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The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O.J. Simpson
By Dan E. Moldea
"We've got a double"Monday, June 13, 1994
Their phones ring in the middle of the night.
Shortly before 3:00 A.M., Los Angeles Police Department homicide detectives Tom Lange and Phil Vannatter are awakened at their homes, one call right after the other, from their supervisor, Lieutenant John Rogers.
"The captain wants to buy you a cup of coffee," Rogers says. "We've got a double."
Without being told, the two detectives--partners since 1989 with over fifty years of police experience between them--know exactly what this means: It's time to go to work immediately. On call for the entire weekend but not summoned until now, both men are ordered to report to the scene of a double murder at 875 South Bundy. Lange recognizes the location as the high-rent area of West Los Angeles; Vannatter knows it as Brentwood's low-rent district between San Vicente and Wilshire Boulevards.
During these brief conversations, Rogers tells both detectives that one of the victims might be the wife of football legend O.J. Simpson. To Lange and Vannatter, it is just another murder investigation, just another job.
Rogers is Lange and Vannatter's boss in the Homicide Special Section of the LAPD's famed Robbery/Homicide Division, headed by Captain William O. Gartland, a thirty-nine-year veteran of the LAPD. The Homicide Special Section, which consists of only a dozen investigators, usually gets the call when a high-profile murder is committed or when the investigation crosses divisional boundaries within the LAPD. To many in the Los Angeles law-enforcement community, Homicide Special detectives walk on water.
Six-feet-tall and built tough and wiry like a soccer player, the forty-nine-year-old soft-spoken Lange, mustachioed and balding, springs out of bed and jumps into the shower. Dressing quickly and finding his wire-rimmed glasses, he returns to his bedroom and kisses Linda, his wife of fifteen years, who still cannot get used to these middle-of-the-night assignments that potentially place her husband at risk. Hastening out of his home in Ventura County, Lange grabs an apple to eat during his forty-five-minute drive to Los Angeles.
Meantime, about twenty-five miles northeast in Valencia, a small valley community in northwestern Los Angeles County, the fifty-three-year-old Vannatter, a usually-gregarious six-foot-one bear of a man with a full head of silver-and-gold hair, sits on the side of his bed. His wry sense of humor is well-hidden this morning. He rubs his tanned face, weather-beaten from years in the sun. At the moment, he lacks any degree of enthusiasm for rushing out to another murder site.
Vannatter and his wife of twenty-nine years, Rita, had hoped to retire a year ago. But they had to postpone their plans to move to Indiana near his wife's family because of the extensive damage to their home from the Northridge earthquake on January 17. Unable to afford the expensive repairs with his anticipated pension, Vannatter couldn't be more disappointed by this delay.
Just last night, during a quiet dinner with Rita at a local Italian restaurant, Vannatter had let out his feelings about his situation, expressing both anger and frustration at his inability to retire and to improve their quality of life. Recently a grandfather for the first time, the aging but rugged detective has seen enough slaughtered bodies and bloody crime scenes. He wants relief from his long time mind-set of viewing murder victims as evidence instead of human tragedy. He just wants out.
But, shrugging off his personal concerns, Vannatter lumbers into the bathroom to clean up. A stylish but conservative dresser, Vannatter picks out a gray pin-striped suit from his closet.
Passing on breakfast this particular morning, he goes straight to his gray LAPD-issued, 1994 Buick Regal and finds his way to the South Bundy address, an off-white stucco, three-level condominium with light-beige trim. Vannatter parks his car on the east side of the road, just south of Dorothy Street, which already looks like a parking lot for black-and-whites and detectives' vehicles. Getting out of his car, Vannatter notices that the inner block around the location has already been cordoned off with the standard bright-yellow police tape; uniformed patrol officers are posted around the perimeter. He walks up to Officer Miguel Terrazas, the patrol officer handling the crime scene log, and reports in at 4:05 A.M.
Almost immediately, West Los Angeles Division homicide detective supervisor Ronald Phillips, friendly and accommodating, greets Vannatter with a handshake and begins to brief him about the situation, knowing that the Robbery/Homicide Division has been assigned the case. Their handshake symbolizes the transfer of this murder investigation from the West L.A. Division to Homicide Special.
