The Hunt for OJ Simpson: “I shot the world’s most famous car chase”
By Friday 17 June 1994, everybody was following the OJ Simpson case. The famous former footballer and actor had become embroiled in the kind of scandal that rolling news coverage was invented for.
He was due to be arrested for the brutal murder of his wife Nicole Simpson Brown and her friend Ronald Lyle Goodman, which occurred on 12 June. She had filed for divorce on 25 February and stories of Simpson’s spousal abuse were public knowledge. The police believed Simpson was guilty; his fate was looking increasingly bleak and everyone knew it.
“It was the predominant news story here in the United States and in fact anywhere,” helicopter pilot and reporter Zoey Tur tells us. “It was a big story internationally, with the English-speaking press, but it was the predominant, if not the only story, that was being covered here in the United States. Across the networks and radio, television and the print media.” The nation was enthralled.
On that morning the decision had finally been made that Simpson had to turn himself in, and at 8:30 am the LAPD made the call to his lawyer Robert Shapiro, ordering that Simpson had to be in custody by 11 am. Shapiro gave his client the information in person at 9:30, while the murder charges were filed and an afternoon arraignment scheduled.
A crowd gathered around LAPD headquarters at Parker Centre, with the media desperate to catch a glimpse of the national icon who would be confronting a murder charge in a death penalty State.
One of the reporters waiting among the throng was Tur. Then working for CBS, she would, in a matter of hours, find herself at the centre of the case that would come to define her career.
“The day that Simpson was supposed to surrender at the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, known as Parker Center, I was there,” she remembers. “My helicopter was parked down the street at a heliport just a few blocks away and I went down there to see the surrender. At the appointed time, OJ didn’t show up, and finally the police public information officer said that OJ Simpson was ‘in the wind.’ I asked what that meant, and he said ‘OJ Simpson is a fugitive.’ I, like other members of the media, was stunned, so I decided that I was going to find OJ.”
Tur was a renowned reporter, having won several awards and covered major events like the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Los Angeles riots, but so far her involvement in the Simpson case had been limited due to her speciality. “We broke the original murder story, but it wasn’t really a helicopter story,” she tells us. “So at that point I realised that it was now a helicopter story and I was confident that I would find OJ.”
The police broke the news that Simpson was “in the wind” at 1:50 pm. During the time in which the media had been kept waiting, the frantic search for the suspect had begun. The authorities had contacted Shapiro, telling him that Simpson was officially a fugitive and demanding cooperation. At Simpson’s house, Shapiro revealed that Simpson had left with his old buddy Al Cowlings. Simpson and Cowlings had been teammates for years, playing together in high school, college and professionally for the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers.
While the cops began searching for the white Ford Bronco that would soon become iconic, Tur was poised at the moment that would change her career. She could wait for the police to track him down or she could begin the hunt herself. She made the decision quickly and headed out in search of the fugitive. But how do you locate someone who doesn’t want to be found?
“Well I just, I tried to put myself in the place of somebody wanted for double homicide,” she remembered. “Somebody also that, I mean, can you imagine how far somebody like that had fallen? He’d gone from being somebody who golfed with the President of the United States to somebody who was facing the death penalty. So I thought he would be suicidal, and I kind of knew that he was a narcissist, so I thought he would go down to the graveside of Nicole Simpson Brown and kill himself. And it appears that was the plan; he was attempting to flee but there was really nowhere for him to go. He’d given quite a bit of consideration to killing himself down at the graveside and that’s where I thought he’d be. So I flew quite a way south of Los Angeles into Orange County to the graveyard where Nicole Simpson was buried. And he wasn’t there, there was a police cruiser outside.”
The police cruiser may have forced Simpson into the route that he ended up taking, and while Tur was in the air she heard that the authorities might have spotted their man. She quickly altered course. “The FBI at that point had been triangulating the RF signal from a cellphone, and we knew from monitoring and talking to the FBI that Simpson was somewhere near the El Toro Y. So we diverted from there, and we went to the El Toro Y, which is a freeway intersection a little bit west of the graveyard. At that point we saw the white Bronco. Within a matter of minutes there was a Sheriff’s unit behind the car. The driver, Al Cowlings, didn’t pull over, so we were pretty sure that that was the correct white Bronco. And then another unit showed up and another unit, and within maybe five minutes there were over a dozen units following the slow speed pursuit. Then, over time, more units arrived, so it became almost like a parade.”
Because of her decisive action and quick thinking, Tur found herself far ahead of the competition and alone in the sky as she followed the pursuit. “I was about 22 minutes ahead of any of the other aircraft, any of the other media,” she remembers. “It was exhilarating. Being in the news business you want to break stories, you want to be the first to break the news. You want to be able to beat the competition, and this rose to a level of crucifixion. Wanting to maintain my exclusive, I was also putting out kind of deceptive location position reports so other members of the media would not try to locate me or would have difficulty locating the pursuit. I was trying to send them to the wrong freeway. I was vicious.”
