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Essential California: What it was like to photograph the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase

Essential California: What it was like to photograph the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase
California Highway Patrol officers chase Al Cowling, driving, and O.J. Simpson, in the rear of the white Bronco, on the 91 Freeway just west of the 5 Freeway on June 17, 1994. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, June 13, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

In the mid-1990s, a cultural historian named Thomas Hine embarked on an unusual project.

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“Bartlett's Familiar Quotations” was issuing a newfangled, multimedia edition, and Hine was tasked with choosing what iconic images were so regularly used, reused and appropriated that they, too, should be cataloged as cultural lexicon.

Along with Botticelli’s Venus, Munch’s Scream and Marilyn Monroe with her dress blowing just so, he chose to include then-recent aerial footage of a white Bronco on a Southern California freeway.

“I included the car chase because it was as close as our society comes to a universal experience,” Hine wrote in the New York Times.

On June 17, 1994 — 25 years ago this Monday — 95 million Americans watched as O.J. Simpson participated in the slow-speed car chase of the century.

Our first mass-watched reality show was part soap opera, part film noir and part farce, as a Heisman trophy-winning American hero wanted for double murder led a phalanx of police in tow.

More people watched Simpson on the freeway system than that year’s Super Bowl. With an entire nation unable to leave their television sets, Domino’s delivered more pizzas than any previous day in history. It was Game 5 of the NBA Finals, but soon even ESPN was cutting back and forth from the chase.

It was supposed to be Allen J. Schaben’s day off, but the contract photographer was young and hungry to make a name for himself. He had arrived in the city less than two months before, for a job with the Los Angeles Times.

Simpson had been scheduled to turn himself in at 11 a.m. at the old Parker Center downtown after detectives had recommended that he be charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman.

Schaben had hustled there to try to get a picture of Simpson’s morning surrender, but, as the world now knows, that shot never materialized. The photographer chased a rumor to Brentwood after that, then phoned his editor, who told him there were reports of Simpson heading up the 5 Freeway in Orange County, possibly to L.A.

The former football star was in the backseat of his old friend Al Cowling’s SUV, allegedly with a gun pressed to his head.

The pair would eventually take the 5 to the 91 to the 110 to the 405. Schaben barely knew his way around, let alone which freeways connected to which.

Allen J. Schaben's press credential from the 1990s
Allen J. Schaben's press credential from the 1990s (Courtesy of Allen J. Schaben)

The 25-year-old was scrambling down the 405 in the same Saab he’d taken west from Nebraska. He was driving while trying to turn the pages of a Thomas Guide, with a tiny portable TV and a police scanner blaring from the passenger seat.

“I was looking on the map for how to get to the 91 and then I looked up and saw the exit sign,” he recalled. He started heading down the 91, and then saw a news van pull over at the center divider near Buena Park. “They got out, so I figured he must be heading right toward us.”

He jumped out of the car and managed to load a fresh roll of film into his Nikon as he ran toward the news van, then asked for permission to climb on top of the van for a better shot. Sure, the news crew told him, but you’d better stand still and not shake the van.

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Seconds later, he was adjusting the manual focus on his lens and hitting the shutter as the world’s most famous fugitive and a flock of Highway Patrol cars drove right past him.

After that, Schaben followed Simpson to Brentwood. “Then I ran back to the paper and processed the film. And then it ran around the world,” he said.

His photo ran as a “triple-truck” across three pages in Newsweek and was syndicated across the globe. And in an event distilled to instant iconography, his picture remains one of the most well-known images.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

California regulators are investigating gender-discrimination claims at Riot Games. More than 200 workers walked out of Riot’s headquarters last month to protest what they described as a culture of sexism at the company and its handling of sexual-discrimination lawsuits. Los Angeles Times

In a rare show of unity for the two biggest rivals in ride-hailing, Uber and Lyft have joined forces to fight state legislation that would re-categorize their California drivers (and other gig workers) as employees. The bill in question — which would codify and clarify the Dynamex California Supreme Court decision last year — has passed the Assembly and will soon head to the state Senate. San Francisco Chronicle

(See also: Margot Roosevelt’s February 2019 story on the effects of the Dynamex decision and the gig worker/employee debate.)