Phillips explains that Terrazas, along with his partner, Robert Riske, were the first cops to arrive at 12:17 A.M. While responding to a possible burglary across the street from the crime scene, the officers met a young married couple, Sukru Boztepe and Bettina Rasmussen. The couple had followed a white Akita with bloody paws back to its home where they found the body of a blood-covered woman lying on a walkway.1 After this discovery, the couple ran across the street to the home of a neighbor and frantically knocked on her door, wanting to use her telephone to call the police. The neighbor believed that someone was trying to break into her house, so she called 911 to report a possible burglary.
When the police arrived at the neighbor's house, Boztepe and Rasmussen directed them to the dead woman--where the officers also found the body of a young man. Riske and Terrazas immediately called for paramedics and other backup police units.
While waiting for emergency personnel, Riske, who had stepped carefully around the bodies and the massive amounts of blood without disturbing any evidence, shined his flashlight in the male victim's eyes, which were wide open. Knowing that his first priority at any crime scene is to determine whether victims are alive or dead, Riske touched the man's eyeball, hoping for a reaction. There was none.
Riske did not bother to check the female victim. He could see that her head was nearly severed from her body.
Riske and Terrazas radioed for back-up. A few minutes later, two other patrol officers, Edward McGowan and Richard Walley, as well as their sergeant, Martin Coon, arrived to help Riske and Terrazas secure the location and block traffic on South Bundy, which usually remained busy even late at night.
At 12:45 A.M., paramedics from a nearby fire station officially pronounced both victims dead at the scene. Seeing that the situation for the two victims was hopeless, the paramedics conducted no emergency lifesaving procedures and allowed the bodies to remain where they fell.
During the briefing, Phillips tells Vannatter that Riske and Terrazas had noticed a bloody left-hand glove near the body of the male victim. They did not see its matching right-hand glove in the area.
Riske and another patrol officer had gone to the front door of the residence, which was nearly wide open. Above the door a porch light, turned on, revealed a set of bloody shoe prints moving away from the two bodies, toward the back alley, and through a rear gate--which also had blood transfers, conveyed from one surface to another.
After going door-to-door and talking to neighbors, the officers tentatively identified the dead woman as Nicole Brown, who the neighbors said was the ex-wife of O.J. Simpson. Her "official" identification would not come until later when Lange and Vannatter conduct their detailed crime-scene search.
Inside Brown's house--which contained neither bloody shoe prints or paw prints--they noticed on a table near the front door an envelope that contained Simpson's return address at 360 North Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood. They saw a painting of Simpson and photographs of him as well, among other pictures of the dead woman's family. They concluded that the attractive blonde woman in many of the photographs was most likely the slaughtered Nicole Brown now lying outside on the walkway.
The officers saw candles burning in Brown's sunken living room and heard soft New Age music playing on the stereo. A large knife was on the countertop of the stove in the kitchen. On a bannister in the stairwell outside the kitchen, near the garage, a cup of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream was still melting; a spoon was on the steps.
Officer Riske had used the telephone in Brown's kitchen to call for additional backup. He feared that his radio would be monitored by reporters. Instinctively, he knew that this murder case would be big news, and he wanted the LAPD to have a jump on the media.
Upstairs, the patrol officers found two young children asleep in their rooms with their doors half opened. They had apparently slept through the brutal murder of their mother. Getting them up and dressed, the officers took them out the back door, avoiding the bloody scene in front, and arranged for them to be taken to the West Los Angeles Division until they could be positively identified and a member of their family located.
The children, nine-year-old Sydney and six-year-old Justin Simpson, were taken to the police station by Officers Joan Vasquez and Bill Heider. During the trip, Sydney was particularly upset, repeatedly asking, "Where's my mommy?"
Also, the officers arranged for an animal-control unit to impound the white Akita, which was sent to a pound in West Los Angeles, until it could be examined later.2
To preserve the existing evidence and to prevent contamination, the patrol officers at the scene created a "safe route" for those coming into the perimeter: south on South Bundy, west on Dorothy, then north into the alley behind the condominium. Everyone was to enter the residence through the garage in the rear.
