There is one detail all of us remember about June 17, 1994: the image of O.J. Simpson in that white Ford Bronco driving down the 405 Interstate, moving slower than a lot of people zoom around their residential neighborhoods. The cops didn't appear to be so much pursuing the Bronco as simply following it, and that low-speed pace just makes the picture of one of TV's most infamous drives all the more fixed in our brains. The person responsible for that indelible image: Bob Tur. (Now Zoey Tur. But more on that in a bit.)
Bob Tur was a helicopter pilot and reporter, a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie who once used his piloting skills to rescue 54 people from a collapsed Redondo Beach hotel during a storm and on another occasion, used his helicopter to locate a man in the desert, just in time for that man to be flown back to Los Angeles for the kidney transplant that saved his life.
Tur and then-wife Marika launched the Los Angeles News Service in 1979, and a few years later were providing aerial news coverage to TV stations in Los Angeles. This was still the "infancy of modern electronic news gathering using helicopters," Tur says. The Turs, thanks to Bob's experience as a pilot and some jury-rigged modifications to their helicopter, saw the opportunity to go beyond traffic reports and provide dedicated news-gathering services using copters.
The Turs, in a case that would often be tied to the racial tensions that accompanied the O.J. Simpson trial a couple of years down the road, were responsible for filming the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny during the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. The Turs' video, broadcast live on TV, helped save Denny's life when viewers who were watching the assault rushed to the scene to help him, just after one of his attackers had hit him on the head with a cinderblock and fractured his skull in 91 places.
Still, with dozens of car chases and crime scene stories under the Turs' helicopter seat belts, what unfolded on the 405 on June 17, 1994, remains one of the strangest, most unforgettable collisions of news, crime, and celebrity in TV history. Zoey Tur — formerly known as Bob (again, more on that in a bit) — talked to Yahoo TV about capturing the slowest high-speed chase of her career.
Had you been covering the O.J. case since it broke, in the days leading up to the Bronco chase?
We broke the O.J. case. We had really good police contacts … we knew about things before a lot of other people knew about things. We were able to break stories. We were tipped off when two bodies were found on South Bundy Drive. We received a phone call very early that morning from one of the officers at the scene. We sent a camera crew before anybody else got exclusive video down on the ground.
That was June 13. O.J. Simpson quickly emerged as the main suspect in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman. He was scheduled to turn himself into police headquarters on the morning of June 17. Were you among the reporters at Parker Center waiting for him to show up?
Yes, I flew the helicopter down to Temple and Grand, which was a public helipad at the time, and walked three blocks to Parker Center. I was with this throng of media when [LAPD commander] Dave Gascon came out and said [Simpson hadn't shown up]. Gascon described what was going on, and I was stunned, because this guy can't hide … O.J. couldn't hide. I looked at Marika and said, "You've got to be kidding." I said, "Let's go find him."
How did you decide where to start looking?
We contacted KCBS and KNX radio, and we said we were going to go find O.J. and asked if anybody had any ideas. Then Marika and I were talking, and she was painting this flowery [picture], where O.J. was going to go to a mountainside, and he was going to look at the view, and he was going to kill himself, and I said, "He's not that romantic." He's a narcissist. It's all about him, and he's going to go down to [Nicole's] gravesite. I grew up a few blocks from where O.J. lived and also raised my family less than an eighth of a mile from his house, and we knew all about O.J. We saw him in restaurants; our friends knew O.J. He and Nicole were notorious for getting into fights. Since I had my hands on the control, I flew down to Orange County to the gravesite.
I flew over the grave of Nicole Simpson, and there was no O.J., but there was an undercover unit across the street. So I said, "Well, he's not going to come here." I make a left bank and return to the 5 freeway, which is just literally seconds away. As I'm flying, I'm saying, "We should keep our eyes out; look for this white Bronco." We heard on a police frequency that someone reported they thought Al Cowlings was driving a white Bronco. They were located at the area, the El Toro Y. All I do is look between my legs, down through this window you have in a helicopter, and there's the El Toro Y. And we saw the white Bronco. Within seconds, there were sheriff's deputies [following it], and this vehicle wasn't pulling over. I got on the radio: "We're over it. We've got it … put me on the air," and we went on the air and started broadcasting live.
