Former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Chuck Philips, whose career was ruined when the Times published a rare front-page retraction of his March 17, 2008, article about the infamous 1994 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur, is demanding that the newspaper apologize and take back its retraction of his story, “An Attack on Tupac Shakur Launched a Hip-Hop War.”
Philips’ demand comes several days after his key unnamed source in the Shakur story revealed himself and corroborated Philips’ 2008 reporting.
“I want them to run a front-page retraction,” Philips, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, tells L.A. Weekly. “Same size, same place.”
Times management has not responded to requests by the Weekly for a comment. A front-page retraction is exceedingly rare in journalism.
On June 15, Dexter Isaac, imprisoned in New York for murder, admitted to participating in the 1994 attack on Shakur that set off the East Coast–West Coast rap war. The Times has ignored Isaac’s corroboration of Philips’ reporting, covering it dismissively the next day with short wire stories.
Isaac, serving life, went public in a letter published on AllHipHop.com, claiming he was involved in the mugging of Shakur outside New York’s iconic Quad Studios. Philips reported in 2008 that the attack was masterminded by rap impresario James Rosemond, known as Jimmy Henchman, because Shakur wouldn’t take Rosemond on as manager.
The 2008 Times story ruined Philips’ career, he says, when FBI documents referenced throughout the story turned out to be fakes created by con man James Sabatino. Although the FBI documents were bogus, they had been attached to a case in federal court.
Philips says his editors at the Times, who also were fooled by the documents, had insisted that he include the FBI papers in his story as a powerful backup to his findings. Those findings were based on interviews with four unnamed sources he said were involved in, or knew about, the attack on Shakur.
When widely read New York website TheSmokingGun.com proved the FBI documents to be fake, the newspaper’s management turned on Philips.
Philips believes Isaac’s admission vindicates him — and he wants his reputation back. During nearly 20 years of reporting for the Times, “I never had a major error in a story before,” Philips says. “I had a couple small corrections. No serious drama.”
Shakur is said to have been shot and robbed in 1994 before his murder in a 1996 Las Vegas drive-by shooting. Six months after Shakur’s murder, rival rapper Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace was gone, too — his fabled 300-pound frame slumped over the dashboard of his monster SUV at a Los Angeles intersection.
Philips worked to track down Shakur’s and Wallace’s killers, taking on a mystery that the NYPD, the Vegas police and the LAPD had failed to solve: the shootings that punctuated a bicoastal rap-industry feud.
Philips’ series of stories on Shakur versus B.I.G. was sourced almost entirely anonymously, all of it approved by his editors.
Shakur’s killers, Philips wrote in 2002, were Compton-area Crips, who did the deed while Wallace nodded his approval from a Vegas hotel suite in 1996.
After Wallace was killed in L.A. the next year, Times coverage indicated that the lead suspects were, once again, the Crips.
Philips’ approach was called into question by media critics and hip-hop heads long before 2008. His sources were unverifiable, and Philips’ early accounts dramatically clashed with popular theory. Music blogs speculated that Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight had Shakur killed upon learning he might leave the label, then conspired with dirty LAPD officers to kill Wallace six months later.
Media skepticism toward Philips’ coverage went big in 2005, when Rolling Stone ran a piece by Randall Sullivan that sided with the conspiracy theory in which at least one Los Angeles cop helped kill Wallace.
Sullivan’s 13-page blowout was heavily based on the account of ex–LAPD officer Russell Poole, who alleged that a black officer with a supposed Tupac shrine in his home arranged Wallace’s assassination.
The Times stood by its reporter in a letter to Rolling Stone, stating, “Philips’ story has withstood all challenges to its accuracy, including Sullivan’s.”
Sullivan snapped back: “The Times has not produced a single witness or a shred of evidence to suggest that B.I.G. was even in Las Vegas” when Shakur was slain.
Philips, unfazed by the online and media campaign against his work, then decided, in 2007, to tackle Shakur’s original 1994 shooting. Philips says Isaac, then in prison, anonymously confessed to Philips that he had played a hand in that attack on Shakur, who was robbed of $40,000 in jewelry.
“I got the chain if you want to buy it,” Philips says Isaac told him of his booty from the crime.
Philips wrote in his retracted story in 2008 that Rosemond, a New York hip-hop executive, ordered a trio of thugs to rough up Shakur. Philips tells the Weekly that four unnamed people corroborated his story: two of the three alleged attackers and two Rosemond associates.
