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O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase captivated the country in 1994. Reporters who were there recall the ‘insanity’ of the manhunt.

O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase captivated the country in 1994. Reporters who were there recall the ‘insanity’ of the manhunt.

Would O.J. Simpson live or die? That question kept 95 million Americans locked to their TVs on June 17, 1994, during his infamous car chase.

“People … didn’t know what was going to happen next,” helicopter journalist Zoey Tur, who broadcast the low-speed chase for KCBS-TV, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They couldn’t take their eyes off of it.”

Former Fox 11 L.A. reporter Jane Wells, who covered the 60-mile pursuit from the ground, likened the can’t-look-away appeal to gladiators of ancient Rome. “You want to come out and see the show. Is he going to die?” she said.

It had been five days since the ex-NFL star’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were slain outside her Brentwood, Los Angeles, home. The morning of the chase, LAPD filed murder charges against O.J. and negotiated his surrender.

That time came and went, and he was declared a fugitive. As the search for O.J. began, his lawyer Robert Kardashian read what sounded like a suicide note from him during a televised press conference. Then the slow-speed chase was on: O.J., with a loaded gun, in the back of Al Cowlings’s white Ford Bronco as the friends traversed two counties tailed by police.

About a dozen police cars drive behind a white Ford Bronco across four highway lanes.About a dozen police cars drive behind a white Ford Bronco across four highway lanes.

On June 17, 1994, Los Angeles police gave chase to NFL Hall of Fame star O.J. Simpson, who was in the backseat of a white Ford Bronco driven by his friend/former teammate Al “A.C.” Cowlings. (Branimir Kvartuc/ZUMA Press)

America, newly introduced to reality TV via 1992’s Real World and perhaps imagining a 1991 Thelma & Louise ending, was transfixed as it played out over three hours on live TV. People were so invested in the fate of “the Juice” — by then an NFL commentator, movie actor and commercial star — Game 5 of the NBA Finals was shown in split screen. Drivers on L.A. freeways, following the news on their car radios, pulled over to cheer what may have been O.J.’s final play.

Tur, Wells and NBC 4 L.A.’s Conan Nolan take us back to the unbelievable, unprecedented event that became a cultural touchstone — from the center of the storm.

JANE WELLS: The bodies were discovered June 12, 1994.

CONAN NOLAN: A double homicide in that part of town is extremely rare.

O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson.O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson.

O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson, who shared two children, divorced in 1992 after seven years of marriage. They got back together in late 1993, but she ended the relationship for good in May 1994, her family has said. (Celebrity/Avalon via ZUMA Press)

ZOEY TUR: We received a call from a police officer … one of our informants … on the scene [who] told us that Nicole Brown Simpson was found murdered. There was a male [victim, but] they didn’t have an I.D. on the body.

WELLS: My first assignment was to go to Nicole’s condo … and see what was happening. They just finished washing away the blood.

NOLAN: There was some confusion: How did this happen? Who are these people? How is [O.J.] involved?

Dozens of people stand along a neighborhood street roped off with yellow tape near houses with terra-cotta roofs.Dozens of people stand along a neighborhood street roped off with yellow tape near houses with terra-cotta roofs.

The scene outside Nicole’s condo the day after her death. (Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

TUR: It was a huge news story. Everyone knew who O.J. was. He was always in our living rooms. This Heisman Trophy winner, a man that golfed with presidents.

NOLAN: Millions of Americans thought they knew this guy.

WELLS: Like a lot of people, I [initially] thought: “Oh, poor O.J. This is so sad that this happened to him.”

NOLAN: If you cover murders long enough, you know the first suspect in any case is a relative.

O.J. Simpson on a football field wearing a Buffalo Bills uniform and carrying a football appears to avoid another player.O.J. Simpson on a football field wearing a Buffalo Bills uniform and carrying a football appears to avoid another player.

O.J. was a famed football player, in college and the NFL, winning the Heisman Trophy. By 1994, he had transitioned to sports commentary, acted in films and was a brand spokesperson for Hertz and Ford. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

WELLS: All week long, everything was unfolding… Relatively quickly, people became suspicious that he was guilty because there was the cut finger … and the bloody glove.

NOLAN: My assignment [on June 17] was to go to [LAPD headquarters] because we hear [they’re] going to make an announcement. We think maybe he’s in custody.

TUR: I … kept looking at my watch. Finally, an LAPD spokesman … told us that O.J. was in the wind — he was a fugitive from justice. There was an audible gasp.

