July 17, 2000
The O. J. Simpson case (I):
Working with Lange and Vannatter
Copyright © 2000 by Dan E. Moldea
Along with LAPD detectives Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, I am a co-author of the 1997 best-selling book, Evidence Dismissed: The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O. J. Simpson.
The following is the first of a four-part series, explaining how I became involved in this project, and then how, through a remarkable chain of events, the Simpson case led to my seventh book, A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Created a Political Firestorm.
On January 22, 1996, Washington attorney Ron Goldfarb called and asked me if I wanted to compete for a proposed book by Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, the two detectives who ran the LAPD's investigation of O. J. Simpson and his alleged role in the June 12, 1994, murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. On October 3, 1995, a Los Angeles County jury had acquitted Simpson in the wake of charges that the ex-NFL star had been the victim of a police conspiracy.
Immediately, as Goldfarb directed, I sent a package of personal information to the detectives.
Eight days later, Lange called from Los Angeles and interviewed me. Knowing that my recent book about the murder of Robert Kennedy had been extremely critical of the LAPD, Lange told me that he and Vannatter were looking for someone with the independence to challenge their work, believing that even the most subjective analysis would conclude that they had performed well--contrary to the manner in which they had been portrayed by Simpson's defense team and by the media. Also, as it turned out, Lange and I had several mutual friends within the LAPD's legendary Robbery-Homicide Division, and I encouraged him to call them and check me out.
The following day, Goldfarb notified me that Lange and Vannatter had selected me to write their book.
Making the deal even more attractive, Goldfarb said that I didn't even have to write a book proposal, because one already existed. The two detectives had earlier worked with Jim Newton, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who had covered the Simpson case for his newspaper. After writing an excellent proposal, Newton faced a conflict-of-interest situation at the Times and decided to withdraw from the book project. Nevertheless, he told the detectives to use his proposal, which Goldfarb sent to me.
While reading Newton's proposal and giving myself a crash course on the Simpson case, Lange called and invited me to meet with him and Vannatter in New York during their one-day stay on February 6. That morning, I took the Metroliner to New York and met them at the Raddison Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Lange and I hit it off immediately, but I felt a little tension with Vannatter, who was a very tough guy. But, as the meeting progressed, Vannatter and I warmed up to each other. I quickly learned to respect his tough demeanor; and he seemed to appreciate my candor.
When the detectives asked me to detail my specific problems with their handling of the Simpson case, I wasn't reticent and replied somewhat high-handedly, "For starters, I have problems with the decision to go over the gate at Simpson's house, the circumstances of the search warrant, the early handling of the blood evidence at the crime scene, the decision to throw a blanket taken from the house over Nicole Brown's body, the interrogation of Simpson, and the transport of the blood vile from the police station to Simpson's residence."
After hearing this recitation, both detectives explained each of my concerns in considerable, almost overwhelming detail, citing portions of the case history with which I was completely unfamiliar. Immediately after hearing their responses, I knew that they had a terrific untold story, filled with inside information and evidence not used at the Simpson trial.
Further, Lange had kept a personal journal from the first day of the murder, which ran through to Simpson's acquittal. Although he refused to give it to me until we secured a book deal, I suspected that it would become the backbone of our manuscript.
Of course, I had big problems with the role of the racist-cop Mark Fuhrman, who was still facing charges for perjury, stemming from his sworn testimony during Simpson's criminal trial. However, early on, Lange and Vannatter, two supercops from the Robbery-Homicide Division, made it clear that they had not known Fuhrman, who was a junior detective at the West Los Angeles Division, prior to the Brown-Goldman murders.
During our meeting, Lange, Vannatter, and I were in sync, agreeing to keep Newton's proposal in tact but to add a brief, five-page introduction to highlight the revelations in the book. After receiving their ideas, I drafted these pages on the train back to Washington, typing them up that night and faxing them to Goldfarb and the detectives the following day.
In the first two paragraphs of the proposal, I wrote: "Tom Lange and Phil Vannatter know more about the case against O. J. Simpson than anyone on earth. And above everything else, the history of the most celebrated murder investigation in modern times, perhaps all time, begins and ends with these two cops. Attorneys, jurors, witnesses, and reporters may write what they will, but this is and always has been a police story.
"Lange and Vannatter took over the investigation when it was just hours old and ran it from that moment on. For more than a year, their names and faces became almost as well known as Starsky and Hutch. Suddenly, before a national television audience, they represented not just the controversial Los Angeles Police Department but the 175,000 police officers in America, who were simultaneously cheering them on."
Soon after, the detectives worked out an arrangement with the producers of Larry King Live on CNN, in which they agreed to sit for their first interview ever about the Simpson case on February 22. They asked me to appear with them, but I refused, saying that my presence would come across as a hard sell of the book. These were two good cops who had a wonderful chemistry. I thought that the country--and, hopefully, the publishing industry--would fall in love with them. They simply didn't need me.
