The Good Ol’ Days: On Vacation With O.J. Simpson
On Monday, June 13, 1994 I was driving south from the Monterey Peninsula on the Pacific Coast Highway when I first heard of the O.J. murder matter. I was on a vacation and had spent the night at Carmel Highlands. The weather was perfect. I was listening to all-news KCBS and also to a San Francisco Giants home game on KNBR. Between half-innings I would switch back to KCBS.
At 1 p.m. CBS reported that the ex-wife of O.J. Simpson had been found murdered outside her Los Angeles home. For some reason, I thought that they were referring to O.J.’s first wife, with whom he had two grown children. It didn’t dawn on me for a while that the victim was his second ex-wife Nicole.
At 1:15 p.m. KCBS switched to live coverage from their sister station KNX in L.A. KNX had a young reporter outside O.J.’s Brentwood home on Rockingham Avenue, located eight minutes’ drive from Nicole’s condo on Bundy Drive. The KNX reporter breathlessly told us that police had found “a bloody entrenching tool” in the back of a white Ford Bronco driven by Simpson. That entrenching tool angle raised grisly images. I’d used an entrenching tool and didn’t consider it an efficient murder weapon.
Never heard of the bloody entrenching tool? Well, it never came up again. I wonder who the kid from KNX was talking to.
I continued southbound on curvaceous California Route One through Big Sur and down past the Hearst mansion overlooking the Pacific. Both radio signals had faded by 3 p.m. but not before I learned that there was a second victim. Had I been home in Raleigh, I would’ve been following the O.J. drama by TV. But I was on vacation, so I turned east, stopping at Bakersfield for the night.
I caught up on coverage via CNN at my hotel. Apparently, O.J. had flown to Chicago from L.A. late Sunday night and was notified by phone about his wife’s demise. He caught the next flight back to L.A. and went to his Rockingham residence where he was detained by police. His neighborhood was filled with TV trucks and reporters and a heavy police guard kept curious onlookers to within spitting distance. Helicopters hovered and there was a glimpse of Simpson standing by a tree, his hands cuffed behind his back.
The next day, Tuesday, I drove through the desert and then down, down, down into Death Valley National Monument (as it was known). I stayed at a tourist lodge in a small TV-less room. No updates about O.J. were available some 282 feet below sea level. The next day, Wednesday, I drove through Death Valley at dawn and then on to Scottsdale, Arizona.
O.J. Simpson was also a national monument back then. He grew up in the projects in San Francisco, was a standout high school running back and, after a stint at an area junior college, played for USC, earning the Heisman Trophy in 1968 with 80% of the vote. He was drafted first overall by the Buffalo Bills. Although the Bills didn’t win much, he put up big numbers, including the first 2,000-yard season in 1973. He had been inducted into both the Pro Football and College Halls of Fame by 1985.
He had many endorsement deals, including TV ads of his running though airports, hurdling over rows of seats and out to the parking lot where his Hertz rental car was waiting. He also appeared in the broadcast booth or on the sidelines to provide TV commentary during games.
On Friday, June 17, O.J. was supposed to turn himself in by 11 a.m. Pacific time. When he had not appeared by 2 p.m. the LAPD issued an all-points bulletin. At 5 p.m. his attorney Robert Kardashian read what sounded like a suicide note that O.J. had written earlier in the day. At about 5:30 the media learned of a “low-speed chase” in progress on L.A.’s congested freeways that featured the Bronco, driven by O.J.’s pal Al Cowlings, with Simpson hunkering in the back seat holding a gun to his head and sporadically speaking by cell phone to police.
NBC broadcast Friday’s game five of the 1994 NBA Finals from a sold-out Madison Square Garden. The NY Knicks and Houston Rockets were tied at 2 games apiece and the Garden was rocking. Nearly 20,000 fans were on hand to see Olajuwon vs. Ewing and many had paid scalpers big bucks to do so. The tipoff was at 6 p.m. Pacific, just as the Bronco chase began.
There was a tussle that night between NBC Sports and NBC News, resulting in a split-screen compromise. After the news division had cut into the game’s early minutes with live coverage of the freeway free-for-all, a decision was made to show the Bronco chase on the left side and the game on the right side of the screen. As Knicks fans in the Garden realized that more O.J. drama was fast-breaking, they left their pricey seats to go to the concession areas and watch the TV monitors above the ketchup and mustard tables.
A year later I was in downtown L.A. on a quiet Saturday afternoon and drove by the courthouse where the O.J. trial was in recess for the weekend. In a nearby parking lot there was a sea of satellite dishes and a mass of media vehicles from all over the world, including the fledgling Court TV (now TruTV), which cut its teeth on the O.J. trial and made stars of many young attorney/journalists including Greta Van Susteren.
Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. Although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.
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