NOLAN: We were stunned… That’s the one scenario we did not expect. We did not expect O.J. to be fleeing from police.

A page of a hand-written letter held by someone off camera.A page of a hand-written letter held by someone off camera.

O.J.’s lawyers held a TV press conference after he fled, and Robert Kardashian read a letter written by O.J. (Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

WELLS: Then Robert Kardashian comes on and reads … some kind of suicide letter. We’re like: “This is unbelievable.”

TUR: Every law enforcement officer, every member of the media, the public — everybody’s looking for O.J. at this point.

TUR: Because I was a pilot reporter and had a helicopter … I had an advantage. I remember telling the crew: “Let’s find this guy.”

NOLAN: I was told by my desk: Head towards Orange County, south of Los Angeles … where the Brown family lived [and] Nicole was buried. We had intelligence that he was down there.

WELLS: O.J. went down to … Nicole’s grave. So, all hands on deck. We have to find that Bronco.

TUR: When I got to the gravesite, [an] unmarked police unit [was] staking it out. I decided: He’s not here. Let me look in the surrounding area… I start doing widening turns around the cemetery, and that gets me near the area of the El Toro Y, a freeway intersection [in Irvine] between the 405 and the I-5 freeways.

NOLAN: We learned [authorities] triangulated a cellphone [used by Cowlings to communicate with police] and figured out that he’s on the freeway.

Al Cowlings drives a white Ford Bronco on a highway.Al Cowlings drives a white Ford Bronco on a highway.

Cowlings at the wheel of his Bronco with O.J. in the backseat. (AP Photo/Lois Bernstein, File)

TUR: Talk about dumb luck, I literally looked down below through the chin bubble of the helicopter and there was the freeway. As I moved upward, I saw a white Bronco.

WELLS: Then we hear O.J. is coming back [headed north toward L.A].

NOLAN: We … get off [the freeway and] back on going in the opposite direction, [parked] to the side of the road. It didn’t take long before I looked into the rearview mirror and saw a sight I’ll never forget: The white Ford Bronco and a phalanx of … police units, lights and sirens behind him. I pulled in front of [the Bronco] — and that’s where we [were] for … the rest of the chase.

TUR: This was a slow-speed chase. It was really Cowlings slowing the situation down. He believed that O.J. was in a very bad state.

WELLS: We’re a little ways back. I’m driving while the camerawoman’s hanging out trying to get a shot.

TUR: By the time I was 35 minutes into the chase, [there were] 10 [other] helicopters [in the pursuit. Eventually there were] 18 [and] two airplanes. It looked like something out of Apocalypse Now.

A helicopter flies above a white Ford Bronco along a highway.A helicopter flies above a white Ford Bronco along a highway.

Helicopter reporter Zoey Tur was the first to spot the Bronco. By the end of the chase, there were 18 helicopters and two airplanes following the car. (Didier Pazery/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

NOLAN: I stay in front of him while the photographer was taking pictures. The one thing I didn’t want to do was to pull up next to him. I didn’t want him to take his own life — and I [especially] didn’t want him to do it when we’re taking a picture of him.

TUR: The chase could have gone in many different directions.

TUR: Then I saw something that really was surreal. People are standing on overpasses waving at “the Juice.”

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 17:  Motorists stop and wave as police cars pursue the Ford Bronco (white, R) driven by Al Cowlings, carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson, on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase June 17, 1994 on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, California. Simpson's friend Cowlings eventually drove Simpson home, with Simpson ducked under the back passenger seat, to Brentwood where he surrendered after a stand-off with police.  (Photo by Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison)LOS ANGELES - JUNE 17:  Motorists stop and wave as police cars pursue the Ford Bronco (white, R) driven by Al Cowlings, carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson, on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase June 17, 1994 on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, California. Simpson's friend Cowlings eventually drove Simpson home, with Simpson ducked under the back passenger seat, to Brentwood where he surrendered after a stand-off with police.  (Photo by Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison)

Motorists stopped to watch the pursuit, waving to the Bronco. (Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison)

WELLS: People have parked on the other side of the freeway, in the emergency lane, and are sitting on the barrier in the middle of the 405 freeway. If you don’t know what the 405 freeway is, this is suicidal. They’re [holding] signs, “Run, O.J, Run.”

NOLAN: I remember thinking: How is it possible they had time, not just to get there, but … to make a sign?

