South Central Los Angeles is notorious both for its violent gang warfare and for the gangsta rap that celebrates it, yet the media rarely ventures there. One of the most famous victims of gang violence is the rapper Tupac Shakur, who was shot dead in Las Vegas in 1996. Orlando Anderson was the main suspect, and when he himself was killed in LA some 18 months later, many considered it a job well done. But looking for the first time into his background William Shaw found that Anderson's story was far more ambiguous
It began with a question: 'You from the South? ' It was a chance meeting in the crowded lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. A multi-platinum recording star and a completely unknown 22-year-old fan. Usually it is the fan who approaches the star. This time it was the other way around.
It was 7 September 1996. Mike Tyson had just KO-ed Bruce Seldon in a mere 109 seconds. Tupac Shakur was the most bankable hip hop star in America; his latest release, All Eyez On Me - rap's first double album - would sell more than four million copies.
Orlando Anderson was on the other end of the spectrum. He was a fan who claimed to own all of Tupac's records. The young man with the small moustache and the barest hint of an Afro haircut was an unemployed father of three children, raised in one of the most run-down neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. Tupac had had ringside seats; Orlando had reportedly snuck in at the back.
'You from the South? ' Tupac had asked, and then, in full view of the passers-by and the hotel security cameras, he pulled back his fist and slammed it into the side of Orlando's head, knocking him to the ground. Suge Knight, the owner of Tupac's record label Death Row, joined in with the rest of Tupac's entourage, kicking Anderson in the head and body before melting away into the night.
A few hours later, Tupac was shot by a gunman who pulled alongside the car carrying him and Suge through downtown Vegas. Six days later, hip hop's most incendiary and charismatic icon was dead. It didn't take long before the rumours started flying that Orlando Anderson was the one who pulled the trigger.
No one seemed particularly surprised when Orlando was killed a little more than 18 months later in an unrelated shoot-out. Actually, in the hundreds of stories filed after Tupac's death, very little was ever written about Orlando: he was just 'a known gang banger' - as Americans call gang members - or 'a Crip', 'the suspect in the murder of Tupac Shakur'.
Such a brief, nihilistic life. I began to wonder if that's all there was to the man who had blundered into the headlines so haphazardly after Tupac singled him out that night: ' You from the South? '
Orlando was indeed from the South - from the South Side of Compton, that is. He would have instantly understood the threat behind those four words. The curt challenge contained two decades of violent history. It is standard prelude to a gang fight: 'Where you from?'
Orlando Anderson's family doesn't like the press much, nor the way it has depicted Orlando. Beyond issuing a terse statement in October 1996 insisting on his innocence, they have refused to be interviewed. Initially, when I asked, they declined to talk. Finally, six months later, they delegated Orlando's half-brother Pooh to speak on their behalf. Pooh says we journalists got it all wrong. Orlando was a quiet boy: 'Never caused a problem. One thing about him, he was always involved in positive things. Always, always, always.'
Pooh himself doesn't exactly come across like the brother of a gang banger. Now 25, he had won a scholarship to a private high school and gone on to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley after majoring in film. He doesn't deny that his brother was involved in local gangs in his early teens, but says he was too smart to stay involved. He insists that Orlando did nothing more serious than possibly breaking into a local school.
Certainly if, as the Compton police stated, Orlando was indeed a gang banger, he wasn't a run-of-the-mill one. 'He wasn't that type of person at all,' says Tyise Tooles, a friend and former classmate of Orlando's at Dominguez High School, in Compton. 'He was a real friendly person, real cool.'
He was a conscientious student who passed his exams. For a while, he went to Taft High, a school for high achievers out in the Valley - the same school the rapper Ice Cube went to. Pooh says he's not sure why Orlando was sent there, though at the time the city did operate programmes to remove children who were at risk of becoming involved in gang lifestyles to schools outside the area. Orlando returned to Dominguez High for his senior year and started dating a young woman named Rasheena Smith.
There's a picture of them in the school yearbook, photographed at the '92 Too Good to be True' prom. The caption reads: 'Orlando Anderson and Rashina [sic] Smith looking Don Good'. Gang bangers don't often graduate, but Orlando got his diploma that year. His class ring remained his favourite piece of jewellery.
That year, there were a staggering 803 gang-related deaths in LA County. The yearbook contains a full-page ad and several smaller ones for neighbourhood mortuaries.
Orlando's had been a secure childhood. His father, Harvey Lee Anderson, split with his mother, Charlotte Davis, but Orlando had grown up in his great-grandmother Utah's house on South Burris Road, surrounded by aunts, uncles and grandparents.
It was a typical South Central family history, in many ways. Utah, born in Texas just before the outbreak of the First World War, had left the South in the great African-American migration northwards. South Central boomed briefly during the Second World War as LA's munitions industries soaked up labour, but the war ended and South Central turned into a massively overpopulated slum.
