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O.J. Simpson's Bronco Chase: 'Theater of the Absurd'

It is an indelible image — O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco ever so slowly cruising down a Los Angeles highway.
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It is an indelible image — the white Ford Bronco ever so slowly cruising down a Los Angeles highway.

Maybe you were one of 95 million Americans who watched O.J. Simpson's famous escape on television. Or maybe you were one of the hundreds of Southern California residents who took to freeways, overpasses or the football star's Brentwood mansion to cheer him on. Even people born after 1994 are familiar with the slow-speed police pursuit that interrupted an NBA playoff game and kicked off the national obsession with car chases.

"I had a lot of strange days and I've seen a lot of weird things, but this is Number 1 in my list," said retired Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Larry Pool, who worked in law enforcement for 27 years. "It was just really, really weird."

He should know. Contrary to media reports stating that police tracked Simpson's location through cellphone records, it was Pool who first spotted the 1993 Bronco in Orange County and stayed behind it as it traveled 60 miles north to Simpson's Brentwood home.

And it was purely by accident.

Pool was at the end of his shift in Laguna Niguel, a southern part of the county he normally did not work, when another deputy told him the football hero was on the run. Pool was on his way back to headquarters in Santa Ana but joked: "I'm going to snag O.J. before I get there, so I'm going to be late."

He merged onto the northbound I-5. A quarter of a mile ahead, he spotted a white Bronco. Not thinking it would turn out to be the car everyone was looking for, he speeded up and asked a dispatcher to confirm the tag.

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"It was the car," Pool said. "Unbelievable. I looked at the occupant, and it was a black male. We didn't have any information at the time that O.J. was with someone else. I noticed it didn't really look like O.J., but sometimes you see people who are famous and they don't look the same."

Pool called for backup. About four miles away, Orange County sheriff's Sgt. Jim Sewell, now retired, had just completed paperwork and was out supervising patrol officers. He heard Pool, whom he knew, on the radio and decided to help.

When he merged onto I-5, he saw the Bronco drive by, followed by Pool. "It was so slow that it was really [more] a failure to yield than it was a pursuit," Sewell said and laughed.

In the sky, someone else had spotted the Bronco. Freelance news team Marika Gerrard and Bob Tur, lauded for their coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots, had made the fortuitous decision to travel by helicopter to the news conference where Simpson's arrest was expected to be announced. When the police department instead said Simpson was "in the wind," Tur and Gerrard, who were married at the time, raced back to their helicopter and flew to the Santa Monica Airport to listen to scanners and figure out where to go.

They knew from the radio traffic that Simpson was in a Bronco with his childhood friend and former football player Al Cowlings. Another friend of Simpson's, Robert Kardashian, had read a note on television that sounded like Simpson might be contemplating suicide.

"We were thinking he's going to kill himself, and being news people, we're not sympathetic to anything," Gerrard said. "First comes the story. So I was saying he's going up to the Malibu mountains to overlook the ocean and kill himself. Bob said he thought he was going down to Orange County to Nicole [Brown Simpson]'s grave. Now, the history of me and Bob figuring out where things are is that I was always wrong. So we got in the helicopter and started heading toward Orange County."

"Then it got really ridiculous."

As they approached the cemetery, they heard on the scanner that the Bronco had been located near the El Toro Y interchange — exactly where they happened to be.

"We got fairly low and got a really cool shot," said Gerrard, who was shooting the video for CBS. "I tried to see O.J., but the windows were tinted. Within about 15 minutes, there were about 15 helicopters circling around with us."

The news crew followed as deputies stopped the Bronco and ordered the driver, Cowlings, to throw the keys out the window and exit the vehicle.

"He just looked back and yelled at us that O.J. was in the back of the car with a gun to his head threatening suicide, threw a few expletives at us and started driving again," Sewell said. "We kept following, and as we went, other jurisdictions joined us and dropped out. Then it got really ridiculous."

After the pursuit led to the 405, people with signs saying things like "Run OJ Run!" and "Go OJ!" appeared at overpasses. Others exited their cars on the freeway as the Bronco rolled by to catch a glimpse. Dozens of others raced to his Brentwood neighborhood, assuming that is where the Bronco would make its final stop.

Pool did not know Simpson was talking to LAPD detectives and trying to reach NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas from the Bronco.

"As the media put out our location, unbeknownst to me, the news is interrupting the playoff game for the NBA. And all these people are coming out," Pool said. "It was already the most televised police pursuit in history, but now it's so bizarre with people coming out. There were people interfering with our pursuit. At one point, when we got into LA, it was as though a concert had let out on the freeway. People were partying. I thought, if this was a movie, people would say that was a pretty good movie until that stupid car chase!"

KNBC anchor Colleen Williams remembers she ditched a scheduled interview so she could stay in the studio because she was mesmerized by what was unfolding.

"It was a kind of theater of the absurd," she said. "There is no better word to describe it than 'bizarre' from start to finish. That day was truly odd."

When the Bronco exited the 405, the chase became more perilous. Heading west on Sunset Boulevard toward Simpson's home, Cowlings doubled his speed and blew red lights.

"That was the most dangerous part of this whole deal," Sewell said. "The overpass was jammed with cars and people, and we had to weave through all of that. It was hard not to hit people."

The Bronco pulled into the Rockingham Avenue driveway, but Simpson stayed in the car. Pool remembers almost hitting Simpson's son with his patrol car as he raced toward the Bronco. LAPD snipers covered the property and the roof of the house.

"You used to be watching entertainment shows and they'd break for news. After us, you watch the news and break for entertainment.'

"Bar none, in 35 years of law enforcement, it was the strangest day I ever had," Sewell said. "I've seen sad stuff, weird stuff, but as far as the totality of the weirdness — that was it. It was routine occurrence in law enforcement that involved a celebrity, was televised, and everybody wanted to be a part of it. And the byproduct is the fascination with pursuits that we have now."

Williams says she feels a responsibility to cover the chases that put innocent people in harm's way.

"A lot of these turn out that way now," Williams said. "I think people are genuinely concerned about their neighbors and, yeah, there is a voyeuristic quality. ... I think we do a service to the public when we tell them what's going on and what areas to avoid. I mean, of course, there are absurd ones."

For her part, Gerrard said, she is completely aware that she "ruined local news."

"There was no such thing as a high-speed pursuit before us," she said and laughed. "No one thought to cover news from a helicopter. You used to be watching entertainment shows and they'd break for news. After us, you watch the news and break for entertainment."