark by the time Russell Poole arrived at the shooting scene. Cahuenga Boulevard, the main thoroughfare linking downtown Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, was closed off in both directions by yellow police tape and patrol cars with flashing lights. The enclosed area was crawling with brass, captains as well as lieutenants. Poole's squad leader, Lt. Pat Conmay, his partner, Detective Supervisor Fred Miller, and the members of the LAPD's Officer Involved Shooting team were all standing in a group. The Internal Affairs investigators, as always, kept to themselves.
Frank Lyga was still at the scene and had been informed that the dead man was a police officer. "Lyga was very confident at that time," Poole recalled. "He felt certain he had done nothing wrong. I don't think he realized that the fact Gaines was black was going to be as much of a problem for him as it was."
The OIS team drove Lyga back to the North Hollywood station to take his statement. Poole was informed that his assignment would be to investigate a possible charge of assault with a deadlyweapon against the undercover detective. Poole was collecting spent cartridges and making measurements of the shooting scene when he and Miller received a tip that Gaines, although married, had been living with a girlfriend at an address in the Hollywood Hills. The two detectives drove to the Multiview Avenue address and found themselves at the gated driveway of a mansion belonging to the notorious gangsta rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight, CEO of Death Row Records. Gaines's girlfriend was Knight's estranged wife, Sharitha.
Sharitha Knight already had been informed of Gaines's death, and was cried out by the time Poole and Miller interviewed her. Sharitha's mother, who introduced herself as Mrs. Golden, did most of the talking at first, explaining that her daughter was married to but separated from Suge Knight, and that Kevin was her boyfriend. They had seen Kevin only a few hours earlier, Mrs. Golden told the detectives. He said he was going to the gym and intended to pick up new tires for the Montero on his way home. "Sharitha did say that Kevin had done some 'security work' for Death Row, but she gave no details," Poole recalled.
Sharitha Knight had met Gaines in 1993 at a gas station on La Brea Avenue just south of the Santa Monica Freeway. Gaines (who had been reprimanded repeatedly for attempting to pick up women while on duty) pulled up in his patrol car next to her Mercedes, Sharitha said, and began a casual conversation that grew more animated when she told the officer who she was and described her mansion in the hills above Cahuenga Pass. Gaines bet the woman dinner that she was exaggerating, and the two began dating exclusively after he paid off. Gaines soon took up residence in the mansion, separated by twenty-five miles and two million dollars from the house in Gardena where his wife, Georgia, and their two children lived. Sharitha was working at the time as Snoop Dogg's manager, and obtained work for Gaines as the rapper's bodyguard.
Poole and his partner made no protest when Sharitha Knight cut the interview short after less than half an hour. "This was her boyfriend and she was distraught," Poole explained. "It was a delicate situation."
As he drove back down Cahuenga Pass toward the LAPD's North Hollywood station to interview Frank Lyga, Poole recalled, "I thought to myself, 'This case is going to take me to places I've never been.'"
* * *
Poole already had been to places that few people raised in the suburbs ever see. Now a burly forty-year-old with a sunburnt squint and glints of silver in his reddish-blond hair, Poole had been a slim twenty-two-year-old with freckled cheeks and bright green eyes when he accepted his first assignment with the LAPD, as a patrol officer in Southwest Division, working out of a station near The Coliseum. "The department didn't try to prepare me for what it was to be a white officer in a black neighborhood, because there's no way to do that," he recalled. "But you learn real quick. All of a sudden this shy kid from La Mirada is working ten hours a day in South Central Los Angeles. It's like you've been given a front-row seat on life in the inner city."
At La Mirada High School, situated on the border between Orange and Los Angeles Counties, Poole had been voted most valuable player on a baseball team that won the Suburban League Championship. Pete Rose was his childhood idol, and Poole's teammates tagged him with Rose's nickname, "Charlie Hustle." "I ran everywhere I went, full blast," he explained. "It was the way I was brought up, to give all you had all the time."
