By Tim Pratt
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Three people died in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip early on Thursday when one or more gunmen in a Range Rover sport utility vehicle opened fire on a Maserati, killing the driver and touching off a fiery multi-car crash.
The driver of the Maserati died in the pre-dawn shooting, and his car veered out of control and smashed into a taxi carrying two people, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police spokesman Officer Jose Hernandez said.
The cab exploded into flames in the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road, a popular tourist area in front of several casino resorts, killing the driver and a passenger.
"There was a loud bang and I hear two other booms. I looked out my window at Caesars Palace ... and could see the fireball," witness John Lamb was quoted as saying on the website of Las Vegas KLAS-TV's 8News Now.
The gunfire and collision in the busy intersection near the Bellagio and Caesars Palace hotels triggered another crash involving four other vehicles. At least four people were hurt including a passenger in the Maserati, and the Range Rover sped from the scene, Hernandez said.
Authorities declined to identify any of the victims but the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper and KLAS-TV identified the driver of the Maserati as aspiring rapper Kenneth Cherry Jr. YouTube videos of his music show him rapping from a silver Maserati while cruising the Las Vegas Strip.
Attorney Vicki Greco, who has represented Cherry for what she described as minor traffic issues and in a civil case, told Reuters she had been in touch with his family and friends and that they were "devastated" by the news that he had been killed.
"I have not been to the coroner ... From what I have heard, Yes, I can confirm. But I haven't been officially notified," Greco said, adding she believed it was him from news photos that showed the car.
'ARMED AND DANGEROUS'
Police said the shooting was believed to have stemmed from a fight in the valet area of the Aria Resort and Casino on the Strip, but investigators had not established a motive.
Representatives for MGM Resorts International, which owns the Aria, declined to comment on specifics of the incident but said it was working closely with police on the investigation.
A hospital spokeswoman said three people had been treated and released at University Medical Center after the incident but declined to provide information about a fourth person.
Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie told a news conference that police had few leads on the Range Rover or its occupants, who were considered "armed and dangerous," but had launched a multi-state search and were seeking help from the public.
The sheriff bristled at suggestions that the outburst of gun violence could call into question the safety of the Strip, which attracts millions of visitors every year.
"I have been asked by many of you this morning, ‘Is the Las Vegas Strip safe?'" Gillespie said. "Yes it is."
"Las Vegas is a valley of 2 million people. Forty million tourists visit here a year. We have 153,000 hotel rooms. In order for my police organization and other law enforcement organizations in the valley to keep this community safe, we have to work very closely not only with the community but the resort corridor as well," he said.
The incident occurred near to where rapper Tupac Shakur was shot on September 7, 1996, while riding in a BMW with Death Row Records co-founder Marion "Suge" Knight after the two men had attended a Mike Tyson boxing match.
Shakur, 25, was hit by gunfire from at least one assailant in a Cadillac while sitting in Knight's car at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane and died six days later at University Medical Center. The crime remains unsolved.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)