L.A. STORIES

The L.A. County sheriff's deputy who was shot in a brutal and seemingly random attack earlier this week has died. Los Angeles Times

An L.A. barbershop has been ordered to pay $80,000 for discriminating against an HIV-positive customer. The Root

At 85, Saul Isler is graduating from Santa Monica College this month. Before he got his degree, he ran an ad agency and wrote newspaper columns. Los Angeles Times

No, the former Silver Lake Yolk store will not become a drive-through Starbucks. (Though hats off to whatever performance artist put up a sign suggesting otherwise, stirring much agita amongst the distraught, artisanally minded neighbors.) Curbed LA

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

The first Democratic presidential debate has been capped at 20 candidates by the DNC, and California’s own Rep. Eric Swalwell could be on the bubble. After the San Francisco Chronicle posted a story saying as much, the congressman texted the reporter a GIF of an excited toddler reacting to bubbles falling through the air, as one does. San Francisco Chronicle

The California Democratic Party is considering a proposal to allow noncitizens to serve as delegates, giving them the ability to vote in party elections. Capital Public Radio

CRIME AND COURTS

In the first college admissions scandal sentencing, an ex-Stanford sailing coach is spared prison. Los Angeles Times

The wife of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter is planning to change her not-guilty plea in a federal corruption case, setting up the possibility that she might testify against her husband. Hunter represents California’s 50th Congressional District (largely central and northeastern San Diego County) and is a close ally of President Trump. Associated Press

THE ENVIRONMENT

The hills of Santa Barbara County’s famed wine region have become the unlikely capital of California’s legal pot market. Now, rolling vineyards and country estates find themselves next to sprawling rows of white plastic hoop houses.
The hills of Santa Barbara County’s famed wine region have become the unlikely capital of California’s legal pot market. Now, rolling vineyards and country estates find themselves next to sprawling rows of white plastic hoop houses. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Farms in Santa Barbara County hold 35% of all cannabis cultivation licenses issued in California this year, despite the county having only 1.8% of the state’s land. Los Angeles Times

California saw nearly 240 wildfires within a week during the record-breaking heat wave. Time

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

An LGBTQ nightclub in Fresno has been targeted with threats and harassment during Pride Month. Fresno Bee

San Francisco will reopen its $2.2-billion Transbay transit center on July 1, but bus service won’t yet be restored. San Francisco Chronicle

A new plan has been unveiled for San Francisco’s waterfront, encompassing 7.5 miles of port-owned property that extends from Fisherman’s Wharf to Heron’s Head Park in the Bayview. San Francisco Chronicle

Uber wants to start delivering burgers via drone in San Diego. The pilot program could begin this summer. Bloomberg Businessweek

The Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant had surgery on his torn Achilles tendon. San Francisco Chronicle

An East Bay man now says he regrets landscaping a massive swastika on his lawn. Sacramento Bee

The “Disneyland” of marijuana dispensaries is coming to Santa Ana, by way of Las Vegas. Orange County Register

Sea Ranch, California’s modernist utopia and a one-time beacon of Northern California experimentalism, gets an update. New York Times

Why no one has approved a second Bay bridge for 70 years, despite gridlock and political demand. SFGATE

Bakersfield is now home to its first pet cemetery. The cemetery will allow cats, dogs, birds and even turtles. No horses. Bakersfield Now

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 75. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: partly sunny, 64. San Jose: sunny, 83. Sacramento: sunny, 92. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Merritt McKeon:

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“My Dad and my uncles and aunts invested time, love and money into starting Santa Claus Lane, off the 101 Freeway, in 1950. Uncle Pat McKeon was the general manager/owner and conductor of the miniature train. Aunt Mereon Provost lived behind the Date Shop, which featured her homemade candy. We spent a couple of weeks every year visiting from our home in Laguna Beach. Aunt Mereon gave me my first job, stamping Santa Claus in red ink on white bags. The Santa Claus bust is now a resident of Oxnard.”

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