Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder Trial of O.J. Simpson

To Protect and Serve

When Tom Lange returned to the South Bundy location, he arranged for coroner's investigators to be available from about 8 a.m. He wanted the next hour to further check out the property, review and document all the evidence at the crime scene. Other detectives, who arrived to assist him, flooded the area, checking out the neighbors, recording car license plate numbers and searching garbage containers for a possible murder weapon.

Dennis Fung, LAPD criminalist
Dennis Fung, LAPD criminalist

By now, the media had started arriving in frenzied masses and were taking up positions on a small hill across the street from the condominium. To protect Nicole's body from the prying lenses of telescopic cameras, and also to protect the evidence on her corpse, Lange arranged for it to be covered by a blanket from inside the house. It was an action that would come back to haunt him in the future, just one of many things that formed the basis for part of the defense procedural strategy in the courtroom saga that lay ahead.

Moving through the area, Lange noted a black Cherokee Jeep parked in the driveway at the back of the condominium. This belonged to Nicole as did the white Ferrari, registration L84AD8, "Late for a Date," that was parked in the garage. He noted on a banister of a staircase leading up to and into the house, a cup of Ben and Jerry's ice cream melted in its tub. In a house full of children it did not seem out of place or a significant piece in the jigsaw he was slowly assembling. In the kitchen, a long handled knife sat on top of the stove. Nothing else seemed out of place in the house.

Outside, he followed the bloody footprints and blood drops to the back gate, where he noticed two small drops of blood on its inside lower rung. He moved on, down the pathway back towards the death scene. Near the bodies, he checked the bloodstained white envelope, observing that inside was a pair of eyeglasses.

At 9:10 a.m., the coroner's investigator and her assistant arrived and were chaperoned around the site by Detective Lange. They stopped to examine the body of Nicole. Her bare feet were clean, indicating that she was probably rendered unconscious before the young male was murdered, and that she subsequently died where she collapsed, never stepping into any blood, not even her own. Her neck appeared to have been slashed, almost severing her head from her body, blood had flowed from the wound down the pathway towards the street, almost to the gate fifteen feet away. Bloody paw prints from the Akita led through the blood and out onto the sidewalk. Across her naked back, Lange noticed an odd pattern of blood spots; they may have come from the killer or the murder weapon.

At 10:15 a.m., Dennis Fung and his assistant arrived, having completed their project at Simpson's home. They and the coroner's investigators completed their examination of Nicole's body, photographing it from every angle, recording its historical position relative to all other objects and the other body, in case of any future dispute arising from any potential defense objections, in the event that the killer would be caught and tried. Finally, Nicole's lifeless, almost bloodless, body was wrapped in a light gray plastic body wrap and carried out onto the street and into the coroner's brown van.

The investigators then turned their attention to the bloodstained unidentified male body lying crumpled in the garden alcove off the walkway, near the foot of the steps where Nicole Brown's body had rested.

He was lying on his right side, his body bent at the waist. His eyes were open, staring lifelessly. His face showed scrape marks and blood had dried and crusted in rivulets from his nose and left ear. His left leg, stretched out over his bent right limb, was saturated in blood. His light brown shirt had been pulled up and was bunched around his back, indicating that the killer may have grabbed him, swung him around in the fight, or even killed him on the walkway, and then for some reason dragged his body to the spot where he lay. His throat appeared to have been slashed and he had other stab wounds to his body and upper left thigh.

Ronald Lyle Goldman
Ronald Lyle Goldman

After the photographs had been taken and the coroner's investigators had finished with the body, it was also wrapped in a plastic sheet. Claudine Ratcliffe, a coroner's investigator, searched the clothing and found a wallet in a back pocket of the jeans. The driver's license identified the man as 25-year-old Ronald Lyle Goldman. He was six-feet-one-inches tall and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds. Because she identified him, a member of the coroner's office would notify his next of kin.

As the body was removed to the coroner's van, Detective Lange and Dennis Fung examined the left-handed glove lying among the tree leaves. It was an expensive-looking extra-large dark brown leather with cashmere lining and a label that read "Aris-Isotoner." 

