In Pursuit of a Story

Dec 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Next June will mark the 10th anniversary of a watershed event in TV news coverage, an event about which Tom Brokaw said at the time, “No scriptwriter, no dramatist could possibly conceive it.”
It was a news event so compelling that NBC, which was televising Game 5 of the National Basketball Association finals, went to a split screen, showing the game on one side of the screen and the news coverage on the other.
That news event was the legendary O.J. Simpson car chase. Viewers across the nation were glued to their sets, watching live video shot from myriad TV station helicopters as they followed Mr. Simpson and his white Bronco on a 60-mile trek through Los Angeles.
Since then, the freeway car chase has become a staple of coverage for a number of L.A. TV stations. But has television news gone too far in its coverage of these chases?
That’s one of the issues illuminated in the following story, an account of the coverage of one of these televised car chases that contains more twists than the Pasadena Freeway. This account was first broadcast Oct. 24 on the award-winning public radio show “This American Life.”
We gratefully acknowledge the folks at “This American Life” at WBZ in Chicago, especially producer/correspondent Starlee Kine, for granting us permission to reprint the story. The show is syndicated by Public Radio International.
From the WBZ studio:
Starlee Kine: In Los Angeles on Aug. 31, 2001, all other news on KCAL9 was interrupted in order to bring you this car chase:
From the Aug. 31, 2001, KCAL broadcast:
Anchor Dave Clark: And the pursuit continues, and I believe we are north of the airport now. Larry Welk.
KCAL helicopter pilot Larry Welk (on location): Yeah, I am back with you here. This suspect has been going on now for over three hours now, well over three hours, almost four now, with showing no signs of giving up, no signs of stopping. …
Ms. Kine: This of course would have been no big deal since in L.A. there are car chases on TV all the time, and really this one was no different than your basic high-speed police pursuit. Except for that speed part.
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Welk: The suspect still driving well within the speed limit, in fact slower than the speed limit, driving very reasonably right now through the streets of Southern California. …
Ms. Kine: And the police part.
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Welk: There’s nobody else behind him right now, everybody has pulled off, including the LAPD, Hawthorne, Inglewood, they are not there, nowhere to be seen. …
Ms. Kine: Oh, and the pursuit part.
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Welk: You know, at this point the officers are saying that they have a really good idea of who he is. They have a pretty good idea of where he lives even. And so at this point they’re gonna go ahead and let him drive home if that’s what he wants to do. …
Ms. Kine: On Thursday, Aug. 31, 2001, viewers of KCAL were told they were watching a car chase, but what they were actually watching was a white Geo Prism driving slowly up and down residential streets, stopping at every stop sign and signaling every time he wanted to turn, with no police behind him. If you tuned in that day with the sound off, you’d be wondering why it was on TV at all. Of course, if you had the sound on you were probably even more confused, because the image on the screen had very little to do with what was coming out of the news announcer’s mouth. It was as though they weren’t looking at the screen at all, but were instead reciting their lines from memory, drawing from all the past car chases they covered.
KCAL Broadcast:
Anchor Sylvia Lopez: This pursuit suspect, who has refused to pull over for going on four hours now, appears to be sticking to the same area. Right now we believe he is in the Inglewood …
Ms. Kine: The car chase began normally enough. At around 6 o’clock the car’s driver pulled a hit-and-run. It was a minor fender-bender, and no one got hurt, but he took off anyway. The LAPD tried to pull him over, but he refused. They chased him for a few hours before finally deciding to stop. In the past couple of years many police departments have begun to rethink their strategies when it comes to chasing. If a suspect doesn’t seem like an immediate threat, the police will often pull out or try to get his license plate number so they can arrest him later, reasoning that the risk of hurting innocent bystanders in a car chase is greater than the risk of letting a guy who ran a red light get away. At the time of this chase, though, this was still a relatively new procedure that most people had never seen before.
Mr. Welk: We were in shock. We were saying, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on here, they’re letting this guy go.’
Ms. Kine: This is Larry Welk, the KCAL helicopter pilot whose voice you’ve been hearing.
Mr. Welk: And it was tough to be on TV and explain to people what was happening. Because we had this pursuit going on, then the police pulled off, and it’s almost like the news story just went away. Well what are we doing here now?