While you were following him, could you see him in the car?
I could see that it looked like him in the backseat, but I could not say with 100 percent certainty that it was him. But at some point during the pursuit — what seemed to be from some of the radio traffic that I was listening to from the car itself, the cellular communications — I knew that O.J. was there, because you could hear him.
And the video of the chase first went out on CBS?
Yes, It went out with CBS, with Dan Rather, but then it was pirated. It wound up on television stations all around the country, even on competing networks. This happened repeatedly. We were so good at what we did with the L.A. riots, it was picked up, taken by NBC, and it was put out by Reuters. We kept losing control over our content, and I had an obligation to CBS because they were paying by the year. And we weren't there just because we were lucky. We had all the equipment, expertise, and training in place because of our long-term commitment [to helicopter reporting]. We were uniquely designed to cover that type of story. I owned an aircraft, I owned much of the equipment, and I also own the video. I still own the video. In the age of YouTube and no respect for copyright law, it does not mean a lot.
Even after all the court cases? You've sued, successfully, YouTube and Google.
People fear us, and when they get a phone call from me, they know it is pretty serious. But there is widespread copyright infringement that is practiced by television stations and networks. There is a feeling this is just the cost of doing business, and they factor it in. The money they make is so incredible [that] when they do get caught, it doesn't [cost] very much. The laws are really not designed to protect copyright creators. They are really more designed for copyright infringers. There is always hope [that people will respect the copyright]. It does not bother me really any more, and I have no problem going back to federal court to file a copyright case.
You were the only one to have footage of the Bronco chase for the first 25 minutes…
There was no one else, and because we were on the air, you could imagine what we were listening to … our competing stations. I was shocked we were there alone for so long, but I was listening to competing frequencies, and I was listening to their news directors and assignment editors asking [them] to "find Tur, find Tur, find Tur." But I was kind of being crafty, because on the air-to-air frequency I was saying things like … I was giving a different position report. So, instead of being over the 5 freeway northbound passing Katella, I would say I was somewhere else. That is their business if they wanted to intercept my private two-way communications … [but] all is fair in love and news.
How long was it before you realized just how big a news event this was going to become?
I knew pretty quickly. I knew when we got handed over to Dan Rather. From the day of the murders to O.J. being treated as a suspect, the media coverage was incredible. It was a very big story and a very polarizing study in a way, because of the black community and the white community having very different beliefs on what happened. [Los Angeles] became polarized, and the national media moved in, and the tabloid shows were running stories about it.
Then, being in the air, I saw down on the ground what was going on, how big a story it was along the pursuit route, where thousands of people were lining the route like a funeral procession, like they were lining up to pay their last respects to O.J. on his last run back up to Brentwood. That was what really moved me, the outpouring of people that wanted to see this. I didn't necessarily agree with some of the stuff that was going on, the circus activity — after all, this was a guy that was considered the only suspect in a double homicide — but thousands of people poured out to watch this thing going up the freeway.
The car was going about 35 mph for most of the drive. Did that aspect of it make it even more surreal?
Yeah, it was surreal and shocking. And it was shocking as each minute went by, and we would see another aircraft. It started off with just us overhead and the sheriff's department helicopter, and then there were more than 22 [helicopters] … 22 aircrafts flying in a synchronized orbit over this car chase, this slow-speed chase that was extraordinarily boring. This was a slow-speed pursuit, and it looked like an armada of aircraft going right down the center of the city skyline.
There was a funny story to that. We were up so long that we needed to refuel, and there was one point where the pursuit was going through Los Angeles International Airport, and there was a big tunnel. I knew that we were going to lose him going through the 405. Right before you get to the runway, there is a freeway. That's LAX, and that is the 405 freeway. He was going along the 405, so we couldn't fly in that particular area, because it would interfere with the arriving jets. I diverted and went to a small airport to fuel up, and I had as a co-pilot a guy by the name of Larry Welk, Lawrence Welk's grandson. He used to fuel my aircraft, and I was training him to be a news pilot reporter. Anyway, we were in such a rush, Larry used his personal credit card to buy the fuel, and [the credit card company] called us and said they couldn't approve this. I asked why, and they said, "Why is Lawrence Welk buying jet fuel?" And we had to explain we were on the O.J. Simpson pursuit, and this is Lawrence Welk's grandson, and they said, "Oh! We are watching it; get back up in the air!"