Like every other cop, Riske and the other patrol officers knew well "the golden rule" of homicide investigation: "Never touch, change or alter anything until identified, measured and photographed. Remember that when a body or an article has been moved, it can never be restored to its original position."3
Phillips informs Vannatter that he had arrived at 2:10 A.M., accompanied by Detective Mark Fuhrman--nearly two hours after the first officers arrived. The two of them had performed a "visual inventory" of the crime scene.
According to the official sign-in sheet, Phillips and Fuhrman were the sixteenth and seventeenth police personnel to log in. They were the first investigators at the scene, along with Brad Roberts, Fuhrman's partner, who arrived at 2:30. During the prior two-hour period, a captain, three sergeants, and eleven patrol officers were listed on the sign-in sheet.
A few minutes after Roberts's arrival, Phillips received the notification from his superior, Lieutenant Frank Spangler, that detectives from Homicide Special would be handling the investigation. Phillips passed the word to his investigators, including Fuhrman, who had only begun to take some notes on his general observations. Other than the initial officers who had secured the crime scene, no one--not even Detectives Phillips, Fuhrman, or Roberts--had come near either the bodies or the evidence.
According to official LAPD procedure, no one may touch a dead body until a coroner's investigator is present--even to get to his or her identification in a wallet or purse. The only exception is to make a determination as to whether a person is alive or dead. In this case, that has already been done.
Also, standard operating procedure dictates that no one may touch any evidence at a crime scene until a criminalist from the police crime lab or the concerned investigator is present to document and collect it.
Phillips had called a photographer--Rolf Rokahr, a civilian employee with the LAPD's crime lab, who arrived at 3:25 A.M.--to document the crime scene. However, until Homicide Special arrived, Rokahr had to limit his photography to panoramic or establishing shots. He could not take close-up pictures of the bodies and evidence until the lead detective or SID criminalist was present to direct him.
Also, after being told that the West Los Angeles Division was no longer in charge of the case, Phillips decided not to call in either a criminalist from the LAPD's crime lab or a coroner's investigator. He had left those chores to the lead investigators, the boys from Homicide Special.
After this quick briefing of what had occurred since 12:17 A.M., Phillips takes Vannatter on a quick walk-through of the area, the usual means of orientation for detectives arriving at a crime scene. Lange is still en route; he'll get his own walk-through when he arrives. In the routine division of labor developed during their hundreds of homicide investigations, Lange generally handles the crime-scene search in the wake of a murder; Vannatter makes the calls and gets the witnesses. Vannatter hopes to pick up some leads during his tour with Phillips.
On the sidewalk in front of the condominium are the bloody paw prints from the white Akita, which has apparently stepped in the victims' blood and left a trail behind it as it walked south on the sidewalk along South Bundy and turning west on Dorothy, where the prints begin to fade.
Then, Phillips takes Vannatter under the yellow tape. Peering through the darkness, Phillips points to a location by the front gate of the residence. As they focus their flashlight beams, the two bodies are illuminated, lying crumpled on the ground and covered in blood.
Without touching the bodies, Vannatter and Phillips cannot be absolutely sure of the cause of death. Neither man gets within six feet of the two dead bodies or the physical evidence surrounding them. However, they can see from the wounds that the killer or killers had apparently stabbed and slashed them with a knife.
Nicole Brown is dressed in a short black cocktail dress and black-lace panties. The dead man--dressed in blue jeans, a light brown shirt, and cream-colored cloth boots--remains unidentified. Once again, without the presence of a coroner's investigator--the only law enforcement official in the state permitted to move a dead body--the detectives cannot touch him to look for his wallet for identification purposes. It is unclear whether one of the victims or both had been the chief target.
Vannatter and Phillips do see a number of items surrounding the dead man: a blue knit cap, a set of five keys, a beeper, and a white, blood-splattered envelope--as well as the bloody left-hand glove. Now, almost four hours after the first officers arrived, no one has seen its right-hand match. Vannatter, the twenty-sixth person on the log, knows that everything he is seeing are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that they will begin to fit together after Lange arrives.
