By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THERE IS A SCOOP IN LABYRINTH, THE first book that seeks to make sense of the sprawling police scandal that wracked Los Angeles over the past four years. It arrives in the final chapter, two pages before the epilogue, and it's supplied by Nick Broomfield, the British documentarian who made exposé films on pop icons Courtney Love and Heidi Fleiss.
Broomfield, we learn from author Randall Sullivan, was fascinated by the murder of Biggie Smalls, the East Coast rap star slain after a music-industry party in Los Angeles in 1997. In May 2001, Broomfield sat down with Eugene Deal, a New York state parole officer who was moonlighting as Biggie's bodyguard the night of the murder. Broomfield presented Deal with photographs of several people police believed might be involved. Deal pointed out one as a man he'd seen on the sidewalk 10 minutes before the shooting.
"That's him right there," Deal said.
The man Deal identified was Harry Billups, a.k.a. Amir Muhammed, a friend of ex-cop David Mack, who was later convicted of robbing a Bank of America branch of more than $700,000 in cash. Mack, in turn, was close friends with Rafael Perez, the rogue cop whose confessions launched the Rampart scandal. And Mack was spotted at several functions thrown by Marion "Suge" Knight, major domo at Death Row Records. Though Knight was in jail at the time, many believe he ordered the Smalls shooting.
Confirming that Billups -- or Muhammed, as he signed his name when he visited Mack in jail -- was present that night could represent a major advance in the story, the first real break in the Biggie Smalls case. It could also establish a possible tie between police officers and the crime scene at Death Row Records, which is one of Sullivan's primary themes.
But while Sullivan serves up the Broomfield interview, he does nothing with it. He never contacts Deal, nor does he bother speaking with Billups -- the same lapse committed by the L.A. Times reporters who first broke the Mack/Billups/Biggie Smalls story three years ago. And he introduces Broomfield's meeting with Deal chronologically, hundreds of pages after the shooting and the police interview of the other witnesses are played out in the book.
It's a curious decision by Sullivan, the coda to a book that is by turns fascinating, tedious and ultimately odd. The story meanders, beginning with a police shooting in Los Angeles, then delving deep into the back story of rap heavies Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur and Puffy Combs, and finally swinging back to the LAPD. We cover a good 200 pages before Rafael Perez gets any serious play, and then track him through the lurid recollections of onetime girlfriend Sonya Flores, before Sullivan points out that Flores recanted much of her testimony.
This is an expanded form of a piece Sullivan wrote for Rolling Stone last year. It suffers from many of the same flaws and inconclusive reporting that riddled the magazine article. Sullivan's detours are lengthy and well worn -- the rap lore is a rich vein, but in Labyrinth it's a lifeless rehash of published material unleavened by interviews or scenes or primary sources. The police stories are familiar as well, at least to readers in L.A. And when it comes to the LAPD, Sullivan's treatment is so conflicted it's hard at times to discern his thesis: He portrays Perez as a liar who concocted the Rampart scandal, but he also lays out in some detail several of the central cases from Rampart, cases that taken alone would constitute a major police scandal.
PART OF THE REASON LABYRINTHFEELS so, well, labyrinthine, is that it's built around the story of Detective Russell Poole. And as Poole himself has told half a dozen reporters, his experience at the heart of what came to be known as Rampart left him frustrated, angry and confused.
Poole was a distinguished homicide detective when he was assigned to investigate the shooting of Kevin Gaines, an African-American police officer killed while off duty by another LAPD cop, narcotics specialist Frank Lyga, in what appeared to be a case of aggravated road rage.
Poole soon learned that Gaines had been living with Sharitha Knight, the estranged wife of the rap mogul, and had made substantial sums working on the side for Death Row Records. Poole began making inquiries into possible connections between black police officers and the rap label. A month later, he and his partner were assigned to investigate the Biggie Smalls shooting -- in part, Poole said, because of his familiarity with Death Row.
That assignment took Poole deep into the violent world of gangsta rap. A feud between East and West Coast record labels was believed to have resulted in several shootings, and Suge Knight and thugs close to him had perpetrated several vicious beatings. Poole also learned that Knight had funded a private security firm staffed exclusively with off-duty police officers, the better to insulate himself from on-duty law enforcement. Most were from south L.A. cities like Compton and Inglewood, but one, Richard McCauley, was LAPD; Gaines may have been another.
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