Twenty-five years ago today, Americans were riveted by the real-life drama unfolding on their TV screens as O.J. Simpson led police on a slow-speed chase in a white Bronco. For anyone alive at the time, it was one of the more memorable moments in recent American history. For Jeff Mailes, a retired photographer at CBS affiliate KCAL-TV, it was an unforgettable event, as he was the cameraman in the helicopter who filmed the LAPD car chase of an NFL legend wanted for murder.
"It went from local to who-knows-where around the world," Mailes said Monday on CBSN. "It felt pretty historical."
On June 17, 1994, O.J. Simpson, an NFL hall of fame running back turned film and television personality, fled in a white Ford Bronco SUV after having been served the arrest warrants for the, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Instead of turning himself in, Simpson took off through the highways of Los Angeles in an attempt to elude police. Inside the car, Simpson held a gun to his head while his friend and former teammate, Al Cowlings, drove the Bronco.
"This A.C. I have O.J. in the car. I'm coming up the Five freeway," Cowlings said on a cellphone call from the Bronco that day. "You gotta tell the police to back off. He's still alive, but he's got a gun to his head."
Over the next hour and half and 60 miles of Southern California freeways, as crowds of people gathered on overpasses and a pack of police cruisers followed close behind, Simpson and Cowlings took the nation on chase it will never forget. Jeff Mailes says capturing those memorable images from a helicopter was far from easy.
"It was a challenge," Mailes said. "It was very busy, very hectic, but the pilot and I had to remain focused and just stay on the pursuit. Keep that Bronco on the viewfinder and create the best images we could."
Mailes, like many, did not initially expect coverage of the car chase to draw the attention it did. But the police pursuit garnered worldwide attention, with Mailes telling CBSN that he later learned 95 million people watched the coverage live on CNN.
"I was making sure that I didn't mess up the images because we were live on KCAL local in Los Angeles, and then I got a radio call that said, 'Keep the picture steady, keep it going, because we're going to punch a button and put you live on CNN.' And that lasted for an hour and 27 minutes," Mailes said.
When it was finally over, Simpson eventually turned himself into police, after having been driven to his home in Brentwood, California by Cowlings. Simpson was charged with murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman but acquitted by a jury in a 1995 trial regarded as one of the major media events of its time. Simpson was found liable for the deaths in a civil trial in 1997. He later served for his role in a botched 2007 hotel-room heist in Las Vegas.