When asked how they could have let the most famous double-murder suspect in history slip away under their noses, the angry police commander and the tight- faced lawyer and the whole choir of commentators all said the same thing, without a trace of irony: "We never thought he would run."
In crisis, people condense into their essential selves. O.J. Simpson was, essentially, a very great runner. That was how a bowlegged kid with rickets had escaped the slums where he was born, how a football superstar had become a national icon, always outrunning his obstacles, finding daylight where there wasn't any. "I'll tell you," he used to say, "my speed has always been my best weapon. So if I can't run away from whatever it is, I don't need to be there."
But there was never a run like last week's final play. The chase had become a game: the police weren't really trying to overtake him, and he wasn't really trying to escape. He just wanted his mother. He wanted to go home. He found his blocker in his faithful friend and longtime teammate Al Cowlings, and together they slipped away from the lawyers and doctors who were there to mind him and eluded the police who had come to take O.J. into custody on charges of first-degree murder.
Word of the flight soon went out, and the crowds were on their feet, cheering. Police picked up O.J.'s cellular-phone calls and began tracking the Ford Bronco along the San Diego Freeway. Reporters pursuing in helicopters overhead said that he had a gun to his head. People pulled up their lawn chairs to the side of the road to wait for the cortege to pass. They lined the overpasses, waving, shouting, holding up signs -- Go O.J. Go -- as if he were trying to elude a pack of motorized tacklers.
Downtown at headquarters, the SWAT teams and crisis negotiators sat like ( everyone else, following the route of the Bronco on television. "Hey, it could be he's headed right back here to turn himself in," said one officer. "Yeah," said another, "or else he's going to blow his brains out." But the police were still listening in on the calls: "He wants to head to his house."
The 25-man SWAT team scrambled and moved out to O.J.'s Brentwood mansion in unmarked cars. They split into a sniper team with scopes, a negotiating team and a larger backup team that fanned out through the bushes and trees around the property, armed with stun grenades and automatic rifles. When Cowling drove up into the driveway, they could see O.J. in the backseat, holding a blue steel revolver pointed up against his own chin.
Simpson's son Jason broke away from the cops in the doorway and ran toward the car.
"Who the hell is that?"
"That's his son."
"Get him out of there!"
The weeping young man confronted Cowling, who seemed to be crying too. Two policemen calmly went out, no weapons drawn, and led the boy back to the house. The crisis team had two problems. They were worried for Cowling's safety, since no one was sure about O.J.'s state of mind, and they wanted to coax him out of the car and into custody. Cowling shuttled back and forth to the doorway, then the car, calming O.J., talking anxiously to the cops. "He was really pumped up; he was going -- you could see that," said SWAT team commander Mike Albanese. "Cowling wouldn't come in the house because he figured we'd grab him."