Motorists stand on the side of a highway holding signs that read: Save the Juice and We love the Juice.Motorists stand on the side of a highway holding signs that read: Save the Juice and We love the Juice.

People made signs cheering on O.J. (Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

TUR: It was almost like a carnival atmosphere, which was completely shocking because … two people were dead — viciously, savagely butchered.

NOLAN: He’s in the backseat of the Bronco with a gun.

People watch the road below from a freeway overpass.People watch the road below from a freeway overpass.

People crowded a freeway overpass to see the Bronco go by. (Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison)

WELLS: And … it’s the biggest party L.A. has ever seen… It was like Mardi Gras. I don’t know where these people came from. Families. I remember a father with his young daughter on his shoulders. “What’s going to happen? Is this the death of O.J. Simpson?” Insanity.

NOLAN: People were out of their cars on the lanes we were driving [in]. We were seeing cars collide … as they tried to get into position to somehow be part of this.

A man on the side of the road appears to cheer as a Ford Bronco drives along a highway followed by police cars.A man on the side of the road appears to cheer as a Ford Bronco drives along a highway followed by police cars.

A man cheering on O.J. as he was chased by dozens of police cars on the freeway. (Sam Mircovich/Reuters)

TUR: That was one of the strangest things I’ve seen in Los Angeles covering breaking news.

NOLAN: Before [they] took the off ramp to Rockingham … we pulled off. It was frankly too dangerous. I didn’t want to get in an accident.

WELLS: I didn’t get to the house because the streets were all blocked off. I got … about two blocks away. He’s in the car for a very long time in front of his house. Mind you, I’m not seeing this because I’m in a news van … trying to find out what’s going to happen. “Is O.J. going to kill himself? Is LAPD going to kill O.J.? How is this all going to end?”

Football: Aerial view shot from helicopter of home of O.J. Simpson, white Ford Bronco parked in driveway and police cars parked outside. Simpson returned to his house after failing to turn himself in for the murder of his ex-wife and fleeing by car. View of members of media and onlookers outside home.
Brentwood, CA 6/17/1994
CREDIT: Richard Mackson (Photo by Richard Mackson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X46365 )Football: Aerial view shot from helicopter of home of O.J. Simpson, white Ford Bronco parked in driveway and police cars parked outside. Simpson returned to his house after failing to turn himself in for the murder of his ex-wife and fleeing by car. View of members of media and onlookers outside home.
Brentwood, CA 6/17/1994
CREDIT: Richard Mackson (Photo by Richard Mackson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X46365 )

Cowlings drove the Bronco to O.J.’s Rockingham estate and they sat in the driveway before surrendering. (Richard Mackson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

TUR: We were there from the beginning of the pursuit all the way to its termination over Rockingham when O.J. … was taken into custody… The vast majority of television sets in the United States were tuned to this because at any moment, O.J. Simpson could find himself on the wrong side of a sniper’s rifle. And that is why they watched. And don’t delude yourself — that’s what it’s about.

NOLAN: I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly what was in O.J.’s mind at the time he ended up a fugitive from justice.

O.J. Simpson's mugshot.O.J. Simpson's mugshot.

O.J. was booked on the night of June 17, 1994. (NATION BILL/CORBIS SYGMA/Sygma via Getty Images)

Being part of breaking the story

NOLAN: In retrospect, I don’t think anything good came from this. It was a depressing period. But did he want the attention? That’s clear. O.J. loved the attention.

TUR: I think the pursuit really gave birth to the 20th century’s fascination with reality television. A little bit with my help, which is a dismal thing to say if you’re a reporter, because … [it ruined] what we consider television news these days.

WELLS: I think when people look at that chase, they think it’s funny. That was not funny. There was a man contemplating suicide … and his best friend was frantically trying to figure out what to do. I think people forget that. And I think too often in this story they forget about Ron and Nicole. Somebody butchered those two people and no one has ever been convicted.

O.J. was famously exonerated of the murders in the 1995 “trial of the century,” which exposed his history of violence against his ex-wife. The Brown and Goldman families sued him for wrongful death and he was found liable in 1997.

O.J. later served nine years in prison in Nevada for armed robbery and was paroled in 2017. He died from prostate cancer on April 10 at age 76.

After his death, the owners of Cowlings’s 1993 Bronco — not to be confused with O.J.’s own white Bronco, which he drove the night of the killings — announced they’re selling it, hoping to make $1.5 million.

Photo illustration: Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison, REED SAXON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images, Kypros/Getty Images

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