The Crime Readers' Association

Lessons from investigations into murders – William Shaw

15th August 2014

I was never an investigative journalist – not in any proper sense – but on several occasions I wrote about investigations into murders. They taught me a few stark lessons which have stayed with me, and that, I hope, have crept into my crime books in some way.

The one that really stayed with me is that when someone is murdered, the ripples of grief, bewilderment and fury are almost too hard for most people to bear. In turn, they create their own catastrophes. Violence distorts reality. It is incredibly easy to obliterate the normal safe world of civil society.

In 1997-98, I worked in Los Angeles, writing about young African American men who lived in the South Central ghetto; I don’t know what it’s like now, but at the time it was a long, slowly unfolding calamity. In the years following the LA riots, the neighbourhood sped downhill. Violence and drug crime were endemic. With a huge proportion of fathers incarcerated, teenage boys struggled to avoid getting caught up in gang culture.

I’d met the rapper Tupac Shakur on a couple of occasions, an intense, erudite young man who hadn’t known his father and who had been raised by his Black Panther mother. But in his 20s he became engulfed by a need to prove himself as a man; to affiliate himself with ever harder, more macho society.

“Right now,”he told me once, “I know I’m not going to live forever. Nobody is. But I know about it. I know I’m going to die in violence.”

It wasn’t clairvoyance. Even though he’d been raised in New York and Baltimore, when he moved to Los Angeles, Tupac affiliated himself with one of the most notoriously hardcore Compton Gangs, the Piru Bloods.  He himself had been born out of the violence of the 60s civil rights movement. His mother was a Black Panther heroine who’d had her dreams crushed, become a struggling single parent who’d turned to drugs.

In a bizarre effort to prove himself to the world, Tupac had taken to hanging around with some of the most thuggish men Los Angeles had to offer. In fact, the recording studio he was talking to me in was effectively a modern take on a medieval fortress, guarded by a double layer of locked doors with heavily armed men in what was effectively the keep. Rumours of brutal beatings at the studio, carried out by henchmen of Tupac’s gang-affiliated label boss Suge Knight, were starting to circulate. This was a violent and paranoid environment.

At root, the problem was gang violence. Tupac’s death, a few months after our last meeting, was almost certainly that. He was assassinated on a visit to Las Vegas, following a scuffle with a young man called Orlando Anderson, who was rumoured to be affiliated with a rival gang, the South Side Crips; their territory lay just a short walk to the south east of the Pirus’.

Immediately a full scale gang war broke  out in Compton, Los Angeles, in the next days. Three people were killed. There were rumours that Pirus were offering $10,000 for every South Side Crip killed. But the police never found who killed Tupac.

Suspicion immediately fell on the young Crip affiliate, Orlando Anderson, but police were unable to conclusively prove a link. Orlando himself denied it, vehemently. Yet in books and articles he became known  as the man who killed Tupac. As a result, he too knew his days were numbered.

And eighteen months later Orlando was killed in a gunfight in a petrol station not far from where he lived in Compton. This seemed to seal his reputation as a gang banger and a killer.

But when I started interviewing Orlando’s friends, family and attorney a totally different picture emerged. Orlando had been a successful student – not the typical path for a gang member. I got to know his brother, an actor, who consistently and very plausibly countered each of the rumours that had flown about his brother with a plausible, simple explanation. According to his grief-stricken brother, all of Orlando’s reputation as a gang member had derived from the kind of paranoid rumour that circulated constantly in South Central in those dark days. He was killed because people assumed he was a killer, Orlando’s brother insisted.

I remember calling his brother to tell him the news that the prosecution now claimed they had forensic and eye-witness evidence that Orlando had indeed fired the first shot in the gunfight in which he’d died. The brother was distraught. “That’s impossible.”As I spoke to him on the phone he began to cry; he believed that the whole world had conspired to make his brother look guilty, and that now Orlando was dead he couldn’t even argue back.

The only thing I began to know for sure was that in such fearful, rumour-driven places where murder happens is that the truth becomes harder and harder to mine. The force of fear undermines the few facts there are. In the time I spent there I got to know dozens of people who had had close friends and loved ones murdered. The worst of it was that in almost every case these friends and lovers never really knew what happened to the victim. You could see it eating away at them. Violence creates a fog. It distorts the truth. It corrodes.

In Britain we live in a very peaceable society. It’s not like that here. But there are still corners our world that remind me of what I saw happening in Los Angeles. I’ve heard the same story over and over from young people: this sense they are living in a different world ruled by that fear.

Ten years ago I was writing about the murder of clever young musician called Leon Forbes. Police and family were baffled by his shooting. There was no plausible motive other than possibly jealousy over Leon’s success.

But as I spoke to a couple of his friends, they began to confess how very scared they had been in the days after Leon’s killing. Because they didn’t understand why it had happened to Leon, they couldn’t find a reason why the same wouldn’t happen to them. So, they admitted, they had bought kevlar jackets to protect themselves. And they hinted that other friends – not them, obviously, they said – had started to carry knives, and some had even thought about carrying guns. Incredibly, even Leon’s mother, a probation officer, admitted to me it had at some point crossed her mind: “Why don’t I get a gun to protect myself?”Instead she became a brave and vociferous campaigner against guns – but she acknowledged the power of fear to make her do things that she would normally consider unthinkable.

One of the reasons why we enjoy crime writing and TV so much is that, for most of us, our lives in modern Britain are so safe. We need to peek behind that curtain. Earlier this year I was watching the actor Ashley Walters play a Detective Inspector in Silent Witness; the irony was that a decade ago, he too was one of the young men I’d spoken to. At the height of his fame as a rapper in So Solid Crew, he had had guns held to his head by jealous rivals, so he’d got himself a modified replica pistol and ended up in juvenile detention. Stupid? Yes, he knew that now. We almost certainly live in the safest society there has ever been, but that reality is fragile. It can so easily be destroyed.

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