Ms. Kine: That was indeed the question. With their top story called off right under their very noses, the KCAL news team suddenly found themselves in the unique position of being the only ones following this guy around. But rather than turn to another story, the station decided to stick with this one. And it’s around this point that the situation goes from being merely baffling to truly absurd-when the newscasters begin floundering for things to say. In fact, right about here:
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Clark: You get the sense, Larry, that this doesn’t end until the thing runs out of gas?
Mr. Welk: We have no idea. The LAPD estimated that with a full tank of gas this could go on for six hours or so.
Ms. Lopez: I guess one thing we’ve certainly learned, this is a fuel-efficient car, I guess just the kind you want to have in a pursuit, and forgive me if I am making light of the situation, and I’m not trying to do that, and you guys know that, but for goodness sakes, this has gone on, as you say, for four hours now, and he has not run out of gas yet, so that says a lot about the vehicle he is driving.
Ms. Kine: The chase even survives a shift change. At 10 o’clock it’s time for the station to switch from the late-afternoon news to the evening. New announcers arrive to replace the old ones. Seems like an easy out to a story that isn’t going anywhere-literally. But instead …
KCAL Broadcast:
Ms. Lopez: We are going to stay with this chase, so stay with us, there’s another hour of news ahead.
Mr. Clark: That and Kerry standing by. KCAL9 news at 10 starts right now.
Anchor Kerry Kilbride: And thank you Dave, Sylvia, a pursuit that continues right now only by air. Ground units have completely pulled out.
Ms. Kine: KCAL is a local independent station. In addition to news it also airs shows like ‘People’s Court’ and ‘Family Feud.’ They usually show one car chase about every two weeks. And the effects on the ratings are dramatic. On a typical day about 400,000 people tune into KCAL’s nightly news programming. Those numbers quadruple once a car chase comes on. And when the chases are over, the numbers drop back down again. Here’s the helicopter pilot, Larry Welk. Are there other car chases that don’t make the cut?
Mr. Welk: Not really. If we get overhead a car chase, for the most part it’ll make it on TV.
Ms. Kine: Do you watch car chases?
Mr. Welk: I’m embarrassed to say that I do. I not only watch the car chases but I yell at the television screen while it’s going on, as though I’m covering it. You know, when the guy blows a red light, ‘Oh no! Look out!’ And my wife comes in, she’ll be doing the laundry, and she’ll walk in and watch me watching a chase and she’ll shake her head and say, ‘What in the world are you doing? Go take out the garbage.’ I mean there could be a pursuit that runs through our back yard and she wouldn’t care. But I’m one of those guys that watches pursuits. It’s cops and robbers. You watch these guys getting
chased and you don’t know what’s happening next, and that’s what keeps you glued. I’m afraid to go to the bathroom. I’m afraid to go get a glass of water. Because I’m afraid that when I walk out of the room the guy’s gonna, you know, pull a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and jump over a bridge or something.
KCAL Broadcast:
Anchor Pat Harvey: Well, do you know he’s picked up speed here. Look at this.
Mr. Welk: Pat, that’s a good observation on your part. He has picked up some speed. He got up to about 45 to 50 miles an hour, the suspect, right now.
Ms. Harvey: And he’s slowing down again, Larry.
Mr. Welk: He is. He’s slowing down. Begs the question how much gas … (music fades up).
Ms. Kine: It wasn’t, however, just a news team that was at a loss about how exactly to proceed. The cops who weren’t chasing him were confused as well. Det. Brian Spencer of the Inglewood Police Department was on duty that night and remembers getting a strange call on his radio.
Det. Brian Spencer: Well, when I first heard about it, we were out on patrol in our marked police car, and the California Highway Patrol or Los Angeles Police Department got on our radio frequency and said that they didn’t want to follow the car anymore. And basically they told all the police units to back out of it completely. And, you know, we were a little frustrated.
Ms. Kine: Det. Spencer estimates that he’s been in about 20 car chases. He says they’re exciting at first, but after a while you get a little bored, especially if you have to go to the bathroom. He’d prefer not to be in them at all, but says, still, they are sort of the embodiment of what it means to be a cop.
Det. Spencer: I just want to catch bad guys. I mean I think that’s what I do. I mean it’d be like anything. Pick any profession, you know, you’re supposed to do this, but then, you know, you don’t do it. It doesn’t feel like you’ve fulfilled, you know, your job. For me it’s pretty simple. They run, we chase.