Utah moved to Compton in the Fifties, when it was an affluent middle-class neighbourhood, only to watch property values crash as whites fled. Orlando's mother Charlotte worked 12-hour shifts as a bookkeeper to support her children, but on most weekends there would be some large family gathering that brought everyone together to play sports and have a big meal.
A rapper friend of Orlando's remembers envying the closeness of Orlando's family: 'We all had problems with our parents. Our mothers were on crack and our dads weren't around. Orlando had something I didn't have, and that was family. He was still in school. He ate every day. There were really no problems.'
Orlando didn't smoke - neither cigarettes nor weed - nor was he much of a drinker. And unlike the typical neighbourhood gang banger, he was never convicted of any crime. But the loyalties of the neighbourhood run deep. Some of the boys Orlando hung out with were ones who wore blue plaid shirts and would throw up the 'C' handsigns. The lampposts on South Burris where Orlando grew up are all spray-painted with the letters 'SS': South Side. A stop sign has been redesigned in blue aerosol paint to read: 'Can't STOP the SSC'. This is South Side Crip territory.
Compton still calls itself boastfully 'The Hub City', lying as it does on the main rail artery between the city of Los Angeles and the San Pedro docks. In the Sixties, Compton became the first city in California to have an African-American political majority. Any optimism that era might have enjoyed is long gone. Compton has seen 40 years of unreversed decline.
The whole world knows about Bloods and Crips. Cities the world over have gangs that model themselves after these Los Angeles street alliances - but the original fight between the two 'sets', as the gangs prefer to call themselves, began here, in Compton.
Until the arrival of the Crips at the tail end of the Sixties, LA's gangs had been relatively peaceful. The Crips were a new force which had set out to unify LA gangs into a formidable alliance. On the north side of Compton, one of the older sets, known then as the Piru Street Gang, had been among the first to join the Crip alliance, even down to wearing the blue 'rags' that served as a uniform. But the Pirus were uneasy about the Crip hegemony. In 1972, they allied with another local group, the Leuders Park Hustlers, to form a new counter-alliance. The Pirus stripped off their blue and started wearing red. Soon they were calling themselves Bloods.
So it was that the streets of Compton became the epicentre of the 20-year war between Blood and Crip. The conflict escalated fast. By the early Eighties, the LAPD were estimating that there were already some 15,000 Crips and Bloods in the Los Angeles area. Once gang membership has reached its own critical mass in poor areas, it develops its own dynamic. If you're being constantly challenged with the aggressive territorial question 'Where you from?', it's not long before you start to look for some sort of protection. Loyalties are no longer chosen - they are dictated by geography.
Compton became newly Balkanised. To the north, in Lynwood, Bloods such as the Leuders Park and MOB Pirus ruled. To the south, in Compton, were sets like the Corner Pocket Crips, the Kelly Park Crips, the Neighborhood Crips and the South Sides. It's such a tiny, impoverished piece of the Los Angeles sprawl, a few small square miles. And 20 years of bloodshed contained in the four words You from the South?
Murder rates climbed year by year, but the rest of the world paid little attention. Who had even heard of Compton before 1987? That's the year a former Compton Crip known as Eric 'Eazy E' Wright - a friend of Orlando's family - corralled a group of talented LA rappers, including Ice Cube and Dr Dre, to form Niggas With Attitude. NWA was the first group to lay out the ground rules for what became known as gangsta rap, mythologising the real violence that was taking place on their own doorstep. NWA turned multi-platinum, and Eazy's label, Relentless, became a seemingly unstoppable money maker.
Rap changed everything around here, offering a new hope. Until Eazy, the only glamorous get-rich-quick career plan on offer was dealing drugs. Gangsta rap, for a time, at least, was a way out of the gang lifestyle.
Then came Marion 'Sugar Bear' Knight - a one-time gang banger with the North Side's MOB Piru Bloods. He wanted some of what Eazy had. Knight founded his business on the production talent of Dr Dre, whom Suge - according to the rumours, at least - infamously strong-armed out of his contract with Eazy with the help of several thugs and a few baseball bats. After 1992, Death Row flourished; Relentless plummeted. The North was up, the South was down.
To call Knight a gang banger would be a misnomer. Bangers are the poor, usually teenage boys who hang out on corners, protecting territory. But Suge enjoyed playing the role of godfather. It's no secret that he placed Bloods from his neighbourhood on his payroll. Money flooded into the North Side of Compton, but at a price.
Tupac wasn't from Compton. He had been born in the east. When Tupac was convicted in 1995 of sexually assaulting a female fan, Suge Knight saw his chance to gain control of the fastest-rising star in hip hop. He arranged for $1.4 million bail to be put up to release Tupac from jail pending his appeal.
