The Ford Bronco had been a beloved off-roader for decades before it became part of the story of one of the most notorious murders of modern day, and one of the most captivating television events in history.
McKinley Thompson Jr. was the first African-American designer Ford Motor Company hired, 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball but 12 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was illegal. His first assignments included working on a light-duty cab-forward truck and Ford GT40, and several concept sketches for the soon-to-be Ford Mustang.
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This is one of the initial prototypes of the Ford Bronco from 1961.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
It was Thompson’s sketch of a prospective 4×4 that would influence a buyers for generations. “Package Proposal #5 for Bronco” was rendered July 24, 1963. Its design attributes carried over to the final generation Bronco design, including the 1993 model owned by Al Cowlings.
The ’93 Bronco was part of the model’s fifth generation. It was built on the F-Series chassis. The new generation featured the most aerodynamic design to date and it received safety upgrades including front crumple zones, three-point seatbelts for the rear seat, and a center-mounted rear brake light.
By 1994, the prime of Al Cowlings’s professional football career had long passed him by. He was drafted in 1970 by the Buffalo Bills, one year after the team drafted O.J. Simpson. The two had been teammates at USC. Known by the nickname “The Juice”, Simpson quickly rose to fame from star running back at USC to Heisman Trophy winner to the the man with the highest paying contract in NFL history (at the time).
Simpson struggled during those early years but Cowlings did not. By the time Lou Saban took the helm of the Bills in 1971, their time playing together was coming to a close.
O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson pose at the premiere of the “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Isult” in which O.J. starred on March 16, 1994 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Cowlings and Simpson remained friends. Cowlings is the godfather of Simpson’s son Jason and he served as a groomsman at the wedding of Simpson and Nicole Brown in 1985. Cowlings also was the ring bearer at Robert and Kris Kardashian’s wedding in 1978.
In 1979, both Cowlings and Simpson played their last professional seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
By 1994, Cowlings and Simpson were both living in the Los Angeles area – Simpson in Brentwood. On June 12, 1994, Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her acquaintance Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death outside her condo in Brentwood.
When Brown Simpson was identified as the victim, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) went to Simpson’s Rockingham estate (360 North Rockingham Avenue, Los Angeles) to notify him of the death. Officers buzzed the gate at the house for 30 minutes. While there waiting, they noted that Simpson’s Bronco was parallel parked on Rockingham Avenue at a precarious angle with its back end further out into the street than the front.
They also noticed that the SUV’s door had blood on it.
O.J. Simpson’s Rockingham Estate in Brentwood, is shown in June, 1994 in Brentwood, California.
Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Archive Photos/Getty Images
This caused concern for the officers, who eventually decided to enter the estate, despite not having a warrant, because they were concerned that someone was injured inside.
Detective Mark Fuhrman interviewed Kato Kaelin, who lived at the estate, who confirmed that the Bronco belonged to Simpson. He also relayed that earlier in the night, Kaelin had heard thumps against the wall of his living quarters. Furhman walked around the area in an effort to investigate what may have made the thumping noise and came upon a bloody glove. The right-hand glove matched the left-hand one found at the Brown Simpson-Goldman murder scene. This evidence served as probable cause to issue an arrest warrant for Simpson.
The ensuing media frenzy was brought to a fever pitch when Simpson failed to surrender to LAPD on June 17 as previously agreed upon, the day after the funeral for Brown Simpson.
According to testimony during the prosecution of Simpson for the murders, Cowlings said that Simpson arrived at Cowlings’s house that day and pointed a gun at Cowlings, instructing him to get behind the wheel of Cowlings’ Bronco and drive. Simpson’s personal Bronco had been impounded by LAPD as part of the investigation into the crime.
Motorists wave signs as police cars pursue the Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson, on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase June 17, 1994 on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Archive Photos/Getty Images
With Cowlings behind the wheel, the Bronco led police on a slow speed chase around Los Angeles as Cowlings made a 9-1-1 call from his cell phone telling police that Simpson was armed with a gun and demanding that Cowlings drive Simpson to his Brentwood estate.
The chase went on Interstate 5 near Lake Forest to California State Route 91 and then onto the 405 in Torrence. News crews captured the scene from seemingly every angle. Airing live, it grabbed national attention, interrupting coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals. Approximately 95 million people watched the drama play out in the U.S. alone – just 90 million watched the Super Bowl that year.