At about 11:00 a.m., Phil Vannatter returned to South Bundy, having drafted out a search warrant on Simpson's home, and having it checked, approved and signed off by Judge Linda Lefkowitz at the West Los Angeles municipal courthouse. The detective little knew the anguish this document would come to cause him in the future. He had run the warrant past Deputy District Attorney Marcia Clark and requested her presence at the Rockingham Avenue estate when he conducted the search. A tough and aggressive lawyer, she had tried over 20 murder cases, including the successful prosecution of the stalker who had murdered Hollywood actress Rebecca Schaeffer.

Vannatter had worked with Clark before on other cases and respected her abilities as a criminal prosecutor. He checked with his partner, who updated him on the progress made at the crime scene and then left, arriving at Simpson's home a little before noon.

There he met Howard Weitzman, a prominent criminal attorney who informed him that Simpson had called him on a mobile telephone and asked him to meet him at his home. Inside the house, Vannatter met up with Bert Luper who also worked in LAPD's Homicide Special Section and was there to help him examine the property.

O. J. Simpson
O. J. Simpson

As they were discussing the methodology of the search, Vannatter recalls in his book with Det. Tom Lange, Evidence Dismissed, that he heard a commotion outside in the grounds of the estate. On the lawn he saw O.J. Simpson handcuffed and in the custody of patrol officer Don Thompson and Detective Brad Roberts, Fuhrman's partner. Although Vannatter had told Thompson he wanted Simpson detained on his arrival, he had never mentioned using the handcuffs and he quickly unhooked Simpson using his own universal handcuff key. As he did so, he noticed that the middle finger of Simpson's left hand was bandaged.

The detective did not intend to arrest Simpson at that point in time. Once he was arrested, Vannatter knew he only had a maximum of 48 hours to file charges, which did not leave him or his partner enough time to complete their investigation, or to receive confirmation from the blood-analysis work that would indicate if Simpson really was the prime suspect.

It was important, however, to interview Simpson and, with the agreement of Howard Weitzman, they arranged to travel to downtown Los Angeles to the Parker Center headquarters of the LAPD. Enroute, Vannatter contacted his partner by cell phone and Lange agreed to leave South Bundy and meet them at the station. Lange logged out of the crime scene at 12:15 p.m. and drove straight to the police building at 150 North Los Angeles Street.

At the police headquarters, Simpson conferred with his lawyers. Skip Taft, another of Simpson's personal attorneys, accompanied Weitzman. Taft had been part of the welcoming committee at LAX earlier in the morning when Simpson had returned from Chicago and had accompanied him to the Rockingham estate. To the amazement of the two police officers, Simpson's attorneys were quite relaxed about the officers carrying out an interview with their client, even to the point of leaving Simpson and heading out to lunch.

At 1:35 p.m., the interview between Lange, Vannatter and O.J. Simpson began. It lasted exactly 37 minutes. The two detectives were later widely criticized for the manner in which they conducted the discussion with Simpson. But most observers overlooked the fact that their talk with Simpson was just that and not an official interrogation, which would have occurred if there had been hard evidence at that time linking Simpson to the murders. At that stage, the police had no real evidence and the detectives knew that at any time Simpson could have just gotten up and walked away. He was not under arrest and did not need to answer any questions unless he felt like it.

It was imperative to get Simpson to relax and talk: the more he talked, the more he might reveal. But they also desperately wanted to get a sample of his blood, get his permission to photograph the wound on his hand before it had time to heal and fingerprint him. All of this required his full cooperation and permission.

Through the course of the interview, the detectives learned nothing of major importance, although in their discussion, Simpson contradicted himself over a number of things. His timing on the use of the Ford Bronco, the way he injured his hand, the fact that he claimed to have been wearing tennis shoes earlier in the evening of the murders, when photographic evidence would subsequently prove otherwise. He claimed at one stage that he had been rushing in his pre-trip preparation; and then later that he was leisurely getting ready to go, chipping a few golf balls for relaxation on the lawn of his estate, late into the evening.

When the interview was over, the two detectives escorted Simpson to the Latent Print Unit in the building, where his fingerprints were taken. Following this they arranged for a photograph of his wound to be recorded and then guided Simpson to the medical dispensary in the jail that was located in the Parker building.