On the day of their interview, Goldfarb sent an advisory to twenty publishers, notifying them that the two detectives would appear on King's show that night, live from Washington. Any editor who wanted to see their book proposal simply had to sign an attached confidentiality agreement, and then Goldfarb would send them a copy.
Before the King show, Lange, Vannatter, Goldfarb, and I met at a hotel in downtown Washington. We talked briefly and signed the collaboration contract. Then, the two detectives and I went to the CNN studios for the interview. Hanging back while the production staff fawned over the cops, I saw Larry King and paid my respects. King, with whom I was acquainted, had always viewed me as a Johnny One-Note crime reporter, who only wrote about the Mafia.
"Are you writing their book, Dan?" King asked.
I nodded and smiled.
"But there's no mob angle. What are you going to do?"
Laughing, I replied, "Because of what the Simpson case has done to the true-crime market in New York, this'll be my revenge."
Although Lange and Vannatter occasionally appeared during the interview as Jack Webb and Henry Morgan in Dragnet--"just the facts"--they still cooked well together. In fact, they were a big hit, coming across as cool, competent, and professional. After the show, King's producers took the three of us to dinner at Nathan's, a popular restaurant in Georgetown. When I walked in with the detectives, I felt like I was in the presence of two rock stars. The crowd loved them, walking up to shake their hands and to ask for their autographs.
I had no doubts that we would sell our book by the end of the week, maybe even the next day.
That same night, my writing coach, Mrs. Nolte, wrote me a letter, saying: "I did see Larry King's interview with Lange and Vannatter. They both seem to be pretty sharp guys and should be able to give you good, clear info. Also they seem to have different personalities, which should help in writing about them. Lange seemed taciturn, but very cool, cerebral and decided in his comments; Vannatter seemed more responsive and emotional--people oriented. Great combination.
"I am convinced that most books, even non-fiction ones filled with facts, needed careful attention to structure and pace. I don't know how many crises or suspenseful moments or surprising revelations you can put into this particular narrative, but I sure would try to get some in!
"I still revere All the President's Men as an especially savvy production--a great quest narrative. I don't know what kind of material your co-authors will give you, or how they will view their own participation in the sequence of events, but among you, please do try to find a basic story pattern on which to structure your book."
Mooting Mrs. Nolte's great advice, only three of twenty publishers requested copies of the proposal-- HarperCollins, Dutton, and Doubleday--giving rise to the possibility that there might not be a book at all.
All of us were completely shocked by this disappointing response--although Goldfarb had warned that selling our book might be difficult, considering all of the other books about the Simpson case already under contract. Nearly every publishing house had already shelled out an enormous amount of money for books they now feared would not sell. The remaining companies that had not entered the Simpson-book sweepstakes were almost defiant about it, refusing even to consider such projects as a matter of company policy. In other words, Lange and Vannatter, who had remained true to their pledges of confidentiality during the Simpson criminal trial, had simply entered the publishing market too late.
On the afternoon of March 1--after Lange and Vannatter appeared on ABC's Good Morning America--Goldfarb called and told me that all three publishing houses had decided not to bid anything for our book. The project appeared to be dead, and the three of us moved on with our separate lives.
Six months later, while I was playing golf in Ohio, I received a call from Frank Weimann, a good friend and the New York agent who had earlier arranged the collaboration contract between Howard Safir and me for our proposed book about the U. S. Federal Witness Protection Program.
Weimann told me that the hardback division of Pocket Books, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, wanted to sign up Lange and Vannatter as quickly as possible--in anticipation of the upcoming civil case against Simpson, which had been filed by the families of murder victims Brown and Goldman. Immediately, I placed Weimann in touch with the two detectives, who, after a crash course on the economics of book publishing, agreed to open negotiations.
Because of my continued loyalty to Ron Goldfarb, the agent who had brought me into the collaboration with the detectives but couldn't sell the project earlier in the year, I asked Weimann to take his fifteen-percent commission from Lange and Vannatter's cut of all advances and royalties and to allow Goldfarb to receive a commission from the money I earned. Generously, Weimann agreed to my proposal.
According to our collaboration agreement, Lange and Vannatter split seventy percent of all profits; I received the remaining thirty percent. As always, the agents' commissions came off the top.
However, because of technical problems with the contract, we didn't sign until November 12. A far cry from the reported $4.5 million received by Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark from Viking Press and the $3.5 million Ballantine Books paid to Simpson's lead defense attorney, Johnny Cochran, Pocket paid a mere $115,000 to Lange, Vannatter, and me. Justifying the low advance, I believed that there was plenty of money to be made on the back end--after the book's release.