Ms. Kine: So like legions of cinematic counterparts before him, Det. Spencer decided to go with his gut and take the law into his own hands, even if it meant disobeying his superiors.
Det. Spencer: We just decided to follow him anyways.
Ms. Kine: Oh really? On your own?
Det. Spencer: Yeah, just the two of us. We found the car on Century Boulevard. That’s a street in our city. And we happened to be down in that area because we heard the pursuit was coming into our city, so we went down there snooping, and lo and behold, there it was.
Ms. Kine: Of course, now that they found the car there was still the question of what to do next. I mean, how hard really could it be to catch this guy?
Det. Spencer: He had stopped initially, right? There was a traffic light there and he was stopped right there. And we wanted to just, you know, get out of the car and like open the door and get him out of the car, but we knew we’d get in trouble if we did that.
Ms. Kine: How many feet behind him were you when you were following him?
Det. Spencer: Oh, I mean, we were right behind him. We were the car right behind him. Yeah, it was just like regular driving. He was doing like 35 on Century. He would stop at all the red lights. I mean, just like we were on patrol, just driving around.
Ms. Kine: Det. Spencer and his partner continued tailing the fugitive on their own for another quarter of an hour before they were called off for good by their boss, who, it turns out, was watching KCAL’s coverage of the chase back at the station.
Det. Spencer: What happened was, when the car was on Century Boulevard, I had stuck my head out the window and was yelling at the guy to pull over, but it wasn’t working. And the watch commander saw our car on the news, and that’s when he told us to leave, so we did.
KCAL Broadcast:
Ms. Harvey: He has stayed in a relatively general area around the airport. …
Ms. Kine: Back at KCAL, the chase is still on and the news team is no closer to answering the story’s main questions: Who is this guy and why is he running? Ordinarily when you watch a chase on TV, the very least that you, the viewer, can expect is that the people actually on the TV know slightly more than you do about the situation. It’s usually a given. But in this case, the announcer didn’t know the answers any more than anybody else did. So they just speculated like crazy.
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Kilbride: You just have to wonder, Pat, if the guy has to be aware of the fact that police have unmarked vehicles and you have to be wondering if he’s wondering that he’s being pursued now by an unmarked police vehicle, being that SUV. And while police may know who this individual is, the question still remains, Why did this person flee the scene of a relatively minor traffic accident and then lead police on a chase that’s now gone on for more than three hours? Do we have any idea if there are outstanding warrants? If this individual may be wanted for something else?
Male speaker: No, there was no warrants. Not a one. Nope. I hate to disappoint them as a precedent-setting individual.
Ms. Kine: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the fugitive. He turned out a very affable and helpful guy, and he agreed to talk on the condition that I didn’t use his name. So I’ll just call him “Dr. Richard Kimble,” Dr. Kimble for short. On the night this all happened, Dr. Kimble had just finished up a big project for his consulting firm. He decided to celebrate by getting high. Because, you see, aside from being a workaholic and a Georgetown graduate, Dr. Kimble was also a crack addict. He’d gone to a hotel to smoke up that night so his family wouldn’t see and he was just leaving when he got into the fender-bender. When he saw the flashing lights behind him, he ran.
“Dr. Kimble”: By no means was there ever any delusion of thinking I was going to get away. No, that’s the farthest thing from my mind. I knew that what I had done was wrong. They’re on your tail right now, so I told myself just drive a little bit more, you know, just drive a little more. Try to get your resolve together. Calm down.
Ms. Kine: So the plan that you had was to gain composure. Would you call it a plan?
“Dr. Kimble”: (Laughing) A plan. You know, it’s unfortunate that, and I can say this because certainly I’m black, being stereotyped as a black man and then having to step out of a vehicle looking all shoddy and sweaty and hair all array and with that obvious ‘Man, the guy’s on drugs,’ it was like, ‘Wow, at least try to clean up your act a little bit.’
Ms. Kine: Talking to Dr. Kimble, he defies everyone’s theory about why people run. He hadn’t hurt anybody or stolen anything. He didn’t think he could get away. And he definitely didn’t want to be on TV. There are people who study pursuits-yes, there are actual people who do this. And they say that trying to figure out the reasons behind why people run, the cause behind the effect, is the wrong approach. What these experts have discovered is there aren’t any reasons behind why people run, there’s just a type of person who runs. They don’t stop to weigh the consequences or to factor in all the variables. They just run. They run because it doesn’t occur to them not to. Which is to say, Dr. Richard Kimble ran because he was born to run.