Entering the house through the safe route, Phillips and Vannatter begin their brief walk-through, touching nothing. After the tour through the residence, they stand at the front door and look out at the walkway where Phillips shows Vannatter the trail of bloody shoe prints, apparently made by one killer as he exited away from the bodies. To the left of these shoe prints, they see five drops of blood--tailing west, away from the murder site, and out to the back alley. Since the house appears undisturbed and the bloody shoe prints go past the front door, Vannatter and Phillips believe that the killer or killers never entered the residence.
After surveying the area around the murder site from the top of the stairs, carefully avoiding the bloody shoe prints and the five blood drops to their left, Vannatter tells Phillips, "Okay, that's good. I've seen enough. Let's go back out and wait for Lange. He should be here any time now."
They return to the front of the house on South Bundy and are joined by Fuhrman--a tall, clean-cut detective in his early forties--whom Phillips introduces to Vannatter. Fuhrman, saying nothing, nods and shakes hands with the detective. Although he has never met him before, Vannatter has heard Fuhrman's name once in passing. Several months earlier, during a three-on-three basketball game between Homicide Special and the LAPD Officer-Involved Shooting Section, Lieutenant Bill Hall of OIS had mentioned to Vannatter that he was trying to hire a detective from the West Los Angeles Division who was also "a damn good basketball player." When Vannatter asked who, Hall replied, "Mark Fuhrman." Vannatter shrugged, saying he had never heard of him.4
At 4:25 A.M., Lange, parking his car near Vannatter's on Bundy, logs in. He sees his boss, Lieutenant Rogers, and the two of them walk over to Vannatter, Phillips, and Fuhrman. Like Vannatter, Lange has never met the other two detectives before.
While Phillips and Lange take their walk-through of the crime scene, Rogers tells Vannatter that Commander Keith Bushey, the chief of operations for the LAPD West Bureau, wants them to notify O.J. Simpson, who lives nearby, in person, of his ex-wife's death "as soon as humanly possible" before the media does. Bushey also wants the detectives to help Simpson get his children from the police station.
A few minutes later, Lange and Phillips return to Vannatter and Rogers, who, along with Fuhrman, are now standing near the northeastern corner of South Bundy and Dorothy under a street light. Lange is still wincing a bit from his view of the two slaughtered bodies.
"This is a classic overkill," Lange reports to his partner. "This isn't just some robbery, then a cut and run. These people were mutilated and stabbed. They were beaten. Just look at their slashed throats. Phil, this is a rage killing." But, like Vannatter and Phillips before him, Lange doesn't know yet whether the killer was angry with one or both of the victims or a deranged maniac who had selected them at random. Actually, Lange doesn't even know for sure how many killers were involved.
Neither Lange nor Vannatter had originally given much thought to becoming police officers. Born in Milwaukee on April 14, 1945 and raised in Coral Gables, Florida, Frederick Douglas Lange--who had been nicknamed "Tom" by his two older sisters--moved to Los Angeles County with his mother after the death by heart attack of her estranged husband, Lange's father, in 1960. As a young teenager, Lange was a runaway in the San Fernando Valley and was detained twice by police for minor infractions. However, Lange straightened out, somewhat, while attending a strict Catholic school. A long-distance runner on his high school's cross-country and track-and-field teams, Lange remained rebellious and had no interest in college after graduation. Unlike many children of the 1960s, Lange expressed his rebellion by joining the U.S. Marines and going to Vietnam in June 1965. After a distinguished tour of duty with intensive combat experience, Sergeant Lange left the Marines in October 1966, refusing to re-enlist even after being offered Officers Candidate School.
After returning home from the war, Lange drifted for nearly a year, unable to land a decent job. He traveled around the country, visiting the families of war buddies who hadn't come home. Eventually, he wound up back in Los Angeles, putting up tents for large events and getting paid ten-to-twenty bucks a day. Then, he went to work for Clairol beauty supplies, putting little boxes into big boxes. He slept on his mother's sofa and spent most of his time hanging out with other vets.
Finally, while pumping gas in North Hollywood for Standard Oil, Lange became acquainted with a LAPD cop who gassed up at his service station. The officer encouraged Lange to take the tests for the LAPD. Lange did and passed with high marks.
