Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder Trial of O.J. Simpson

Bloody Sunday in Brentwood

Front view of the Brentwood estate
Front view of the Brentwood estate

The dog kept barking late on this foggy Sunday evening, June 12, 1994. Pablo Fenjves, a screenwriter, thought he heard it the first time at about 10:15. Elsie Tistaert, who lived just across the street, also heard it, and when she looked out of her window, she saw the dog, a white Akita, pacing up and down outside the front of 875 South Bundy Drive. Louis Kaupf, who lived next door to 875, returned late from the airport and went out to clear his mail at 10:50. The dog was still barking and trotting up and down in an agitated manner. Just before 11:00, Steven Schwab, who was walking his own dog, came across the distressed animal. It followed him home. There, he noticed that the dog's belly fur and paws were matted in red.

Schwab asked his neighbor, Suka Boztepe, to care for the dog overnight. He agreed, but as the dog persisted in his restless behavior, Boztepe and his partner, Bettina Rasmussen, decided to walk the dog and try and calm it down. The dog dragged them back to number 875, where it stopped and gazed down a dim, tree-shaded pathway. Following the dog's stare, they saw a shape of someone lying at the foot of some steps, part of the body sprawled under an iron fence.

At 12:13 a.m., the first LAPD black and white patrol car arrived on the scene in response to a call from Tistaert. In it were Officers Robert Riske and Miguel Terrazas. They went through the entranceway of the off-white stucco, three-level condominium and made their way cautiously up the pathway.

Police photo of the crime scene
Police photo of the crime scene

They were walking into a drama that a screenwriter or novelist would have given his eye teeth to dream up. In the early hours of this summer morning, the discovery of two savagely mutilated bodies would spawn a series of events that would obsess the American and world media, exert a stranglehold on the attention of the American public, destroy more than one professional career and,  perhaps most importantly of all, change the way people looked at race in America.

That morning however, Officer Riske was mainly concerned about not stepping in a small lake of blood as he proceeded up the tiled walkway where he reached the first body, which lay about 15 feet from the sidewalk. It was a woman, sprawled face down, left cheek pressing into the ground, her right leg jack-knifed under the gate frame to the left and her buttocks pressed up against the first riser of the four steps that led up to the path leading to the front door of the condominium.

She was wearing a short black dress, drenched in the blood that had poured out of wounds to her upper body and throat. To her right, just beyond an agapanthus bush in a small garden enclave off the walkway, lay the body of a man. He was crumpled over on his right side, sprawled against a garden fence. His eyes were open and his light brown shirt and blue jeans were saturated in blood.

After establishing that both victims were dead, Riske and Terrazas radioed for backup. Within minutes, Sergeant Martin Coon and officers Edward McGowan and Richard Walker arrived and went about securing the crime scene and controlling the traffic flow on South Bundy, which was busy even that early in the morning.

Nicole Brown Simpson
Nicole Brown Simpson

At 12:45 a.m., paramedics from a nearby fire station arrived and confirmed that the man and woman lying in the grounds of the condominium were indeed very dead. By then, Riske and another patrol officer had established that the woman was probably Nicole Brown Simpson, the owner of the building and the ex-wife of O.J. Simpson, the retired football player and sports newscaster. Upstairs in their bedrooms, they found her two young children, nine-year-old Sidney and six-year-old Justin, fast asleep. The officers awakened them, got them dressed and arranged for them to be taken to the West Los Angeles Division to await formal identification by a family member. An animal control officer arrived and picked up the Akita, which was taken to a pound in West Los Angeles. At this point in time, the identity of the dead man had not been established.

At 2:10 a.m., West Los Angeles Division Homicide Detective Supervisor Ron Phillips, accompanied by Detective Mark Fuhrman, arrived at South Bundy and carried out a visual inspection of the area, without approaching the bodies or getting too close to the immediate crime scene. By then, Fuhrman's partner Brad Roberts had arrived, logging in at 2:30 a.m., on the sign-in sheet set up by Officer Terrazas. He was the 18th police officer on the scene by this time.

Shortly after, Phillips was notified that the investigation had been handed over to the Homicide Special Section (HSS) of the LAPD's Robbery/Homicide Division. Made up of only a dozen investigators, HSS was considered the top murder squad in the Los Angeles law enforcement community.

Detective Tom Lange
Detective Tom Lange

Division Head Captain William O. Gartland assigned Detectives Third Grade Tom Lange and Phil Vannatter as the lead investigators.They arrived at the crime scene and logged in at 4:05 and 4:25 a.m., respectively.

By this time, no one other than the responding officers had come close to the bodies or the area of their containment. Phillips had summoned a police photographer who had arrived at 3:25 a.m., but his function was restricted to general area photographs because police department policy prohibited him taking shots of the bodies or evidence except under the supervision of a lead detective or a Special Investigation Division criminalist. These are civilian employees of the LAPD engaged in the scientific analysis of physical and chemical evidence materials. Their essential functions are to collect, test and analyze evidence such as drugs, blood, paint, glass, explosives, hair, clothing and other crime-related materials. They are also expected to compile data, maintain records and reports, and present testimony in court as required.

Detective Phillips briefed Vannatter and walked him through the crime scene. Without physically disturbing the bodies, which could only be done by a coroner's investigator, the two police officers could not be certain of the cause of death of the two victims. The two men never got closer than six feet to the two crumpled figures. They did however see a number of objects adjacent to the dead man.

Detective Phil Vannatter
Detective Phil Vannatter

There was a set of keys, a dark blue knit cap, a beeper, a blood-spattered white envelope and a bloodstained left hand leather glove lying under the agapanthus plant only a few inches from Nicole Brown's body. There seemed to be a trail of bloody footprints leading away from the bodies towards the back of the property and alongside these, drops of blood trailing in the same direction.

As Phillips, Fuhrman, Lange and Vannatter discussed their strategy, they were told that Commander Keith Bushey, chief of operations for the LAPD West Bureau, wanted them to contact O.J. Simpson in person to make arrangements with him in order to collect Simpson's children. Fuhrman mentioned that when he had been a patrol officer he had visited the Simpson residence, which was situated about two miles to the north, across Sunset Boulevard. Lieutenant John Rogers, the supervisor of Lange and Vannatter, agreed to manage the crime scene until they returned.

Being the ex-husband and therefore closely connected to Nicole, O.J. Simpson was a potential suspect from the very beginning; however as there was no evidence at this time that directly linked him to the scene of the crime, he was not an actual suspect. There would be much made of this subtle difference in the months ahead.

Within the next 60 minutes, the four detectives would instigate the first in a series of actions that would come to have a major impact on the outcome of the murder investigation that they were just beginning.

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