Media people

Reporters remember talking to O.J. back then


Tuesday was, finally, the 20th anniversary of the day that O.J. Simpson fled the LAPD in a white Ford Bronco and was ultimately arrested at his home on Rockingham Drive in Brentwood. It feels like the media retrospectives have been going on for awhile now. (I even got in my licks in an LA Observed segment on KCRW a week ago.) Now here's one last round: reporters who recount interacting with Simpson after his arrest and the criminal trial that led to his acquittal in Superior Court and guilty verdict in the court of public opinion.

In November 1995, after his release from jail at the end of the trial, Simpson cold-called Linda Deutsch of Associated Press. Yahoo's Holly Bailey tells the story:

He could have called on any of the many celebrity journalists who were swarming the case, like Geraldo Rivera or Dominick Dunne, who wrote a monthly diary of the trial for Vanity Fair. Instead Simpson turned to Deutsch, a stalwart wire reporter who had been a fixture of the monolithic Los Angeles County Courthouse for three decades, covering every notable trial from Charles Manson to the Menendez brothers.

Simpson and Deutsch had never formally spoken, save for an occasional word here and there in the courtroom during the trial. But while in jail, Simpson read the newspapers, and he had come to know her byline as well as her reputation. Over the years Deutsch became the reporter Simpson would talk to the most — an O.J. whisperer, in some ways, with an ability not only to get him on the phone but also to coax him into telling her things he wouldn’t say to other reporters.

In the two decades since the Simpson saga began, Deutsch has interviewed the former football star dozens of times, starting in the immediate aftermath of the murder trial. And their interactions have continued on through the bizarre personal and legal drama that has overtaken Simpson’s life since — including a Las Vegas armed robbery that landed him in a Nevada state prison in 2008 and where he will remain until at least 2017.

That relationship has given Deutsch and her readers a front-row seat to a sensational tale of tragedy, the rise and fall of a gridiron hero who seemingly once had it all only to lose everything amid the lingering mystery of what really happened outside his ex-wife’s house on a cool June night 20 years ago.

If you ask Deutsch why she thinks Simpson talked to her so often, her answer is simple: “He trusted me. He knew I would be fair to him.”

Lots of good details in the story and background on Deutsch, the fixture at AP in Los Angeles. “I like to say there is Linda Deutsch, and then there is everybody else,” says LA lawyer Mark Geragos, who has represented Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder and others. “She is really a throwback to real journalism ... You can trust her, and she will be fair. She understands things, and she usually gets it right.”

After covering the prosecution of Simpson as the lead reporter for the LA Times, in February 1996 the Times' Jim Newton and colleague Henry Weinstein showed up unannounced at Simpson's home for an interview. He let them in. Newton recounted what happened next in a post for the paper's op-ed blog last week headlined, How my interview with O.J. almost ended in a fistfight.

Parts of the interview were weird. When I asked him why his hands were cut at the time of his arrest, he pointed to a cut on one of my hands and insisted that I explain my cut first. He deflected some questions about the case by promising he would tell all in an upcoming videotape, which he was going to sell for $29.95 (“Call 1-800-OJTELLS,” he kept repeating). And when we asked about whether he was angry with Nicole, his ex-wife, after their breakup, he responded that he was not, adding with a chuckle: “My handicap went down a few strokes in May after we broke up.”

But one moment from that day remains with me with particular clarity, these 20 years later. I was recovering from a nasty ear infection at the time and was relying on my tape recorder to supplement my notes (I shouldn’t have worried; Henry is a prodigious note-taker and wouldn’t have missed anything). Simpson at first agreed to the tape recorder, but then he abruptly changed his mind, saying he was worried we’d sell it to a radio station and it would show up on the air. He grabbed the recorder, and I, fearful that I was about to lose the record of our interview, instinctively jumped up to grab it back. He flashed with anger, and for a moment, we looked hard at each other...

Also: On Facebook, Orange Coast Magazine columnist Shawn Hubler today posted the LA Times main news story for the next day's paper: "I remember writing this at the city desk as if it were yesterday." She shared a byline that day with Newton. The top:

O.J. Simpson, the football great who rose from the mean streets of San Francisco to international celebrity, was arrested Friday for the murders of his ex-wife and a male friend after leading police on a gripping, two-hour chase through the rush-hour freeways of Southern California.

The dramatic capture of one of the best-known and best-loved public figures in America came shortly before 9 p.m., about 10 hours after he was to have turned himself in to Los Angeles police. Simpson's lawyer, Robert L. Shapiro, said Simpson, 46, had agreed to surrender earlier, but bolted at the last minute with Al Cowlings, a longtime friend and former teammate at USC and with the Buffalo Bills.

A massive manhunt involving scores of law enforcement officers ended in the cobblestone driveway of Simpson's Tudor-style mansion, as Los Angeles Police Department officers in bulletproof vests converged on the white Ford Bronco in which Simpson and Cowlings had fled.

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