OJ Simpson Freeway Chase Mesmerizes The Nation (June 17, 1994)





The evening of June 17, 1994, a Friday, was warm and muggy and I had just returned to my apartment in Greenwich Village after a five-mile run in Hudson River Park.  Before showering I turned on the TV to check the score of Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.  Instead, what appeared on the screen was a white SUV speeding along a highway.  I thought that perhaps it was a scene from a repeat of NBC's Law & Order, but when I changed channels it was also on ABC, CBS and CNN. 


I soon learned that the white Bronco was carrying OJ Simpson on LA’s 405 Freeway, and it was being pursued by a phalanx of LAPD police cruisers.  It seems OJ, who was the prime suspect in the murder of his 35-year-old wife, Nicole, and her male friend earlier in the week, didn't turn himself in, as he had agreed, and was now sitting in the back of the vehicle holding a gun to his head and threatening to shoot himself.





The chase was so mesmerizing I couldn’t pull myself away to go to the grocery store to get dinner.  I watched for at least two hours waiting for the moment when, befitting this perfect Greek tragedy, OJ was going to end it all.  What sticks with me was the circus-like atmosphere as cars pulled over on the freeway and crowds lined the road and overpasses cheering (or jeering) as he drove by.  And when the Bronco finally pulled into the driveway of OJ’s home another surreal thing happened.  An eyewitness claiming to be across the street from OJ’s house was interviewed on the phone by ABC News’ Peter Jennings but he turned out to be a crank caller who made an inane comment about his allegiance to Howard Stern.


In happier days ...



Fast forward sixteen months to Oct. 3, 1995, the day of the verdict in OJ’s murder trial.  I was eating lunch in my office (at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding) and turned on the radio to listen to the live coverage of the jury’s verdict.  I had decided not to watch the coverage on TV in the conference room with others because I didn’t want to see which co-workers might be happy if he was found innocent.  When I heard the not-guilty verdict I got up and closed the door to my office and sat for a while with my eyes closed trying to process the jury's decision before continuing with the rest of my day.





President Clinton & OJ Simpson Share Center Stage (February 4, 1997)

1995_stateoftheunion_address The verdict in the civil suit brought against OJ Simpson for the wrongful deaths of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman coincided with President Clinton's State of the Union Address on the night of February 4, 1997 (the first of his second term).  Word that a verdict had been reached came shortly before 7PM but the reading of it was delayed for more than three hours until all interested parties arrived at the courthouse in Santa Monica. 


It was Tuesday night and I was preparing dinner after doing a weight workout at the gym.  Since both events were of high news value NBC resorted to a split screen to show both unfolding.  And although it seemed somewhat disrespectful to the President, truth be told, the verdict was largely the reason I switched on the TV.  Finally, at the conclusion of the President's address the verdict came in.  Reporters inside the courthouse signaled to the crowd gathered outside that the verdict was - guilty!  On one side of the split screen President Clinton was shown shaking hands while and on the other side a defeated Simpson was show leaving the courthouse followed by the triumphant Goldman and Brown families.  I let out a cheer.


Fred_Goldman_PeopleMag For me, this verdict took some of the sting out of the contentious not guilty verdict reached in the criminal trial in 1995.  Shortly afterward I called my friend Marina down in Baltimore to share the news.  She had passed the Maryland bar six months earlier so I asked her to explain why this type of suit could be filed after a verdict had already been rendered in the criminal case, in other words a do-over.  (I still don't understand the legal reasoning.)  Thus ended a tragic case that had been part of the nation's zeitgeist for nearly three years.  (However, it wasn't the last we'd hear from OJ.)


Harvey Milk & San Francisco's Mayor Murdered (November 27, 1978)




November 1978 was a month like few others for the city of San Francisco.  On Nov. 7 voters in California rejected the anti-gay Briggs Initiative which would have banned the hiring of gay teachers.  It was an emotional victory for openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk who had put considerable energy campaigning against it.  Then a week-and-a-half later Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple cult, forced more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide in their Jonestown settlement in the Venezuelan protectorate of Guayana.  Jones and many of the victims were from the Bay Area.


On Nov. 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving, disgruntled former city supervisor Dan White snuck into City Hall during the morning and shot dead mayor George Moscone (pictured, below with Milk) at point blank range and then walked down the hall and did the same to Milk.  In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, Moscone and Milk had a connection to Jim Jones, who a few years earlier was chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority.