He graduated from the LAPD Academy in January 1968. After a variety of assignments, he became an investigator at Central Juvenile and Central Detectives, earning his associate degree in Administration of Justice from Los Angeles Valley College in 1976. While working on the infamous Skid-Row Stabber Murders case, he became a member of the Robbery/Homicide Division in November 1978, working, at first, on loan from the Central Division. He eventually solved the murders after identifying a mere palm print left by the killer at one of the crime scenes.5 The following year, in October 1979--the same month as his marriage to his wife, Linda--Lange was permanently assigned to RHD, where he met Phil Vannatter.
Born on April 18, 1941, in Billy's Creek, West Virginia, near the birthplace of flying-ace Chuck Yeager, Vannatter grew up on a farm in the heart of Appalachia. The son of a coal miner who had died of black lung disease in 1951 and the youngest of six children, Vannatter helped his mother run the farm until he was fourteen, when they moved to Culver City, California, to join one of his older brothers who had settled there. A three-letter man in high school--football, basketball, and baseball--Vannatter had been scouted by the Cleveland Indians for his pitching abilities. Although he didn't get a ticket to the major leagues, he did receive a nomination from his Congressman to the U.S. Naval Academy. However, disappointment struck again when the academy rejected him because of his life-long stuttering problem. Selected as his high school's top scholar-athlete by a local car dealership, Vannatter took his scholarship money and used it for speech therapy, eventually conquering his handicap.
After receiving his associate degree from Santa Monica College, where he played football, he received a football scholarship at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. Because he had to support his mother, he dropped out in his junior year and took a job with an auto parts store. While working there, he met his wife--Rita, a nurse at UCLA--on a blind date and married her three months later. But two months after their marriage, Vannatter was drafted and spent thirteen months in Korea, serving as a Spec-5 and working in army communications. Honorably discharged, he returned to the United States in November 1968, at age twenty-seven. He went back to work at the auto-parts store.
While watching television, he saw a public-service message about a LAPD recruitment drive. At the time, he was only making $600 a month; he and Rita had their first child on the way. Seeing that he could make nearly $750 a month as a police officer, he applied for the LAPD and was accepted. He graduated from the LAPD Academy in June 1969.
After making his bones as a patrol officer, Vannatter became an investigator, working in the Venice, Wilshire, and West Los Angeles Divisions. In February 1979, Vannatter joined the Officer-Involved Shootings Section of the Robbery/Homicide Division and was later appointed to Homicide Special, where he became Lange's partner in 1989.
Since then, Lange and Vannatter have become close friends, as well as partners, complementing each other's strengths. Vannatter is known for his instincts and personal warmth; Lange is the bookworm who is highly regarded for his careful methodology.
* * *
In the complicated LAPD bureaucracy, Lange, Vannatter, and Ron Phillips all have the rank of Detective-III--although Lange and Vannatter share the responsibilities as the "lead detectives" on this case. Mark Fuhrman, who has spent nearly twenty years with the LAPD, is a Detective-II and the junior officer in this four-man group. Even though Fuhrman is the least senior man at this crime scene, Lange and Vannatter already pick up on his "been there, done that" attitude.
Phillips asks Fuhrman for his general observation notes taken during his earlier walkthrough. When Fuhrman complies, Phillips hands them to Vannatter, who immediately gives them to Lange. This is their standard operating procedure, since Lange will conduct the crime-scene search and ultimately prepare the final murder follow-up report for the district attorney's office--should an arrest be made. Up to this point, neither Lange nor Vannatter has taken any notes of their own during their quick walkthroughs. The note-taking process will not start until they begin their detailed crime-scene examination.
As the detectives talk over their crime-scene strategy, Lieutenant Rogers joins the conversation and tells Lange and Phillips about Commander Bushey's order: They are supposed to contact O.J. Simpson, in person, to help him recover his children.
Vannatter asks, "Do we know where he lives?"
Phillips replies, "Well, Fuhrman says he was once up there on a four-fifteen radio call [a disturbance of the peace], some sort of domestic dispute. It's just a couple of miles away."
Vannatter hears Phillips say that Fuhrman had responded to a previous domestic dispute at Simpson's home, but he does not give it any thought; Lange only hears Phillips say that Fuhrman had once been there on some unspecified radio call.6
Phillips's comment about a previous "domestic dispute" between O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown passes without further comment.