Also, according to the contract with Pocket, our deadline for submitting the completed manuscript was the tightest I had ever seen: January 3, 1997, just seven weeks away.
While I plunged into research and writing, both Lange and Vannatter became high-profile witnesses at the civil trial--heavily attacked by Simpson's defense counsel but passionately supported by the plaintiffs' attorneys. They walked away from the trial, which continued with other witnesses, standing tall and looking good.
After their testimonies, I flew to Los Angeles to deliver another eulogy, this time for Jack Tobin, an author and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who had been like a second father to me since I started work on Dark Victory in 1984. While in California and not with the Tobin family, I spent most of my time with Tom Lange, interviewing him, going through his day-by-day journal of the case, and collecting miscellaneous materials. (Phil Vannatter and his wife had left southern California and moved to a farm in Indiana. I did all of my interviews with Vannatter by telephone.)
During a solo visit to the Robbery-Homicide Division at Parker Center, I spoke to several of my LAPD sources. One gave me the unedited, verbatim tape of Lange's dramatic phone conversations with Simpson during the surreal, slow-speed Bronco chase up the San Diego Freeway on June 17, 1994, which was nationally televised and had preceded Simpson's arrest. To all intents and purposes, Lange had saved Simpson's life with his heart-wrenching pleas for him to surrender. Simpson had repeatedly threatened to commit suicide during his talks with Lange, which were memorialized on these recordings. Neither the tape nor a transcript of the exchanges between Lange and Simpson had ever been made public.
Another source placed me in an interrogation room and then dropped two large manilla envelopes on the table in front of me. Smiling, he left, saying that he would return in exactly twenty minutes--which I took as an invitation to do what I wanted with whatever was inside the packages.
The envelopes contained the color pictures of the autopsies of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, which had been shown to the jury during the criminal trial but had never been made public.
I took a particular interest in two of the photographs, which separately pictured the two victims fully clothed after being removed from their body bags. In these photos, each was lying on a metal table in the morgue in full rigor, covered with blood and with many of their knife wounds clearly visible.
These grotesque scenes simply put the hook in me. I pulled a small camera from my pocket and snapped several shots of these two photographs--and only these two photographs.
When my source returned to the interrogation room in exactly twenty minutes, he asked, "Did you get what you needed?"
"Got it," I replied.
In a memorandum to my publisher, I argued that publication of these pictures would put a "human face on these murders," adding: "These extremely graphic photographs should absolutely silence the happy cocktail-party talk about these murders--while giving a vivid portrait of what police work is really all about. . . . Of course, we are all going to have to weigh whether publication of these photographs will completely cross the boundaries of good taste."
In the end, it was Lange and Vannatter who vetoed my suggestion, refusing to allow the two autopsy pictures to appear in our book. (I later destroyed my copies of the pictures, as well as the negatives.) However, as a compromise, the detectives agreed to give me a blow-by-blow description of the autopsy of each victim, which I did feature in the manuscript.
How could anyone joke about these murders again after reading these horrific descriptions?
Daunted by the options of how to organize the book, I decided to take the safest route--a straight chronology, divided into two parts. In the first part, I concentrated on the initial five days of the investigation, starting at the moment Lange and Vannatter received their calls to report to the crime scene and ending with the arrest of Simpson, featuring the detectives' controversial taped interview with Simpson at Parker Center on the day after the murders and Lange's telephone conversation with Simpson during the Bronco chase up the 405 freeway. In the second part of the manuscript, I decided to write a history of the "trial of the century," focusing on the detectives' ongoing role in that drama and their disputes with the prosecutors over potential trial evidence.
Once again, kicking into my Bat-mode, I worked day and night, catnapping for twenty minutes at a time and then getting back to the computer. Now 46 and not in the kind of shape I was in when I wrote The Hoffa Wars eighteen years earlier, I went through periods of pressure and stress when I feared that I was on the verge of a stroke.
But, strokeless, I finished the first draft of the book on December 8 and took it to New York the following day. Our editor, Sue Carswell, and the staff at Pocket couldn't have been more pleased with the results, even though I still had an enormous amount of work to do and only three more weeks to do it.
Regardless of the intensity of this effort, I still found time to do some pre-publication promotion work. Two weeks before I submitted the draft manuscript, I played a hunch and leaked the tape of Lange's desperate conversation with Simpson during the Bronco chase to several friends in the television-news business.
Matching up this audio tape with the videotape of the actual chase, the networks ran this dramatic scene throughout the Thanksgiving-holiday weekend, demonstrating Lange's humanity in his determined effort to save Simpson's life.
Just as I had hoped, the tape completely blew away the theory of a police conspiracy against Simpson--and set the stage for the release of our book.