They approved the order, and I think it may have taken him over his limit, but they approved it just to get us back in the air, and we got back in the air just in time to catch the pursuit out of the LAX arrival corridor. So we had the seamless coverage, and we now had three and a half more hours of fuel, which put us at a major advantage over the competitors.
For how long did you continue the coverage?
We got back over the pursuit, brought it back on the air live, and we [remained] on the air for another three and a half hours, in time to capture his surrender [at his home]. And we were following him on his way to Parker Center … we were halfway there before any of the other helicopters realized that O.J. was not still at the house.
He was brought in in handcuffs to the loading dock at the jail area of the LAPD, Parker Center, so we covered that, and he went in very calmly. And then later, we were still part of the story for his return back to Brentwood. We had a special gyro-stabilized camera system where we were able to see him through his moon roof. Or his skylight, at his house. One day we were watching him watching Inside Edition.
Was that episode of Inside Edition about him?
[Laughs.] Of course it was about him!
95 million people watched the Bronco chase. Sports events are the only TV programming that can draw those kinds of ratings now, and even then, pretty much only the Super Bowl.
Everybody knows where they were during the O.J. Simpson pursuit. I will certainly always remember where I was for the O.J. Simpson pursuit. [Laughs.]
We all know what happened to O.J. Simpson after the Bronco chase, but what about Bob Tur?
He and wife Marika raised two children (including Katy Tur, an NBC News correspondent), but divorced in 2003. Bob dated Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher for two years after his divorce, earned millions of dollars from licensing his footage of the Reginald Denny beating and the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase (and spent millions in court battles to stop unauthorized use of the videos), and made a life-changing decision after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. A little more than a year ago, Bob began hormone replacement therapy, and by the end of this month, after completing sexual reassignment surgery, will have fully transitioned to living as Zoey Tur. "The endocrinologist provided me the hormone replacing therapy, and within three hours, the gender dysphoria was gone. The hormones acted that quickly. I've never had an unhappy day in (the past) 13 months," Zoey Tur, 54, says. "I haven't been depressed or had a bad day, and I haven't been gender dysphoric and yeah, it's all gone. That's how f---ed up this genetic crazy thing is."
What made you decide to publicly reveal and discuss your transition?
This is a process, and for some people, they just jump in the water. It took me 53 years to jump in the water. It took six minutes to make the decision, and then I got outed by TMZ, which is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
There’s not a lot of information out there, and there aren't role models. I spend two hours a day answering people’s medical questions, hormone questions and that kind of stuff. There's no other disorder like [this], where 42 percent of people that have it attempt suicide. The conversation has really shifted recently, especially with the Time magazine story. It's become… it really is the last civil rights issue. There's not a single transgender reporter anywhere in the United States.
Do you want to work as a reporter again?
I do want to go back to reporting. I want to go back to network news… because I think this is so essential, that there'd be at least one person. Just one. Of course, we need more. People are afraid of what they don't know, and what they don't see. We have (Orange Is the New Black star) Laverne Cox, who's getting a lot of attention. It seems like we have a handful of celebrity transgender people, but that's really not who we are. We're pilots, doctors, reporters… there should be reporters, and not just necessarily TV reporters. We're just regular people.
You've already proven you can do the job. You were a reporter before you were a pilot and pilot-reporter.
Correct, but there will be this inevitable argument and a discussion: is the public ready for this? Is it going to be seen as a circus? Is it a freak show? Is it this? Is it that? Are they using the proper pronouns, stuff like that, which I don’t even care about… you've got to get out there, and when you do, people will make mistakes. They are always going to ask about genitals, they are always going to ask these questions. You don’t have to answer them, but it is this curiosity, and maybe after the third or fourth time they do it, they stop asking the question… one day Laverne Cox goes on a show, and they will say, "What movie are you promoting? What are you doing? Tell me about this," and the transgender issue won't even be mentioned.