Lange says to Phillips and Fuhrman, "The four of us are going to go over to Simpson's place. We can meet the guy, make the notification, and get his cooperation for background information down the road. The two of you will stay with Simpson and help him make the arrangements for picking up his kids at your division. Then Phil and I will come back here and handle the bodies and the evidence."
Lieutenant Rogers, as Lange and Vannatter's supervisor, approves of this plan and takes charge of securing the South Bundy crime scene until Lange and Vannatter return. Considering that Simpson lives just two miles away, Lange and Vannatter assume that they will be back in twenty minutes or less.
At this moment, neither Lange nor Vannatter view O.J. Simpson--who, to most people, is a beloved American sports icon--as an actual suspect in the murders. However, as the ex-husband of the dead woman, they must consider him a potential suspect. This is consistent with routine police procedure: Anyone who has had any personal contact with a murder victim is a potential suspect until the case has been investigated. But, at this moment, the detectives have no physical evidence linking anyone, including O.J. Simpson, to this crime. And there is no discussion among the detectives of Simpson even being a potential suspect.7
1. Neighbor Steven Schwab, while walking his own dog, had found the Akita barking and seemingly walking aimlessly. He had left his home after watching the Dick Van Dyke Show, which ended at 10:30 P.M. The dog followed Schwab, who arrived back home before the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which began at 11:00. Schwab gave the Akita a bowl of water and noticed its bloody paws.
Forty minutes later, Schwab and his wife saw Boztepe and Rasmussen, with whom they were acquainted. The two couples talked, and Boztepe and Rasmussen offered to take the Akita home with them for the night. But when they arrived at their home, they noticed that the Akita kept pawing the door, apparently wanting to go out. Boztepe and Rasmussen obliged, leading to their discovery of Nicole Brown's body.
Also, another neighbor, Pablo Fenjves reported to police that he had heard a dog's "plaintive wail" begin at about 10:15 to 10:20 p.m.
2. The LAPD later sent Sergeant Donn Yarnell of the animal-control unit to examine the Akita and to determine whether it was capable of being aggressive to the point of defending its owner. The final conclusion was that it was a docile dog that shied away even when threatened.
3. Lemoyne Snyder, Homicide Investigation: Practical Information for Coroners, Police Officers, and Other Investigators, Second Edition (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1972), page 36. Snyder's book is strongly suggested reading among LAPD homicide detectives.
4. Just prior to the Brown-Goldman murders, the LAPD high command had rejected Fuhrman's transfer.
5. Charged with eleven courts of murder, the killer, Bobby Joe Maxwell, was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
6. In his book, The Run of His Life, author Jeffrey Toobin writes on pages 34-35: "In his report of the evening's activities, Lange summarized Fuhrman's information this way: 'Mr. Simpson and [Nicole Brown] had been embroiled in previous domestic-violence situations, one of these resulting in the arrest of Mr. Simpson.' (Phillips later testified he did not remember any such discussion that evening, although it is possible he simply did not hear what Fuhrman said to Lange.)"
Toobin raises a legitimate point, but it has a simple explanation. In short, Toobin is wrong about what Lange wrote "in his report about the evening's activities." Actually, Toobin is referring to Lange's "Murder Follow-Up Report,"--which was filed with the district attorney's office on Friday, June 17. The detective prepared this document in conjunction with the formal felony filing of the case. This June 17 report was a compilation of information the LAPD had received since the investigation began on Monday, June 13.
Lange never had any discussion with Fuhrman about a domestic-violence situation involving O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown.
7. The Simpson defense team created a major on-going controversy by arguing that Lange and Vannatter, in fact, had viewed Simpson as an actual suspect when they left South Bundy to make the notification at North Rockingham. If Simpson had been an actual suspect--with hard evidence linking him to the crime--when they later entered his property, the prosecution stood to lose all of the evidence that was recovered at Simpson's estate both before and after a search warrant had been obtained later that morning.
The defense team did not want to hear--and, certainly, did not want the jury to believe--the distinction between a potential suspect and an actual suspect.
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