At the time I was in my senior year at Penn State University and in the early stages of coming out so Milk's murder was especially sobering for me.  Back than having an openly gay man in such a high profile government position was unheard of, compounding the loss.  In 2009 Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk in the movie Milk.  The film was based on the biography The Mayor of Castro St. - The Life & Times of Harvey Milk.    






Remembering the Day of President Kennedy's Assassination (November 22, 1963)




The assassination of President Kennedy is the first vivid memory I have of any historical event.  In the fall of 1963 I was six years old and in the First Grade at Fenton Elementary School in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks.  Nov. 22 was a Friday and early that afternoon I had just returned to school after having lunch at home.  My classmates and I waited for our teacher, Mrs. Foley, to arrive but for some unknown reason we waited an unusually long time for her (this was too good to be true!).  Finally, she walked in and told us the news that the president had been shot and that we could go home.




It seemed fitting that the afternoon was overcast, which added to the somberness of my walk home (and Saturday would be dreary and rainy).  Although I was aware this was an awful event I don't recall feeling any strong emotions.  While waiting for my father to return from work I sat on the sofa in the living room and paged through my mother's December issue of Good Housekeeping that arrived in the mail earlier that afternoon (pictured).  On the cover was a little girl holding a large Santa lollipop.  Although its festive nature was incongruous with that day's tragedy, it was a nice escape for a young child.  And the next day my brother and I spent much of that rainy Saturday afternoon at the movies.



Another thing I remember about this day was my surprise at the word "assassination", which I had never heard before.  Although I quickly learned its meaning, I found it somewhat amusing/shocking because it had the word "ass" in it - twice - yet everyone was saying it, which my six-year-old self found curious and amusing.  After all, back then words like that weren't spoken in polite company.


Just two days later the nation witnessed the shooting death of accused assassin, 25-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.  It was just past noon and my family was eating Sunday lunch.  The TV was on in the background in the living room because my father, a football fanatic, insisted on watching the NFL game that was being broadcast.  The telecast was interrupted by coverage of Oswald being brought into police headquarters in Dallas.  As he was being walked in, surrounded by detectives, a man named Jack Ruby jumped out of the crowd and shot Oswald in the stomach. 

I didn’t see the shooting because my seat at the dinner table was obstructed by a wall that blocked my view.  But I heard the commotion and saw the reaction of my parents.  This was very likely the most shocking event ever seen on live TV until 9/11 when millions saw the second plane (United Flight 175) crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center.




Because of these events, for a long time I viewed Dallas (and Texas in general) as an evil place, not unlike enemy territory such as Red China, and it took a long time for me to shake this feeling.


In 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, journalists Guy Russo and Harry Moses asked a cross-section of Americans to share their memories of that tragic day, and turned it into a book titled Where Were You? 






Remembering TWA Flight 800 & United Flight 232: Two Memorable Mid-July Plane Crashes

News of aviation disasters often produces a visceral reaction since such crashes usually result in a large number of fatalities.  Additionally, since most of us have been on board a plane we can empathize with the doomed passengers.  Two of the nation's most high-profile air disasters occurred in mid-July in 1989 and 1996.


Brian.williams.twaflight800TWA Flight 800 was bound for Paris on the evening of July 17, 1996 when it exploded off the south shore of Long Island shortly after take-off from Kennedy Airport.  Some eyewitnesses reported seeing a streak of light shoot up to the plane, perhaps a missile.  My mother called to tell me the news shortly before I sat down to watch the 11:00 news.  I remember that at one point NBC News anchor Brian Williams resorted to showing the crash location by holding up a paper map since there had been no time to create a whiz-bang graphic.  That summer was the first in which I had a weekend share out in Fire Island Pines and a seat cushion was found washed up on the beach that weekend.  For the rest of the summer whenever any flotsam appeared in the water (the plane came down just 15 miles east of the community) we'd wonder if it was debris from the plane.




Unitedflight232_iowa An air disaster captured on video occurred the afternoon of July 19, 1989 when United Flight 232 bound from Denver to Chicago lost its hydraulic system an hour into the flight and was forced to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.  Although 111 passengers died there were also 185 survivors.  Besides the high number of survivors what also made this accident stand out was the fact that news crews were waiting for the plane when it crash landed. (For more than an hour it was known the flight was in distress.)  The dramatic footage of the plane breaking apart with pieces of it going up in flames and then somersaulting into a cornfield adjacent to the runway was shown over and over on TV that night.  I didn't see the news coverage until late because I was at a carefree summer networking event, but once I was home I was glued to the TV set as I counted the cash from the evening's event.  It was horrifying, but mesmerizing as well, to watch because it was something rarely captured on video. 





