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The chase captivated the US and was watched by 95 million TV viewers across the country. Alamy Stock Photo

Irish people in the US were glued to the World Cup when OJ's Ford Bronco hit the headlines

The trial which followed would however see Irish viewers gathered in pubs awaiting the verdict.

IT WAS THE the car chase that brought one nation screeching to a halt.

On 17 June, 1994, a white Ford Bronco containing a fugitive OJ Simpson led a convoy of police cars down southern California’s freeways — and 95 million Americans couldn’t take their eyes off it.

That moment was captured by hovering TV helicopters and breathless newsmen, and broadcast around the world.

The chase took place only a day before the Republic of Ireland football team took to the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where they secured a famous victory over Italy.

Despite the intense interest in the Simpson case, it was much less noticeable for plenty of Irish people, who were tracking the team’s exploits at the 1994 World Cup.

But the chase was also the start of the media obsession that was the trial.

Simpson was famously acquitted for the killing of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995 by a Los Angeles jury in a case decried by many as a media circus, but which became known as the “Trial of the Century.”

The former football star and Hollywood actor’s acquittal was greeted with disbelief by many Americans, with opinion on the Black athlete’s guilt divided sharply along racial lines.

Simpson was later found liable for the deaths in a 1997 civil suit and ordered to pay damages to Goldman’s family totaling $33.5 million. The majority of that remained unpaid.

Irish in the US

Ten years ago, The42 heard from some Irish people who had been living in New York ahead of the US hosting the World Cup.

Dubliner Paddy Archbold had been living in the city since the 1980s and worked in an Irish bar called Stephen’s Green in Queens.

With his “face painted and the whole lot” in preparation, he and his friends had found themselves drawing attention from local media. A Fox television crew looking to sit down and record the atmosphere in the pub for Ireland’s game against the Italians.

“I knew it was happening so I got my hair cut by a smashing Romanian fella in Queens,” Archbold told The42 in 2014.

But when OJ Simpson went on the run, things didn’t quite turn out as planned.

“The Fox crew were there for about four hours in the Stephen’s Green pub. In the meantime Joe Duffy came in and he was doing a show with Gay Byrne. I was like a fuckin’ celebrity at that stage – I had to do a half an hour with him on the radio,” Archbold said.

“Coming up to the game the evening before, the New York Rangers were playing in the Stanley Cup final and then after that, this profile of me was going to be on the telly.

“We were waiting, the pub was packed. And what happened? Yer man OJ Simpson went AWOL.

“We were all geared up for this big ‘It’s me on the bleedin’ telly’ moment, but for three hours every TV station was following OJ on the motorway. That white Bronco ruined my media career.”

The game with Italy was also too much of a distraction for other Irish people in the city.

George Hamilton, who was assuming his role as RTÉ’s commentator for the tournament, told The Journal earlier today that he was in a “cocoon” during the games.

“We were kind of in glorious isolation almost at the time,” he said, as they had to ensure that television demands be met and helping with logistics for the broadcaster’s cross-continent coverage

It meant there was “precious little interest” in what was playing out in Los Angeles, “other than the fact that it was typically American, every television channel seemed to be showing these pictures of this little crawl along the freeway”.

But beyond beyond that, Hamilton said there was “a match on our minds” and that assumed utmost importance. 

Later, the trial itself would hold the attention of plenty in Ireland as well as elsewhere.

A report from the time, via the RTÉ Archives, shows people tuned into the verdict in Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub on Baggot Street in Dublin.

One man described it as being “bigger than the World Cup”, and another described the trial as “a soap opera”.

“It was entertainment from day one,” the report heard during its vox pop, with the same man saying that it had “stopped being about law or justice”.

Instead, the case was “about television” according to the man giving his view to reporter Gareth O’Connor.

Elsewhere in the short report, one woman described the verdict as “appalling”, saying that Simpson should have been found guilty.

‘Waiting for the collision’

Simpson maintained his innocence and always denied he was trying to flee during the famous Bronco chase, even though he ignored a police deadline to turn himself in.

He told a LAPD detective over the phone during the slow-speed pursuit to “let them all know I wasn’t running,” but rather visiting Nicole’s grave.

A duffel bag containing Simpson’s passport and cash — as well as a gun — found by police in the car led many to question this, but was never submitted as evidence by the prosecution.

For Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at University of South Carolina who studies police chases, Simpson’s celebrity heightened a deep-rooted fascination with the idea of a dangerous pursuit.

“We’re waiting for the collision. No one wants anyone to die but we certainly like to see some mayhem,” he told AFP in 2019, comparing televised chases to wildly popular Nascar races.

“The media has a broader fascination with that kind of event in the States than anywhere else,” he added.

“It goes back to the days of horseback riding when someone would rob a bank and the sheriff would jump on his horse and chase him.”

The car itself — owned by Simpson’s friend Al Cowlings, who was driving during the pursuit — is on display in a Tennessee crime museum.

A Los Angeles tour company reportedly explored the idea of offering rides in the vehicle up and down the same freeways.

To the disappointment of fans who gathered on overpasses along the chase route that day with signs saying “Run O.J. Run” and “Go O.J.,” Simpson eventually surrendered.

But for Goldman, that did not lead to any closure.

Simpson was released from jail in 2017 after serving nine years behind bars for an unrelated armed robbery. At the time of his death this week, he was living in Las Vegas, where he was regularly spotted playing golf.

With reporting by AFP

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