A central figure in the wild O.J. Simpson “White Bronco” chase, 20 years ago today, was Simpson’s longtime friend, A.C. Cowlings.
It was Cowlings who was with Simpson when he slipped away from an Encino residence just before he was supposed to turn himself in to authorities in connection with the slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, according to District Atty. Gil Garcetti and Simpson’s attorney, Robert Shapiro. It was Cowlings, then 47, police say, who piloted his Ford Bronco on a desperate and futile getaway attempt. And it was Cowlings, dressed in black, who seemed to be trying to negotiate Simpson’s surrender as the nation watched on television.
Cowling emerged as a strident Simpson defender. In 1995 he set up a 900 number to present his thoughts and feelings about his longtime friend and the media frenzy that surrounded the trial.
He was arrested on suspicion of aiding a fugitive on the same day as Simpson’s capture.
But prosecutors declined to charge him, citing a lack of evidence.
Simpson was acquitted by a jury in 1995.
Here are portions of a 1994 Times examination of Cowlings and Simpson’s close relationship:
For as long as anyone can remember, it was O.J. and Al. Homeboys, teammates, soul mates. Together to the end.
From the unforgiving streets of Potrero Hill in San Francisco to the rough and tumble of the National Football League and life beyond, O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings found their lives repeatedly intertwined.
“Al followed O.J. like his shadow, both in their youth and afterward,” said Joe Bell, who played high school football with both men in San Francisco. “They were joined at the hip, you might say.”
“If O.J. could depend on one guy, it was A.C.,” said former Los Angeles Rams General Manager Don Klosterman, who knows both men well. “There was total loyalty. I’m sure A.C. [didn’t] even think he [was] breaking the law, knowing him. He just made a deal to help out his friend.”
That is the way it had always been. Cowlings and Simpson’s deep bond was forged through the struggle of growing up poor in one of San Francisco’s toughest neighborhoods. On Potrero Hill, a kid met an invitation for trouble on every corner.
They were the tightest duo in a larger group of about 15 high school athletes who founded a social club called the Superiors. The group hosted dances and parties around San Francisco, helping members to earn money -- and dates.
The two were also teammates on the Galileo High School football team, where Cowlings was the biggest, beefiest member of the squad, weighing about 220 pounds by his senior year.
“Al would be there for O.J. and O.J. would be there for Al,” said Lefty Gordon, a social worker who knew both men as teen-agers on Potrero Hill. “O.J. had a lot of influence on Al. They had been extremely close.”
The friendship even survived one of the tougher challenges young men in high school can face -- the theft of a girlfriend. As Bell tells it, Cowlings was dating Marguerite Whitley -- a statuesque girl considered a prime catch -- before Simpson swept her off her feet in an episode reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac.
“When Al was younger, he had this stutter, and he never felt he could express himself right to Marguerite,” Bell recalled. “So he asked O.J., his buddy, to help him out and tell her things. Well, O.J. told her things all right. But he wound up spinning more yarn for himself than he did for Al, and Marguerite ended up with him.”
When he first spotted Simpson with his girl, Cowlings yelled and even tried to roll the new couple’s car over, another friend said. “But a week or two later, they’d patched things right back up,” said the friend, Calvin Tennyson.
Simpson and Marguerite Whitley went on to marry.
Said Bell, who now owns Lady Di’s Thrift Shop in Richmond: “Most of us went our separate ways after high school. But after O.J. made it, Al figured he could too.”