“Dr. Kimble”: Oh yeah, well, something you may not know, I’ve done this once before. This had happened three years before.
Ms. Kine: Oh, really?
“Dr. Kimble”: Yeah, yeah, oh yeah, really. The first time, I don’t remember too many details about it. There was no hit-and-run. There was no accident or anything. I think it was a traffic infraction that just turned out to be a couple-hour slow-speed chase again. I take great pride to think that I am a relatively decent law-abiding citizen (laughing). So even while under the influence I am very cognizant of stop signs, turn signals (laughing).
Ms. Kine: Dr. Richard Kimble tells me that driving around he had no idea he was on the news. He also tells me he didn’t know the cops had pulled out. So I run by him some of the questions the newscasters had. I ask him if th
e cops were in contact with his family. He tells me no. I ask him if he thought that SUV driving behind him was an undercover policeman. He tells me no. I ask him if he planned on driving home. He tells me he wasn’t thinking about it that clearly.
Ms. Kine: Did you have any particular pattern of where you were driving or a particular area that you were circling?
“Dr. Kimble”: Oh no. This was strictly random. No, strictly random. Like a leaf in a windstorm. (Laughs.)
Ms. Kine: Does your car get good gas mileage?
“Dr. Kimble”: I think it’s probably like 24, 25 miles to a gallon.
Ms. Kine: Would you call it a fuel-efficient car?
“Dr. Kimble”: I would. I would.
Ms. Kine: Did you have a cellphone in the car with you?
“Dr. Kimble”: I did.
Ms. Kine: You did?
“Dr. Kimble”: I did.
Ms. Kine: Did you use it to call anyone?
“Dr. Kimble”: Nope. Nor did I keep the radio turned on, either. Just had a CD playing, if I recall correctly.
Ms. Kine: What was it?
“Dr. Kimble”: Boston. (Laughing.) Yeah, their first album. “More Than a Feeling.” Yeah. You laugh, but I mean, that’s my favorite group.
Ms. Kine (to radio audience): Can I just tell you that learning these answers was ridiculously satisfying? It’s hard to put into words exactly. But it felt sort of like scratching an itch while simultaneously solving a crossword puzzle at the precise instant, that, after wracking your brain for it for two solid years, the name of your best friend from kindergarten suddenly pops into your head. It felt like that. Only better.
Incredibly, there was one piece of KCAL speculation that came true. It was something they latched onto early on and that they kept coming back to over and over again, throughout the four hours, debating about when it would happen. Somehow they knew that this chase wasn’t over, would never be over, until the fugitive ran out of gas.
“Dr. Kimble”: I think the low-fuel indicator lamp had came on. If I recall correctly, the red light came on, and I’m sitting there going, ‘Well, maybe 2 gallons, 3 gallons at the most. Now what are you gonna do? You gonna run out on the freeway, or are you just gonna pull over and give up?’
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Welk: So right now the suspect is pulling over now, here in Inglewood. We don’t know if he is out of gas, but he has completely pulled over and blacked out and, stand by one second and we’ll see what’s gonna happen here.
Det. Spencer: We had driven away and went somewhere and parked and were talking about it, my partner and I.
Ms. Kine: Again, Det. Spencer. After getting called off the chase, he and his partner pulled over and parked in a nearby area. They kept listening for any word of what was going on, but the radio was silent. They had no idea that the fugitive had pulled over and were in fact still feeling frustrated that they had been called off.
Det. Spencer: We were just taking a breath, you know.
Ms. Kine: Venting.
Det. Spencer: Yeah, exactly. We couldn’t believe that this guy, after four hours he was just gonna get away.
KCAL Broadcast:
Ms. Harvey: No ground units yet as far as we could see. Don’t see any movement of any doors at this particular point, and we do know that law enforcement agencies did back off and they will probably be sending in ground units momentarily.
Mr. Kilbride: No helicopter lights on the suspect. We can see a vehicle approaching, I guess. No, he’s just making a turn. …
“Dr. Kimble”: I distinctly remember sitting there in the car. Certainly there was no sirens, no lights. And then I’ll never forget a couple of young black women were coming from a gas station on the corner. They were walking across the street, and one of them yelled out, ‘There the fool is!’