Images On the same day as United 232's crash landing another story out of LA was receiving a lot of coverage as 21-year old actress Rebecca Schaeffer, co-star of the sitcom My Sister Sam, was murdered the day before by a stalker who shot her at point-blank range when she answered the door of her West Hollywood apartment.



Richard Speck Murders Eight Nurses in Chicago (July 14, 1966)

Nurses_murdered_by_speck The chilling reality that homicidal maniacs walk among us was introduced to me when I was nine years old on the afternoon of July 14, 1966.  I was bringing in the afternoon paper, the Pittsburgh Press, from the front lawn and saw on the front page the photos of each of the eight student nurses murdered in their Chicago apartment by a man named Richard Speck.  What sticks with me to this day was this chilling gallery of photos of the victims.



There was also a photo of the 24-year-old suspect as well as the one nurse who survived.  She managed to hide while Speck proceeded to rape and murder (in various ways) her roommates one by one.  My young mind was unable to grasp how he was able to pull off such a heinous act considering that he was so outnumbered.  Speck was convicted in 1967 and spent the rest of his life in prison - where he was murdered in 1991 the day before his 50th birthday. 




Then less than three weeks later (Aug. 1) college student Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a water tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin and went on a shooting rampage, killing 14.  Again, I remember this event from seeing it on the front page of the newspaper.  (And to think that in both cases all I wanted to read was the comics!)  If you'd like to delve further into the demented minds of these murderers the book Crime of the Century gives a detailed account of the Speck murders, the murderer himself and his trial while A Sniper in the Tower provides disturbing insight into what may have led to Whitman's deadly spree.




The Speck murders were referenced extensively during an episode of AMC's drama Mad Men.  The episode, titled "Mystery Date", aired on April 8, 2012.  In it little Sally's step-grandmother scares the bejesus out of her by talking about the murders.  And then the following week's episode the shooting spree at the University of Texas was mentioned twice. 






Bobby Kennedy Assassinated (June 6, 1968)




I'm sure many of us remember times in our lives when we awoke in the morning to learn of some major news event that had happened overnight.  For instance, that's when I first heard of Indira Gandhi's assassination; the death of Roberto Clemente in a plane crash; and about the truck bomb that killed 230 US Marines in Lebanon. 






The first time I recall this happening was the morning of June 5, 1968 when my dad woke me up for school (5th grade) and told me that Senator Bobby Kennedy had been shot.  The shooting occurred minutes after his victory speech at a Los Angeles hotel after he won California's Democratic primary.  The first thing that went through my mind was that this was the second Kennedy in just five years to be shot and it been only two months since the assassination of Martin Luther King. 




Kennedy lingered for a day before dying in the early morning hours of Thursday, June 6 - which happened to be the day of my sister Linda's high school graduation.  Later that day when I arrived home from school I watched some of the news coverage as Kennedy's casket was taken from the plane after it landed in New York.  Since I was 11 at the time the fact that RFK was a youthful 42 years old didn't register with me - after all, he was the age of my parents so it didn't seem young.  Of course, his death cast a pall on the evening's commencement exercises and references to it were inserted into a number of remarks made on the dais. 




In 2006 the movie Bobby a fictionalized account of the  hours leading up to RFK's assassination was released.  It had more than a dozen recognizable stars in its cast, including Ashton Kuthcer, Laurence Fishburne, Elijah Wood, Demi Moore and William H. Macy.



Shooting Rampage at Columbine High School Stuns Nation (April 20, 1999)





What I remember most about the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 is that I went the entire day without hearing anything about it.  This was highly unusual because I always had the radio on in my office, but I spent this day mostly in meetings in a conference room (at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding).  




It wasn't until I got home and turned on the TV after 7:00 that I heard about it.  It was reported that as many as 25 were dead, but since the school had been locked down until the next morning the true numbers weren't known.  The following morning the death toll was revised downward to 15 (including the two student shooters).




Before Columbine there had been four even deadlier shootings.  They occurred in a post office, two restaurants, and on a college campus.  Columbine, however was the first to have such young targets - and the first to be communicated immediately to the outside world by victims on their cell phones. 




Unfortunately, as with all previous shooting rampages in this country, after an initial outpouring of grief and recriminations, life returned to normal, i.e. a feckless Congress unwilling to buck the NRA and draw up legislation to protect its citizens.  And eight years later, 32 students and faculty were mowed down at Virginia Tech (pictured).  Even that much carnage couldn't change a thing.  And the beat goes on ...  