But Philips’ story was sabotaged by James Sabatino, the self-styled hip-hop promoter who turned out to be a fraud. (Our sister paper, the Miami New Times, called him the “Con Kid.”) Sabatino included his own fictional backstory while composing fake FBI documents that lined up with Philips’ findings regarding the attack on Shakur: that Rosemond, aka Jimmy Henchman, designed the 1994 assault.
The faked FBI documents passed muster with many people besides Philips, he says: a federal judge, Times editors, another Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter and Karlene W. Goller, the paper’s famed First Amendment attorney.
Times editors felt more comfortable using the documents — rather than unnamed criminals — as a tent pole on which to hang such hefty allegations, Philips tells the Weekly. “They’re just jumping up and down,” he recalls. Because the FBI documents came from a court file, they were “privileged,” which meant the Times could not be found liable for publishing them.
The documents became the centerpiece of Philips’ 2008 piece. He says he told his editors, “ ‘I don’t know who the fuck [Sabatino] is.’ All I knew is these documents were saying the same thing I was reporting.”
Looking back, editors “fucked up my story,” Philips tells the Weekly.
Will the Los Angeles Times apologize for its harshly worded retraction, which pointed the finger at the reporter, and issue the front-page retraction Philips demands now that Isaac has come forward to corroborate Philips’ reporting?
Jeffrey Klein, former senior vice president and general manager of news at the Times, and now at USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership, says he didn’t follow the details of the 2008 retraction. But he says the burden should be on the editors more than on the reporter.
“The editor’s job is to second-guess, to protect credibility by challenging the veracity of the story,” Klein says. “Editors should be more cautious than reporters.”
Klein says Philips and his editors made an “understandable mistake” in 2008.
“If you have documents that align with what you have with your sources, that tends to give you a great deal of strength in your belief that it’s accurate,” says Klein.
But the FBI documents quickly raised the eyebrows of TheSmokingGun.com’s William Bastone, an acquaintance of Philips’.
“Eleven our time in the morning, the day the story ran,” Philips recalls, “[Bastone] called me. He says, ‘There’s something off with these documents.’
“Ten days later, he knocked me off my seat,” Philips says.
Bastone said the papers were typewritten (the FBI does not use typewriters) and contained unusual grammatical errors and acronyms.
Bastone tells the Weekly that Isaac’s confession from prison doesn’t necessarily vindicate Philips. He says Philips’ name won’t be fully cleared unless Rosemond is formally accused in the 1994 attack on Shakur — which might never happen.
“Jimmy, I say to you: I have kept your secrets for years,” Isaac wrote in his recent confession. “In 1994, James Rosemond hired me to rob 2Pac Shakur at the Quad Studio. He gave me $2,500, plus all the jewelry I took, except for one ring, which he wanted for himself.”
One big problem for Philips is that the feds now are focused on Rosemond’s alleged L.A.-to–New York cocaine business, not on what happened in 1994. Rosemond was collared Tuesday in Manhattan by federal agents. NYPD authorities tell the Weekly they have yet to interview Isaac.
Rosemond’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, scoffs at Isaac’s allegations. “Whatever anybody thinks of the situation, Dexter Isaac is an admitted, cold-blooded executioner who put two bullets into a man who was begging for his life,” he tells the Weekly.
After the 2008 story was published, Lichtman publicly threatened the Times with an “epic lawsuit” for libel. When the story was later retracted, Philips apologized for trusting the documents. But he never said, or believed, that the core of his story was wrong. A few months later, Philips says, he was “thrown under the bus” — essentially told to leave the Times under the cover of a wave of layoffs.
The day he was pushed out the door, Philips claims Times editors told him they signed a settlement with Rosemond for $200,000. Rosemond and Philips have engaged in an online flame war over who is the liar.
“Quite a few journalists felt the Times acted in its own best interest, ignoring the work of a reporter whose track record included a Pulitzer Prize,” Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at USC, says. “But the same attributes it takes to win a Pulitzer — a doggedness to uncover every fact, an aggressive reporting stance that relies on unorthodox methods to get information — can backfire and make a reporter persona non grata to a conservative newspaper.”
Philips says he has applied for hundreds of journalism jobs and been repeatedly rejected. Many current Los Angeles Times reporters and editors privately say they believe Philips is a man of integrity who was wronged, and ultimately all but ruined, by the newspaper’s management.
But none has gone public to support their former colleague.
However, retired Times pop music chief Robert Hilburn, who brought Philips, a factory worker from Detroit, to the paper in 1990, says he continues to have “the greatest respect for Chuck.
“Chuck was so relentless he would keep knocking on every door of the house — the front door, the side door, the back door, the bathroom window — until he feels he has the answer to his question.”