Ms. Kine: And was that when it really registered that this might be on TV?
“Dr. Kimble”: Yeah, yeah. For sure.
Ms. Kine: Meanwhile, while sitting in his parked squad car, Det. Spencer received a phone call.
Det. Spencer: My wife called me on my cellphone and said, ‘You know, this car that everyone was chasing is in your city. It’s stopped at, like, Ash and Manchester. And he’s just sitting there.’ And I said, ‘Really? The car’s where?’
Ms. Kine: She’d been watching the chase on TV?
Det. Spencer: Yeah, she was flipping back and forth between that and a Dave Matthews interview. And then she said, ‘You know, you guys look really dumb right now. There’s a guy sitting in your city and the helicopters are up and it’s all over the news and they’re saying that Inglewood police isn’t doing anything.
And the guy in the helicopter is saying that, “Normally I’d tell him not to run from the police because you’ll never get away. But this guy seems like he’s going to.”‘ And she said, ‘You know, you might want to go over there.’ And you can see our car just come down the street.
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Kilbride: It really appears that police don’t believe that this driver presents any kind of an immediate threat.
Mr. Welk: I see an LAPD officer right there.
Ms. Harvey: There’s one right behind them too.
Mr. Welk: OK. There they are right behind him now. So officers just pulled in right now. They have their guns drawn. The suspect is now getting out. The suspect appears to be an older man, heavyset, and he’s making his way back. No resistance whatsoever. Those are Inglewood P.D. officers and now the suspect is in custody. He’s in the custody of the Inglewood P.D.
Ms. Kine: Throughout all of this, the only person who didn’t doubt that the fugitive would get caught was the fugitive. And in the end perhaps that’s why he got caught. His faith in his inevitable capture turned out to be self-fulfilling. Here’s Det. Spencer.
Det. Spencer: If he would have ran, or did something, I believe just the news helicopter was up there and they don’t have like the infrareds and the spotlights and all that, so technically, he probably could have got away if he would have ran. But he
didn’t. He just sat there.
“Dr. Kimble”: I don’t think I ever thought that. And it certainly is not my MO to have gotten out of the car and added yet another segment to the chase by running over fences and through back yards (laughing).
Ms. Kine: So you weren’t surprised when the cops showed up?
“Dr. Kimble”: Well, no, no. Because that’s what happens in those sorts of situations. No, I wasn’t surprised. Of course not (laughing).
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Welk: We’ve never really seen anybody get away here, and this would have been the first one. …
Ms. Kine: The news team gives its closing comments. And consistent with the rest of the evening, they seem to apply to a whole different chase altogether.
KCAL Broadcast:
Mr. Welk: I have to point out that after this entire pursuit here, four hours long, nobody got hurt during this pursuit, and that is the best news of all.
Mr. Kilbride: OK. The executive producer says we have to take a break, Larry.
Mr. Welk: Sounds good to me.
Mr. Kilbride: We’ll be right back.
Ms. Kine: Here’s what happened next: Dr. Richard Kimble was arrested and taken to trial. He was given two years for felony evasion and possession of cocaine, although he only had to serve a year. Ironically, the initial hit-and-run charge that started it all was dropped completely due to a lack of evidence. If he hadn’t run in the first place, he probably wouldn’t have gone to jail.
For a short while on the night of Aug. 31, 2001, this chase was KCAL’s biggest story: A possibly dangerous fugitive who obeyed all traffic laws had managed to elude L.A.’s police force for four hours for reasons nobody could fathom.
And now that he had been apprehended, we would finally learn the story behind it all. But immediately after the capture of Dr. Richard Kimble, KCAL returned to its regular programming. There was no follow-up the next day, or the next week. In fact, there was never any. My conversation with Dr. Richard Kimble turned out to be an exclusive. In the two years since the chase, no one had ever contacted him from the press. When I called him, it was the first ti
me that he learned he had been the star of that night’s news.
Most everyone remembers where they were during the O.J. chase because it was one of those times when you could tell beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are experiencing history in the making. But if all history starts off as news, not all news becomes history.
No one remembers where they were for this chase, except, of course, for the man who wasn’t being chased, the man who wasn’t chasing and the diehard fan hovering in the air above.