Joining Death Row made Tupac a superstar, but it also brought out the worst in him. With Death Row acting like a gang itself, Tupac eagerly took to the role. The platinum rapper with a luxury apartment on Beverly Boulevard played the part of street-corner thug with relish. In photo sessions, he wore the red rag on his head, holding up 'B' gang handsigns. In his open-top Jaguar, Tupac would roll through the Piru and Leuders Park Blood neighbourhoods, proudly mixing with his people. Orlando became enmeshed in the politics of Blood and Crip because he grew up among them. Tupac became affiliated out of choice.
Ironically, it turns out that what Orlando really dreamed of was a career in the music business, but by 1996, the year he turned 21, he had made little headway. He lived with Rasheena in her apartment in Lakewood, just south-east of Compton. She was a student nurse, and by this time they had two girls, Krystal, then aged two, and Courtney, one. But he was also juggling another relationship, with a girl named Taiece Lanier, who had just given birth to a girl, Ariel. Only when Pooh returned to Compton in May after graduating from college did things start to progress. He and Orlando decided to start a record label together and, believing in the power of positivity, called it Success Records.
Orlando's other passion was sports. So on 7 September, he drove to Las Vegas with Rasheena in a borrowed car to watch the Tyson fight, checking into the Excalibur Hotel just across the street from the MGM Grand.
After Tupac was shot, the Las Vegas police were strongly criticised for failing to conduct follow-up interviews with possible witnesses who were in the cars behind Suge Knight's. Some of these, of course, were reluctant to talk to the police. Suge was the only person in the car with Tupac; Las Vegas police frostily described him as 'uncooperative'.
On 12 September, Compton police received a report from a gang contact who said that Bloods affiliated with Death Row believed Tupac's assault on Orlando had been prompted by an incident a few weeks earlier: three Piru Bloods had been approached by South Side Crips in a Foot Locker - a sports-shoe chain - in Lakewood Mall. One of the Pirus, Trevon 'Tray' Lane, was wearing a gold necklace from which dangled a Death Row emblem - a personal gift from Suge Knight. One of the Crips snatched it. In South Central, that's like taking a war trophy.
According to the informant, Tray had been part of the Death Row posse the night of the Tyson fight and had told Tupac in the seconds before Orlando Anderson was assaulted that Orlando was one of the Crips who had confronted him in the Foot Locker. The informant then fingered Orlando as the man who later shot Tupac.
In Compton, a bloody war broke out between the North and South Sides. Over the next few days, police counted 12 shooting incidents and three fatalities. Paranoia gripped the neighbourhood. There were rumours that Bloods were being offered $10,000 for every South Side Crip killed.
On the night of 2 October, 300 police officers swept down on the houses of known gang bangers in Compton and neighbourhoods to the south and east. The raid was ostensibly part of a crackdown to try to halt the warfare. But it also gave Compton police the opportunity to arrest Orlando.
The affidavit that police prepared in order to obtain the arrest warrant cited additional informants who linked Orlando to violent gang warfare. The police arrested Orlando - not for the murder of Tupac Shakur, but for the 12 April slaying of a man named Edward Webb, who had been attacked from behind at a party and shot dead by 'several black males'.
Las Vegas detectives accompanied the Compton police, ready to question Orlando about the Tupac murder, but neither the Compton police nor the Las Vegas police department was able to turn the circumstantial evidence of the informants into anything that would make a case. In reality, much of their affidavit only detailed what members of Blood gangs and their associates at Death Row Records were saying about an alleged Crip. The Las Vegas police could not link Orlando to Tupac's murder, nor were the Compton police able to satisfy the district attorney that they had enough to hold him even for the murder of Edward Webb. DA Janet Moore ordered that Orlando be released. At the time, her spokesperson merely announced: 'We felt they needed to do some more work.'
Three years later, and now employed in a different city, Moore refuses to go into the details of exactly why she made that decision.
Orlando was free, but now he was publicly identified by the damning - yet ultimately inconclusive - evidence that had been leaked to the press. He became 'the man who shot Tupac'. Now when he went out, he realised people were looking at him. He would think: 'They know who I am.'
One day, he sadly told his attorney: 'You know, I don't think I'm going to have a long life.'
To be known as the man who shot Tupac leant a surreal edge to Orlando's life. Once, he was in Underworld Records, a shop in a run-down mini-mall on Alondra Boulevard. A girl in the store spotted a book on sale called The Killing of Tupac Shakur . The gaudy cover blared: 'WHO did it and WHY?' The girl looked at it contemptuously and mouthed off the latest conspiracy theory doing the rounds: 'Tupac's not dead. He's alive and living in Cuba.'...............