World watches as police chase O.J. Simpson
It was as the Bronco neared Torrance that cameras began capturing bystanders showing signs with messages for Simpson on them lining the freeway. The pursuit ended when Cowlings reached Simpson’s Rockingham estate and Simpson surrendered after an hour-long standoff during which Simpson spoke with his mother and drank a glass of orange juice.
The estate has since been torn down.
Simpson and Cowlings were both taken into custody. Cowlings was charged with aiding a fugitive and was released about 12 hours later after posting a $250,000 bail. Eventually it was determined that the case against Cowlings would not proceed.
According to reports published at the time the police search of the Bronco turned up $8,000 in cash, a loaded .357 Magnum, a United States passport, family pictures, a change of clothing, and a disguise kit with a faux goatee and mustache.
The 1993 Ford Bronco was part of the company’s last generation of the model.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
On January 24, 1995, the trial of O.J. Simpson began. The nation’s attention was once again captivated.
Three months into the trial, limousine driver Allan Park testified that when he arrived at Simpson’s home at 10:25 p.m. on the evening of the murders, Simpson’s personal Bronco was not there. At approximately 10:50 p.m. Park said that he saw a, “tall African American shadowy figure resembling Simpson” approach the front door of the estate before turning toward the Southern walkway that led to Kaelin’s bungalow.
Park had been scheduled to pick up Simpson ahead of Simpson’s red eye flight to Chicago, where, the next day, he was to play golf with representatives from Hertz Corporation. At the time, Simpson was a spokesperson for Hertz.
This testimony was key for the prosecution, which was attempting to link the Bronco and Simpson to the glove. Along with the testimony, 108 exhibits of evidence were presented, including 61 drops of blood. The case relied heavily on physical and DNA evidence.
Judge Lance Ito oversees a drive-by shooting murder case May 20, 2004 nearly tens years after he presided over the high-profile case of former football star, O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering Nicole Brown-Simpson, in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Robert Galbraith-Pool/Getty Images
Prosecutor Marcia Clark drew a DNA line from the murder scene to Simpson’s bedroom, including drops of blood containing the DNA of Brown Simpson and Goldman on the outside door of Simpson’s Bronco.
Fibers found on both victims, both gloves, and a knit cap purported to have been worn by Simpson, were only used in the 1993-1994 model year Ford Bronco. Additionally, the glove found near Kaelin’s bungalow had hair and clothing fibers that were consistent with hair and clothing fibers from Simpson, Brown Simpson, Goldman, Brown Simpson’s akita dog, and a 1993-1994 Bronco.
Eighteen months after the trial began, FBI shoe print expert William J. Bodziak testified that bloody footprints found inside Simpson’s Bronco were made from a size 12 pair of Bruno Magi shoes. Only 29 pairs of those shoes had been sold in the U.S., however the prosecution was unable to produce evidence that Simpson owned a set, though they were the right size for his foot.
Simpson’s defense team was filled with attorneys who have since gone on to fame and fortune outside of their law careers. Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian, Alan Dershowitz, Gerald Uelmen, Carl E. Douglas, Shawn Holley. Barry Scheck, and Peter Neufeld were among those at the table.
The defense proceeded to cast doubt on the DNA findings citing shoddy police work, and explaining that Simpson was not physically capable of committing such an act.
A supporter of O.J. Simpson wears a hat with a “Not Guilty” sign for the descision of the O.J. Simpson verdict at the Los Angeles Courthouse on October 3, 1995 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Scheck told jurors, and millions watching at home on Court TV, that police had planted evidence inside Simpson’s Bronco. However, the prosecution proved that the Bronco had already impounded for the investigation at the time this alleged planting was to have taken place. Further, the officer accused of planting the evidence was not at the estate.
On October 3, 1995, Simpson was acquitted of both counts of murder. That same year, Cowlings’s Bronco was purchased by Simpson’s former agent Mike Gilbert, and two other men. It sat in a parking garage for the next 17 years and was rarely used. In 2017, the Bronco was loaned to the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, where it is currently on display as part of an exhibit about the trial near John Dillinger’s car and Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen Beetle.
Ford discontinued the Bronco shortly after the trial ended. On June 12, 1996, the last model rolled off the Wayne, Michigan assembly line. The Bronco was replaced in the Ford lineup by the Explorer and Expedition.
The next-generation Ford Bronco will be revealed July 13, 2020.