His father was a twenty-seven-year veteran of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department who had spent much of his career as a supervising sergeant of the detective bureau at Norwalk Station. "I looked up to my dad," Poole recalled. "He had been in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, and I used to love to look at his medals. We were a very traditional family. My father was the breadwinner, my mom stayed home and took care of us kids. My two sisters shared one bedroom, while my brother, Gary, and I shared another. I thought that was pretty much how everybody lived." His father never encouraged him to become a cop, and Poole kept his dream of playing baseball in the major leagues alive until a torn rotator cuff during his second season at Cerritos College ended his athletic career. Although he graduated with a degree in criminal justice, the young man went to work in a supermarket and was night manager at an Alpha-Beta store when he married his wife, Megan, in 1979. The two had known each other since they were children, and the bride wondered out loud whether her young husband would be satisfied with a comfortable life in La Mirada. Her question was answered less than a year later, in the autumn of 1980, when Russell Poole entered the Los Angeles Police Academy. "I decided that I needed something more stimulating than the grocery business," he explained. Fewer than half of those who entered Poole's Police Academy class would finish with him.
The culture of the LAPD back then was "quasi-military," recalled Poole, who liked it that way. Every day began with a three-mile run that ended with alternating sets of pull-ups and push-ups, followed by wind sprints. "I went into the Academy at a pretty solid 185 pounds and finished at a little over 165," he recalled. "But you learned pretty fast that physical ability wasn't the point-character was. They wanted to see whether you would drop out or keep trying. Would you quit if you got cramps while you were running, or would you grind it out, cry it out, gut it out. A lot of the women in the class impressed me in that way."
Only about a year after Poole graduated, though, a series of lawsuits forced the Academy to make failure all but obsolete. "After that, if you were lousy or wouldn't try hard enough, they'd pat you on the back and say, 'It's okay, we have remedial classes you can take,'" Poole recalled. "They'd get you counseling. They also started lowering the standards on written tests, in order to encourage diversity and avoid controversy."
Poole didn't think the department was doing its new recruits any favors. "When you get out on the streets, nobody's going to baby you there," he explained. "You are going to be caught in situations where all you can do is survive."
The more harrowing the circumstance, the more intense the experience of connection to one's fellow officers, as Poole discovered soon after his assignment to patrol duty in South Central L.A. "What I remember most about those early days was how it felt to stop a car and approach it from the rear," Poole recalled. "The whole key was to stay alert, but not come on aggressive. On patrol, you had to be ready for anything. You might go through a whole day totally bored, then plunge into an experience of complete terror fifteen minutes before the end of your shift."
The most feared part of Southwest Division was an area called the Jungle, a collection of apartment buildings along Martin Luther King Boulevard between Crenshaw and LaBrea that was surrounded by huge, droopy eucalyptus trees. All that low-hanging foliage was what made the Jungle so dangerous, along with an unusual layout of buildings that created a lot of places where a suspect could hide until an officer was almost on top of him. "Anytime we went in there, the only color we saw when we looked at each other was the blue of our uniforms," Poole recalled.
Before crack cocaine, PCP was the street drug of choice in the ghetto, and Poole had never been more frightened than the first time he was attacked by a suspect high on horse tranquilizer. "I had dropped my guard because at first he appeared to be friendly-'Hi, officer, how you doin'?'-but when he got close he grabbed for my throat," Poole recalled. "My first instinct was to throw out my hands to push his face back, but he caught my left forefinger in his mouth and bit it all the way down to the bone. My partner was trying to hit him upside the head to get him to release, and finally he did, but we went to the ground and the guy was spitting and scratching and punching and kicking. He was shredding our shirts and uniforms, scratching our arms and faces. I had deep cuts all over my face and so did my partner. Blood was everywhere and my finger was dangling, barely attached.
