On the verge of turning from rap's dark side, thug poet Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas

Tupac Shakur wasn’t supposed to be in Las Vegas on the night of Sept. 7, 1996. He told friends he was going to Atlanta to visit family, but many suspect he was heading east to shop for a new record deal, having decided to leave longtime label Death Row Records. But instead, Death Row CEO Marion ”Suge” Knight persuaded his top-selling act to attend a Mike Tyson fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

After the event, Knight was driving Shakur to a party when, at about 11:15 p.m., a white Cadillac pulled in front of Knight’s BMW. A gunman drew a pistol and sprayed the BMW’s passenger seat, hitting Shakur four times. After a six-day struggle at Las Vegas’ University Medical Center, Tupac Shakur died.

Hip-hop observers speculated that the shooting was the result of an East Coast-West Coast rap feud. But a recent book and new documentary suggest that Knight, who owed Shakur more than $3 million, was involved in the murder — and the death of rapper Biggie Smalls six months later. (Knight has denied any involvement in either.)

”The strongest evidence in the killings of both Biggie and Tupac tended to point toward Suge,” says Randall Sullivan, author of 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, citing eyewitness accounts and interviews with people close to Death Row. Both Sullivan and director Nick Broomfield, whose 2002 documentary Biggie and Tupac covers much of the same ground, focus on the plight of retired LAPD Det. Russell Poole. When Poole’s investigation led him to suspect the involvement of cops, some of whom worked security for Death Row and one of whom was in Tupac’s entourage at the time of the murder, LAPD brass removed him from the case.

Sullivan says that the LAPD, weary from a series of scandals, has been sitting on the case. ”It’s unimaginable that any other celebrity of that magnitude would be murdered…in the presence of numerous witnesses and six years later, it remains unsolved,” he says, adding that the FBI recently began its own investigation. ”It’s astounding.”

Although he built his career with grisly but poetic tales of thug life, Shakur’s death shocked and saddened legions of fans. The tragedy is compounded by signs that Shakur had begun to move away from the violence that enveloped him. ”Unfortunately,” says Sullivan, ”we’ll never know what he might have evolved into.”