On September 7, 1996, Leonard Jefferson, a 29-year-old from Los Angeles, went to Las Vegas to see a Mike Tyson fight. It was a night he would remember for the rest of his life. He never saw Tyson, but he did see 2Pac, at an intersection just off the Strip, and snapped a photograph of him. It turned out to be the last picture taken of 2Pac while he was still alive. Just minutes later, the rapper would be gunned down by unknown assailants. It’s been two decades, and Jefferson still has a story to tell. We spoke with Jefferson, now a filmmaker, about what happened on that night, from beginning to end, and what it means to him today.
As told to Brendan Klinkenberg
Back in 1996, me and a friend of mine drove down from LA to Las Vegas to go to the Mike Tyson fight. We had tickets to go the fight but at the last minute, we decided to sell them. We figured that it was going to be another quick Mike Tyson knockout. I was 29 and just wanted to have fun hanging out at the MGM Casino.
It was crowded and a lot of celebrities were coming in. Ironically, I saw 2Pac and his crew pass by us. I kind of knew him when I was a student at UCLA film school. We had hung out with some of my coworkers. That was pretty much the extent of my acquaintance with him. I didn’t go over to him then because I figured I would probably see him later.
As the night progressed, I wanted something to eat, so I called California Pizza Kitchen and placed an order. They said that it would be 30 to 40 minutes. So I went out to the valet to get my car so I could go pick up the food. When I got my car the strip was packed — traffic was moving slowly, bumper to bumper.
I came to a light at Harmon Ave. and I looked over and saw some shiny rims on a BMW. I looked over and it was 2Pac and Suge. I said, “Yo, what up, Pac!” He paused for a second, then he recognized who I was and said, “Yeah, what up, man.”
I asked what they were doing tonight, and he said they were going to Club 662 and I should come over. I said, “Alright, cool...hey, let me grab a picture really quick.” My camera was in the center console so I just grabbed it, then snapped that picture. Right after that the light changed green and they pulled off. I got a few cars behind them and then they made a right turn.
There was more traffic.
I was like three or four cars back at a light. I got on my phone and called California Pizza Kitchen to cancel my order. All of a sudden, heard, “POP! POP! POP! POP!”
All of a sudden I see the black BMW turn around and take off. It made a wide U-turn right in the middle of the street and started following Suge. It was a procession of cars, like two or three; there was a Lexus that the security guard was driving. I had a ‘96 Chevy Suburban. You can see it in the reflection in the picture I took of Pac.
We were speeding, maneuvering through the traffic—I just got caught up in the moment. We got back to the Strip and I saw that Suge went up on the curb. I don’t know how he got up there, I guess he was avoiding someone or a car and then came back down. He had a flat tire; the car started limping. I proceeded through the intersection as well and we got back to Harmon, the street I first saw Pac at, and came to a stop. I pulled into the turning lane behind the Lexus and just sat there. I was just looking to see what was going on. I knew there was a shooting but I didn’t know at that time that 2Pac or Suge had been shot.
I got ready to get out of my truck and then a bunch of police came by and closed my door. The bicycle cops threw their bikes down and drew their guns and pointed them at Suge. They told them to get out of the car.
Suge gets out and starts yelling, “My man Pac is shot, Pac is shot!” One of the officers goes around and aims his gun at the passenger side. Then, all of a sudden, while I’m sitting there, a cop runs up to me, cocks his gun and tells me to put my hands on the steering wheel. Another pulled me out of the car and laid me on the ground. I said, “What’s going on?” But they wouldn’t tell me. One guy had a knee on my back.
From the corner of my eye I could see Suge run over to the passenger side of the car to try to open the door to get Pac out. I see a head come up, and it’s 2Pac. The ambulance came, and more patrols cars pulled up. It was just chaotic. There were a lot of onlookers.
The cops are searching my vehicle, and they won’t say nothing. They’re trying to figure things out. I’m sitting down next to my truck and one cop comes by and asks, “Are you with them?”
I said, “No, I’m not.”
“Are you sure you’re not with them?”
“No, I was just here at the light, then I saw all of these cars pull up and all these police pull up.”