U.S. Gun Carnage: A Tragic Roll Call

  • 60 murdered at Las Vegas country music festival/Oct. 1, 2017
  • 49 murdered at Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, FL/June 12, 2016
  • 32 murdered at Virginia Tech/April 16, 2007
  • 26 murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT/Dec. 14, 2012
  • 24 murdered at Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, TX/Oct. 16, 1991
  • 23 murdered at Walmart in El Paso, TX/Aug. 3, 2019
  • 21 murdered at McDonald's in San Ysidro, CA/July 18, 1984
  • 16 murdered in Austin, TX/Univ. of TX campus/Aug. 1, 1966
  • 14 murdered at office party in San Bernardino, CA/Dec. 2, 2015
  • 14 murdered at Edmonds, OK post office/Aug. 20, 1986
  • 13 murdered at Columbine HS/Littleton, CO/April 20, 1999
  • 13 murdered at Ft. Hood, TX military base/Nov. 5, 2009
  • 12 murdered at movie theater in Aurora, CO/July 20, 2012
  • 11 murdered at synagogue in Pittsburgh/Oct. 27, 2018
  • 10 murdered at supermarket in Boulder, CO/March 22, 2021
  • 10 murdered in rural Alabama/March 10, 2009
  • 10 murdered in Jacksonville, FL/June 18, 1990
  • 9 murdered in Dayton, OH/Aug. 5, 2019
  • 9 murdered at church in Charleston, SC/June 17, 2015
  • 9 murdered in Red Lake, MN by teen boy/March 21, 2005
  • 9 murdered in Atlanta/July 29, 1999  
  • 8 murdered at Omaha shopping mall/Dec. 5, 2007 

Americans Target Their Own: Oklahoma City Bombing (April 19, 1995)





When a bomb tore apart the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 I had been at my new job as media research director at New York ad agency Foote Cone & Belding for just a month.  It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon and I was at my desk in my office in the GM Building.  In the background I had the "oldies" radio station WCBS playing (the radio was in the style of one from the 1930s, a send-off gift from my old staff).  It was from that radio that I first heard the shocking news about the explosion that occurred earlier in the morning.


The front of the building had been completely blown off and the death toll slowly mounted as the days went by (the final toll was 168 with nearly 700 injured).  I found it curious when initial reports mentioned children being among the many casualties.  I thought that perhaps a group of students had been on a field trip there.  Later when I got home is when I heard that a daycare center for workers' children was in the building. 




At first many jumped to the conclusion that this was the act of Muslim terrorists, so it was surprising when the FBI showed sketches the next day of two suspects who were Caucasian.  Indications were that the attack was carried out by US citizens who were part of a burgeoning anti-government "militia" movement.  It annoyed me that reporters regularly remarked how awful it was that such an attack happened in "the heartland" as if it would have been less of a tragedy if it occurred in a big city on the East or West Coast.




Six years later the driver of the bomb-laden truck, Timothy McVeigh, was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, three months before the attacks on 9-11 - which would surpass the Oklahoma City bombing as the worst terrorist attack on the US mainland.


Martin Luther King Assassinated (April 4, 1968)




Ours was one of the first families in the neighborhood to own a color TV.  It was a Magnavox, delivered at the beginning of April 1968.  On Thursday, April 4, I had just come in from playing in the backyard, where I'd been having fun rolling around inside the TV's shipping box. (I was 10 years old at the time.)  When evening came, I went inside and lay on the living room floor eager to watch The Flying Nun in living color for the first time.  However, shortly after it came on a news bulletin interrupted to report that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis.  He was just 39 years old. 


The next day, looking from our side porch, we could see smoke rising in the distance (about 10 miles away).  It was from fires set during rioting in a predominantly black neighborhood in Pittsburgh known as the Hill District.  The biggest fire came from a supermarket there that had been torched.  (Riots had broken out across the country as a result of MLK's assassination.)  Since we lived in a predominantly white community I didn't realize Pittsburgh had many black residents, at least not enough to have their own neighborhood.




Tuesday, April 9, was King's funeral in Atlanta and schools were closed because of concerns that there might be trouble.  I didn't watch the funeral but occasionally would catch a glimpse of the funeral procession on TV when I'd walk through the living room.  For the most part I spent the day outside playing because the weather was nice and warm.  This was my first exposure to the tumult of 1968 that was just getting underway.




(There are countless books and videos about the accomplishments of and controversies surrounding King, including an autobiography, the 1978 NBC mini-series King and the acclaimed PBS documentary from 2004 Citizen King.)