KNOXVILLE, Iowa -- It's been nearly 23 years since that now infamous O.J. Simpson slow-speed, white Bronco chase. It was June 17, 1994 when 'The Juice' was on the loose, and it felt like the entire country and even the world stopped to watch the football legend being followed by the cops on live TV.
Paul Beck, who now lives in Iowa (near Knoxville), was a helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Police Department at the time. "We were on a surveillance. We were in Orange County following some liquor store bandits with a team of, they call it S.I.S. These are the hunter-gatherers of the department and we were out there and that morning O.J. was supposed to give himself up, if you know the history of what went on. He went to (Robert) Kardashian`s house, who was his attorney, and that was the father of the Kardashian girls, and I think, and this is me talking, I think what happened was 'we need a defense. Why don`t you jump in with Al Cowlings in this white Bronco, ride around with a gun in your mouth, and we`ll deem you crazy and maybe we can get you out from under this deal,' so they did," said Beck.
Beck, a tactical flight officer who operated a surveillance helicopter for LAPD, was up in the air when word got out that Al, "A.C." Cowlings was driving O.J. Simpson around in a white Bronco.
"They got in that vehicle and of course this thing went newswide that he`s on the loose and...Orange County located him. We`re up. They aren`t. It wasn`t a chase, it basically turned into a media frenzy, and we followed him back to the house and they said 'you`re making too much noise, get outta here.'"
It was a busy airspace to say the least.
"There were seven news helicopters up at that time. They`re out there looking for him just as much as anybody else and of course, we`re surrounded and most all your news affiliates that had a helicopter. It was a police or a sheriff flying those things and you`re in constant communication with these guys on a like frequency, so you`re talking to them and giving them position reports as you do whatever you`re doing."
The concern was that O.J., a fugitive murder suspect in the bloody killings of his former wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, was going to head for the border, but instead, he went back to his home in Brentwood.
"He got on the, it would be the 405 freeway, which goes between L.A. and San Diego and went up the 405 freeway, and they cruised around got on a number of freeways there, but he stayed on the harbor freeway and the 405 freeway most of the time."
Beck says the cops wanted to stop O.J., but were told not to.
"It really wasn`t a pursuit, it became, I mean everybody and their brother stopped what they were doing and lined the freeways, got on the freeways. We just followed him back home. The guys from S.I.S. wanted to stop him and the powers to be said oh my god, don`t do that. If this guy, there`s no good way to do this. If he gets out, shoots himself, we`re gonna look bad. If he gets out and points a gun at us and we shoot him, we`re gonna look bad, just follow him and we knew at some point this guy`s gonna go back to the house and that`s exactly what he did."
The O.J. ordeal happened not long after the 1991 Rodney King beating, and the 1992 L.A. riots that followed.
"And you gotta remember, we had just come out of a riot," said Beck.
"This guy`s got the muzzle of a gun in his mouth and Cowlings is telling him exactly what`s going on and he`s laying in the back of this thing. He`s gonna kill himself and so yeah that is the frustration to me. Like I said, you`ve got the hired guns at the department. We had, I don`t know six or seven vehicles, 12-14 guys that are absolutely trained to do this kind of stuff that are saying, let`s call his bluff. We`ll stop this guy. Oh no, don`t do that."
Beck found all of it embarrassing for the police department he worked for, for more than a quarter of a century.
"It was humiliating to be honest with you. C`mon...how in the heck are we gonna get out from under this deal? We`d had a riot. We looked bad. All the tapes from Rodney King looked bad. We`re looking bad as a department. How bad is this gonna make us look? And I`m sure the powers to be were thinking there`s no good way to get out of this. Just follow him. We`ll do the best we can. You`re in no danger."
Beck had a bird's eye view of the L.A. riots, which he describes as absolute chaos.
"They mobilized the department and you go onto tactical alert situations, so you go on 12 hours shifts and...you know, there were fires everywhere. You would look in one direction and a fire would start and you would look in another direction and there would be another fire started. Smoke was heavy. It was just bedlam. Everything was out of control. It was truly, my definition of a tyranny. It was a lawless situation that`s just out of control, and you`re not going to control a situation like that. You`re just going to put yourself at peril if you march into the middle of that.
Beck retired in 1995. He moved to Iowa shortly after that and has lived near Knoxville ever since.