"Pretty soon we were surrounded by this big crowd of people, all black, and this was very scary for me, because I was fairly new and had never been in a situation like that. We didn't have handheld radios back then, so I looked up at this one older black man and said, 'Please get on that radio and request help.' I didn't want to draw my gun so I took out my sap and hit the guy across the forehead. It didn't even faze him. So I hit him a second time, as hard as I could, and that split his head open. Right about then I started hearing those faint sirens from far away, gradually getting louder and louder. Nothing ever sounded better to me. And in a couple of minutes there were like twenty LAPD patrol cars on the scene, with cops of all colors, and the crowd was breaking up. I remember thinking, 'This is what they meant by backing each other up and being there when another officer needs you.' It made me feel really good to be part of this organization filled with people I could count on, no matter where they came from."
One of Poole's first mentors was a black training officer named Richard Lett, "a shy, nice man who had about fifteen years on the job." During the entire time they worked together, Poole recalled, the two of them never spoke once about communicating across racial lines. "He saw that I take people as they come, and so he really didn't think it was necessary," Poole recalled. "I was making friends of all races and I felt this was my education in life. My time as a patrol officer taught me how to connect with people from very different backgrounds, and I learned not to make general assumptions about anyone."
Back in those days, the LAPD talked about itself as a family, Poole recalled: "We greeted each other with hugs, brother officer, sister officer, civilian employees." The only discordant note was sounded at roll calls, where black officers invariably sat in a section of the room separate from the white and Hispanic officers, who tended to intermingle. "But nobody ever talked about it," Poole remembered.
Everything changed in 1991, though, when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers at the end of a vehicle pursuit was broadcast on local television. Poole was at home ironing a shirt the first time he saw it: "I remember thinking, 'Oh, shit, I wonder how many times they're gonna play that?' I never imagined it would be hundreds and hundreds. That wasn't the LAPD I knew, but it became the LAPD to the rest of the world, and that was awful to live with. It created terrible tensions within the department. Getting along with both civilians and your fellow officers along racial lines suddenly became a lot more difficult. Even people you thought were friends weren't saying 'Hi' when you passed them in the hallway."
The riots that followed the acquittal of the four officers accused in the Rodney King beating at their first trial in Simi Valley only increased racial divisions within the LAPD. The department maintained a mobilization plan for such emergencies, but for some reason it wasn't implemented. Chief Daryl Gates had been relieved of duty (by the first black president of the Los Angeles Police Commission), and then reinstated, but his position was weakened. "Everybody wanted to be the new chief," Poole recalled. "All these deputy chiefs were practically begging Gates to retire so they could take over, and the early response to the riots was controlled by some of these same people, who really didn't mind if the LAPD looked bad, because it would make Chief Gates look bad. We had subcommanders pulling units out of the area around Florence and Normandie when they should have been pouring in."
When Gates, who had been attending a function in Mandeville Canyon, finally arrived at the LAPD Command Post in the bus depot at 54th and Van Ness, he was astonished to find captains and lieutenants standing around in groups. When a black captain approached him carrying a coffee cup, Gates slapped the cup out of the man's hands and shouted, "What the fuck is happening? Why aren't my men out there deployed?"
Even before the rioting stopped, word of this incident had spread through the department, "and people of different races were even more uncomfortable with each other," Poole remembered. By the time Gates was replaced by the LAPD's first black chief, Willie Williams, an import from Philadelphia, the department had become an institution seething with thinly veiled resentments. White officers did not doubt that Williams had won the job with the color of his skin, while black officers wondered why the position hadn't gone to the LAPD's highest-ranking African American, Assistant Chief Bernard Parks.
To a lot of people, and for the longest time, it had looked as if Bernie Parks might be the one man who could reconcile the contradictory legacies that he had inherited from his two most notable predecessors, William H. Parker and Homer Broome. During the 1930s and '40s, Parker had occupied the unenviable position of a clean cop in a dirty department. The LAPD of that period was almost astonishingly corrupt; Los Angeles's mayor sold hiring and promotion exams out of his office in City Hall, while vice officers earned the bulk of their income by protecting prostitutes, pimps, and pornographers. At one point, the LAPD's head of intelligence was sent to San Quentin for bombing the car of an investigator who had been hired by civic reformers to ferret out crooked cops.
Excerpted from Labyrinth by Randall Sullivan Copyright © 2002 by Randall Sullivan. Excerpted by permission.
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