As Tur enjoyed her exclusive, other networks were scrambling for the story. Although she was 22 minutes ahead of the competition in the air, it wasn’t too long before her footage started appearing elsewhere. “Yeah, that was true,” she tells us. “We use a microwave RF frequency link to transmit images and the competition was so high and the demand for the video was so high, given that people knew it would be one of the biggest stories, easily, of the decade, that news directors of other television stations started cutting into our signal and broadcasting our images. Later they would explain it away saying ‘Oh, it was just so congested that we made a mistake’, which was impossible.” Although she certainly wasn’t happy about it, Tur tells us that the theft didn’t surprise her. “No, I assumed it would happen. They had a long history of stealing from us, other stations.”
What was surprising was the fact that the chase was going on as long as it was. The pursuit had begun at 5:56 pm and showed no signs of stopping after an hour. Simpson was given plenty of room and no attempt was made to intercept. “I was surprised that they allowed it to continue as long as they did,” Tur reveals. “Normally in a pursuit like that, going at that speed, they could have done something called a traffic break and stopped traffic on the freeway and surrounded the vehicle. But given the scale of the coverage, the focus on the police and that it was OJ Simpson; they gave a lot of deference to Mr Simpson, almost the celebrity treatment. Celebrities are treated differently here, certainly in Los Angeles.”
The chase was given an added surreal element by the speed at which the white Bronco was going. The highest speed reached was 65 mph, but the bulk of the chase was conducted at speeds of about 35 mph. Looking back at the footage now, it’s bizarre to see a car moving so slowly, pursued by so many officers.
“Yeah, it was very surreal,” agrees Tur. “Usually you tend to believe that pursuits are about getting away, a suspect trying to get away from the pursuing law enforcement. In this particular case it wasn’t about getting away, it was simply trying to keep Simpson alive. Al Cowlings was understandably very concerned given that Mr Simpson was armed with a handgun. And suicidal. Personally, yeah, my personal feeling was I was hoping he would kill himself and do the right thing.”
Indeed, Simpson had a handgun that he was pledging to use on himself, while Cowley drove. The star’s suicide was a very real concern, even before the infamous phone call with Detective Tom Lange, during which Simpson’s mental state is difficult to gauge as he moans about loving Nicole and wanting to talk to his mother.
At 5 pm, before the white Bronco had been spotted on the freeway, Simpson’s lawyer Shapiro had read a note from his client at a press conference. It reads like a suicide note, as Simpson thanks those who have offered him support over the years and in recent trying times, but states: “I can’t go on. No matter what the outcome, people will look and point. I can’t take that. I can’t subject my children to that. This way, they can move on and go on with their lives. Please, if I’ve done anything worthwhile in my life, let my kids live in peace from you, the press. I’ve had a good life. I’m proud of how I lived. My mama taught me to do unto others. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated. I’ve always tried to be up and helpful. So why is this happening?”
In the note he stressed how much loved Nicole, despite their rocky times. “At times, I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend, but I loved her; make that clear to everyone,” he wrote. “And I would take whatever it took to make it work.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” he concluded. “I’ve had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real OJ and not this lost person. Thanks for making my life special. I hope I helped yours. Peace and love, OJ.”
With words like those echoing into the public consciousness, it’s no wonder that viewers tuned into the chase in their millions. “Yeah, we had a minimum of 95 million people watching at that point here in the United States,” remembers Tur. “But we think probably more because it’s hard to account for viewers because people were in offices, department stores. There’s usually people watching in groups, so it’s probably in the order of maybe 120, 130 million people. And so, if you think the United States has 341 million Americans, so 20 years ago it probably would have been around 320 million, and there’s over 200 million TV sets. So it was one of the most watched moments in the history of broadcast. It was probably the number one most watched news event or television event in the history of television up until September 11.”
If those numbers don’t quite conjure the striking mental image that they should, consider this: Domino’s Pizza reported that they had more orders during the OJ Simpson chase than during any Super Bowl to that date. The chase finally concluded at 7:57 pm, when the white bronco reached Simpson’s house in Brentwood and police negotiations began. At 8:47 pm, an all clear was issued and Simpson was taken into custody, arriving at the station at 9:37 pm. While Simpson denied planning to flee, the Bronco’s trunk contained a fake beard and make-up glue, as well as Simpson’s passport and a gun.
The case would go on to be the third most watched television event in the United States, after the tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The public became fascinated by the case’s combination of celebrity, scandal and death, and were glued to the increasingly circus-like nature of the case. Then, as we all know, the acquittal came, and Simpson walked free. There’s no questioning the consensus about whether or not he did it, but the fact is that he was acquitted. And now, more than 20 years later, Tur is still frequently being asked about the time that she chased OJ.
“The OJ Simpson story was probably and still is certainly one of the seminal moments of my career. It’s probably one of the most surreal moments to be a part of that history. And forever, when you Google my name, I’m linked to Simpson. One of the most notorious murderers. And I’ll forever be linked to Simpson infamy.
“I still get calls all the time and requests to use the videotape and things of that nature,” she continues. “People are fascinated by the story because it doesn’t have the resolution that one would expect, where there was a confession or OJ Simpson finally owned up to it. For some there may be a killer out there. You know? There’s just no… It seems like the last chapter hasn’t been written. And that’s one the reasons why the story is so big, and continues to be.”