Six degrees of OJ Simpson

I'm waiting for the day when a young intern walks into my office and asks me about my career, and after I tell him or her about a pivotal story I covered for three years, that intern will say, "Excuse me, who is O.J.?"

Twenty years ago, it seemed everyone knew who O.J. Simpson was, especially in Los Angeles. Late the evening of June 12, 1994, a gruesome crime would soon make him known to anyone who still might ask, "Who is O.J.?"

I covered the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman from the beginning. The morning of Monday, June 13, 1994, as word of the murders broke, I was sent to cover the crime scene on Bundy Drive for the local Fox station. The amount of blood on the sidewalk was stunning. Four days later, on Friday, June 17th, I was working the night shift. Camerawoman Patti Ballaz and I were sent to find O.J.'s girlfriend, Paula Barbieri, when we heard on the scanner that Simpson had gone missing. Patti and I were told to head to the cemetery in Orange County where Nicole had just been buried, as authorities thought Simpson might be there contemplating suicide.

Then we heard on the scanners that police had spotted a white Bronco. Simpson's old friend from USC, Al Cowlings, was driving, and O.J. was slumped down in the back seat. Patti and I pulled over and switched seats so I could drive and she could shoot. We drove toward the location of the Bronco, then turned around and got behind the legion of police cars following it. It was perhaps the most surreal thing I've ever seen in Los Angeles: Driving up the emergency lane on the left side of the northbound 405 freeway, Patti and her camera hanging out the side, O.J.'s Bronco a quarter mile ahead, and people sitting on the freeway median during rush hour traffic watching the show go by. One banner hung from an overpass saying, "Run, OJ, run."

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You know the story from there. It was a story so big that local newscasts could lead with it every night. Don't know what to lead with on a slow news day? Lead with O.J.

O.J. Simpson tries on a leather glove allegedly used in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman during testimony in Simpson's murder trial on June 15, 1995 in Los Angeles.
Lee Celano | WireImage | Getty Images
O.J. Simpson tries on a leather glove allegedly used in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman during testimony in Simpson's murder trial on June 15, 1995 in Los Angeles.

The media circus made a lot of people a lot of money. At times, many seemed to forget that at the center of it were two people who'd been cut down, two children who'd lost their mother, a father who'd lost a son, and a man who's very freedom was on the line.

Of all the crazy witnesses (Kato Kaelin), the unbelievable developments (a slew of photos showing Simpson wearing Bruno Magli shoes), and heart stopping moments (Simpson trying on the killer's glove), perhaps the most amazing thing about the O.J. Simpson case is that everyone in Los Angeles had a connection to it. It was "six degrees of O.J." We all knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody connected to the investigation.

Here's my connection. It's the sort of typical connection you might hear from a neighbor or co-worker that summer.

In the weeks after the murders, reporters in Los Angeles were tasked every day with finding a story related to the Simpson case. Every new player who emerged was hounded by camera crews. Yes, even before social media and TMZ, it was possible to know everything all the time when it came to this saga. One day in August, two months after the murders, my husband took our dog to the veterinarian. I decided to pop in. As I walked into the vet's office, I overheard my husband and the vet discuss "Wayne," and how "Wayne" had flown Simpson to Chicago the night of the murders.

"Wayne" was Wayne Stanfield, a neighbor of the veterinarian and a Navy buddy of my husband's. Stanfield was the American Airlines captain who did indeed fly Simpson to Chicago the night of June 12th. I learned from my husband and the vet that once Stanfield found out there was a celebrity on board that night, he went back to first class during the flight to say hello. Stanfield shook Simpson's hand and asked him to sign his pilot logbook for June 12, 1994. Simpson did, signing, "Peace to You." Most importantly, Stanfield could not recall seeing any cut on O.J.'s finger, a crucial point for the defense, as Simpson claimed he cut the finger in his Chicago hotel room after learning of the murders. Prosecutors believed he cut it committing the crimes. Stanfield went on to testify in both trials.

(The autographed log book, above, of American Airlines Capt. Wayne Stanfield, who flew OJ Simpson to Chicago the night of the murders. Photo credit: Jane Wells.)

But that moment in August 1994, no one in the media knew this story. My husband had been sitting on it for weeks.

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Inside the veterinarian's office, steam started pouring from my ears. I tried to keep my cool. I said, calmly, "Do you know what I do for a living? Do you know what helps pay the bills? Stories. Specifically, O.J. Simpson stories." My husband gave me a level look and replied, "If you keep talking to me like that I won't call Wayne for you." He made me promise to be cordial to his friend, and I was. Wayne provided me with a copy of his logbook showing O.J.'s signature, told me his experience, and I broke the story.

Other stories would follow over the next three years, but this one was the closest I got to six degrees of O.J.

Well, the closest I know of. There may be other connections, but my husband won't tell me.

—By CNBC's Jane Wells