I didn’t know the situation, so I didn’t want to be a part of it. I just didn’t know what was going on, but I mentioned that I had just taken a picture of 2Pac. The cop asked for my information and I told him that I was there for the fight and that was it.
The chaos was still going on when the ambulance pulled up. I saw them putting 2Pac on the gurney, then they put him in the ambulance and took off. One of the officers came back, stood me up, took the handcuffs off me, and said, “You’re free to go.”
It was about 12:30 in the morning by time I got back to my hotel. I walk back into the casino and my friend is still at the same table I left him at. I tell him 2Pac and Suge got shot. I didn’t see the shooting but I was right there. I told him how the police jacked me up, then let me go. I’m still kind of panicked or whatever, from just being a part of the situation. A couple minutes later, while we’re still there, I get a tap on my shoulder. I look back, and it’s the same police officers that pulled me out of the car.
He said, “Mr. Jefferson, we fucked up.” Those were literally his words. “We fucked up, we need you back at the scene, the detectives are there and we should not have let you leave the scene.”
At first I was asking why, if they had all of my information, but then I asked, “How did you find me?” They knew where I was staying but there were hundreds and hundreds of people there. “How did you find me?”
“We’re police officers.”
I drove back to the scene with the officers. It wasn’t that far. When we got there I saw a couple other guys there—a guy from [Tupac’s crew] the Outlawz and the security guard who was driving the Lexus. They sat me down next to them and the detective pulled me to the side and said, “I heard you were here at the scene and that you took a picture.”
“Yeah, I did.”
The detective said he’s going to have to confiscate the camera because there may be some things on there in the picture. He gave me his business card and said, “We’ll be in contact with you.”
I was literally there until about 4:30, 5 O’clock in the morning. Finally, they let me go. I went back to the hotel, packed up my stuff and got on the road and went back to LA.
We get back to LA, I’m still kind of in the moment, being part of that whole situation. Being friends with Pac, then he’s laying in the hospital. He’d been shot before, so you just hope he makes it. It was a few days after I got back that I called the detective and asked about the film. They were still investigating, and he said he’d get back to me.
Pac died [a few days later], Friday the 13th. It really became emotional for me. I saw it, and now he’s dead. I just sat by myself for a few hours. All the stuff that happened that night just came into place. I still think about it, more so now. The other day was the anniversary [of the shooting]. It affected me, just being there.
The following Monday, I called the detective again about the film. He said they were done with it and was sending it back to me. While he was on the phone he said, “We’re not going to mess with your money.” I didn’t think anything of it, and when I went and got the film back, there it was — the picture.
Maybe a few hours later, my phone started ringing from strange numbers, it was someone calling me from New York saying they heard that I had a picture of the crime scene. I said, “Huh?” and hung up. Then, someone else called, and it was someone calling from another news outlet.
To this day, I don’t know how they got my number. I called my attorney, and he put me in touch with an entertainment attorney. He was good friends with the editor of VIBE Magazine at the time, who also came to the office to see the picture.
He called Kidada Jones [Quincy Jones’ daughter and Tupac’s fiancée] to verify the picture—she said it was real. He asked me what I wanted to do, I said I didn’t know. I’m still getting phone calls, I just tell them to call my attorney. He got an agency to handle the photo from there.
I did a couple interviews but I turned down anything on TV. They were paid interviews; at the time I could have used the money, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I did a few interviews at VIBE, Esquire, Vanity Fair... I got so many calls, was offered to fly out to places, but I just didn’t know what was going on.
When I think about the night now, there was a lot of irony. We’re with all the crowds, fanfare, excitement, and I saw Pac out of the corner of my eye. We meet at one intersection, then I get handcuffed there. Just how things came together, it had an effect on me.
I now work in the movie industry with film directors and producers, and no one really knows I took that picture. I worked on a Nas video where they used the picture I took in the video, and I didn’t tell the director, I just kept it to myself.
Just seeing how people talk about it on the internet, how it’s fake — it gets to me. I took the picture. I know it’s real. This picture has taken on its own life because conspiracy theorists think Pac’s not dead, he’s in Cuba somewhere, just from that picture. It’s interesting how you hear about people doing things with the TMZs and how people turn stories around, but now I’m a part of it, and I know it’s real.