There, a sample of Simpson's blood was drawn by a male nurse, Thano Peratis, and stored in a vial containing EDTA, an acronym for Trisodium Ethylenediaminetetraacetate Trihydrate, an amino acid preservative that is used to protect blood, among other substances, from rapid deterioration, or until it can be refrigerated. The vial was labelled and placed in an official LAPD evidence envelope.

Much would be made later of the amount of blood drawn from Simpson's arm that afternoon. At a grand jury and preliminary hearing, Peratis claimed he drew and bottled about 8 cc's. Because the LAPD/SID could only account for 6.5 cc's, it was to be claimed by Simpson's defense team that the difference, about one quarter of a teaspoon, had been used to plant evidence incriminating him in the two murders. In fact, Peratis never really knew just how much blood he had taken from Simpson. It was not officially recorded that day and his statement regarding 8cc's was simply a best estimate on his part, based largely on the amounts he had generally taken in previous samplings.

The presence of EDTA in blood samples taken from the crime scene would also become a major and contentious issue between the defense and prosecuting teams in the murder trial that would evolve out of the police investigation.

The detectives returned to their office about 3:30 p.m. and Simpson left the building accompanied by his two lawyers. The officers reported to Captain Gartland, the officer in charge of the Robbery/Homicide Division. They were, by now, convinced that O.J. Simpson had killed his wife and Ronald Goldman.

While talking with their captain, they learned that a Chicago police detective had gone to the O'Hare Plaza Hotel and examined Room 915, which Simpson had occupied the night before. He had found a broken glass in the bathroom sink. Simpson had previously claimed to have cut his hand before leaving home for Chicago and then re-opened the wound when he cut it on the glass.

Lange and Vannatter left the Parker Center in their separate cars and headed back to Brentwood. Dennis Fung, the LAPD criminalist had shut down the South Bundy crime scene at 3:45 p.m. and returned to the Rockingham estate. It had now become apparent to Vannatter that the bloodstains and their analysis were crucial to the case and he needed to get the blood sample into the chain of evidence.

What he did next would come to haunt him in the months ahead, and his action would result in massive criticism of his work ethic and his involvement in a grand conspiracy to frame O.J. Simpson for the double murders by using blood from the vial to contaminate the crime scenes. In fact, his actions were based on the necessity to follow correct procedures and get the blood sample into the evidence chain as quickly as possible.

Within the LAPD a system is used to catalogue for record-keeping purposes, based on what is known as DR or Division of Records Number. The lead detective in an investigation gives details of his case to the Division in which the crime occurs. The detective is then allocated a DR number under which all record keeping is catalogued. At all times, reports circulating within an investigation must carry a DR number and nothing can be booked as evidence at the LAPD Property Division unless it is accompanied by the appropriate DR number. The Brown/Goldman murder inquiry would be allocated two numbers, one for each victim, although the investigation would be carried out using DR number 94-0817431, the one allocated to Nicole.

Dennis Fung, the criminalist, was responsible for the cataloguing, collection, and sequencing of evidence at both crime scenes. He had, in fact, booked the very first evidence that morning before 8:00 a.m., on the Ford Bronco. Before the blood taken from Simpson could be sent for analysis, it had to be catalogued by Dennis Fung.

Vannatter drove out back to Simpson's home, arriving at 5:16 p.m. The two criminalists had by this time finished their work and collected all their samples at Rockingham Avenue and where preparing to leave.

Detective Vannatter handed the evidence envelope containing the vial of blood to Dennis Fung. It was in an 8 1/2 by 11-inch grey, blood collection envelope. Fung checked the contents and then wrote on the outside of the envelope,"Received from Vannatter on 6-13-94 at 17:20 hours." He passed it over to his assistant, Mazzola, to put inside the LAPD's crime scene truck. At that point, in accordance with state law, standard operating procedures and LAPD regulations, the chain of custody transferring the blood as evidence from Detective Phil Vannatter over to criminalist Dennis Fung was completed, by the book.

This was done in full view of reporters and the media film crews gathered around the Rockingham estate, who recorded on video tape the detective walking into the estate carrying the grey envelope, its actual transfer to Fung, and then Mazzola carrying it in a black evidence bag into the truck.

Simpson's lawyers would make a big deal of this simple procedural action.

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