"Please, toss the gun. Juice, just toss it!" – How a police officer saved OJ Simpson from himself

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It was 20 years ago that the jury in the OJ Simpson trial found the former football player and actor innocent of savagely murdering his estranged wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman.

The event, a media circus broadcast live around the world, is considered one of the most significant moments in television history. A survey conducted by Nielsen and Sony ranked the “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” decision by the trial’s jury as the third most universally impactful televised moments of the last 50 years, falling just behind coverage of the September 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

It’s not the only time Simpson’s case makes it into the top 10, with his infamous low-speed White Bronco chase across California ranked sixth.

The drama and tension of the trial – coverage of which became a mainstay of television schedules around the world in 1995 – is set to be revisited on its 20thanniversary in a number of documentaries and even a dramatisation (courtesy of Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy). But perhaps the most powerful story from the whole affair is the quiet drama that took place inside the white Ford Bronco Simpson used to make his getaway, and the phone call from LAPD detective Tom Lange that saved the disgraced star from himself. 

The bodies of Brown (nearly decapitated) and Goldman (with more than 20 knife wounds) had been discovered in Brentwood, California, five days before Simpson’s infamous chase on the freeway. Having previously been convicted of assaulting his estranged wife a number of times, Simpson – a beloved US celebrity and admission to the NFL Hall of Fame – was a prime suspect, and had been given permission to turn himself into the authorities in a nearby police station by 11am on June 17th, 1994.

Simpson and his wife, Nicole Brown

A mob of almost 1,000 journalists and television crews were waiting to catch a glimpse of Simpson, by then a movie star, pulling into the station, but he never showed up. Instead, three hours later, the Los Angeles Police Department issued an arrest warrant and an all-points bulletin (APB) to find him.

After 6pm, the white Ford Bronco carrying Simpson was spotted, being driven by his friend and former teammate Al ‘AC’ Cowling. Cowlings, also a star athlete, remained a staunch ally of Simpson throughout the entire case, and raised eyebrows by setting up a 900 (premium price) phone line to allow members of the public to ask him questions about his version of events, as well as for ultimately selling the Bronco to the celebrity porn baron Michael Pulwer for $200,000.

On the night of the chase, police caught up with the vehicle by 6.45pm, with the former footballer at the wheel shouting to officers that Simpson was in the backseat, holding a gun to his head, and threatening to take his own life.

The car continued on the road, travelling at only 55km/h, followed by 20 police cars, more than a dozen helicopters, and about 95 million television viewers. Thousands of people lined the overpasses built along the route of Interstate 405, waving placards declaring their love and admiration, pleading with him to stop, many wondering if it would all come to an end in a shoot out.

Al Cowlings at the wheel of the white Ford Bronco

It seemed the only people in America not glued to their screens were Domino’s Pizza delivery staff – the company selling more pizzas than ever before that evening. "It was a record night at the time. It was dinner time on the West Coast and 9 p.m. on the East. People were fascinated and didn't want to miss it. It was as big as a Super Bowl Sunday up to that point," said Tim McIntyre, vice president of corporate communications for Domino's Pizza.

While the world obsessed over the chase, a painful and harrowing drama was taking place inside. Desperate and overcome with emotion, Simpson was on the phone to the LAPD's Tom Lange, who had managed to get through to the fugitive's mobile phone. The call is, at times, difficult to listen to, revealing the frantic mental state of Simspon as things come crashing down around him, along with how Lange pleaded with him to remember his children and not to act rashly. You can listen to the call below:

20 years after the call, Lange told CNN that on the day he had no idea what to say to Simpson – a man he believes to be a sociopath – but that he desperately wanted to keep him alive.

"Some people kept putting little notes in front of me but I didn't have time to read all of that crap, so just whatever kind of came up, and I figured family,” Lange said. “He can be the biggest sociopath in the world, doesn't mean he hates his family.

"What he says really doesn't matter. What I say doesn't matter. As long as he doesn't shoot somebody."

The detective kept Simpson on the line, pleading with the star to peacefully hand himself over. To no avail. The chase that glued a nation to TV screens ended with the white Bronco pulling up outside Simpson’s Brentwood mansion at 8pm. He would remain inside for almost an hour, speaking to his mother before she managed to convince him to give himself up to the police. To bring things to an end. 

But the media circus surrounding the star was only just beginning.

Anyone seeking help in relation to mental health issues can call The Samaritans on 116 123, or text 087-260-9090

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