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If It Speeds, It Leads
Since local news aired the first live police pursuit in 1992, car chases have become a nightly staple—and an international industry
Photograph by Debra Dipaolo
IT WAS A CONSPICUOUS TARGET, the red Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible with the vanity plate KRUL FA8. It was sailing over the Grapevine at up to 75 miles an hour, trailed by a caravan of California Highway Patrol black and whites. About 400 feet in the air above Interstate 5 followed Bob Tur at the controls of his Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. The pilot’s wife, Marika, sat behind him, focusing the chopper’s camera on the car. Tur, a reporter for KCOP Channel 13, radioed over his headset to the assignment desk: He had live feed. Did the station want to cut to it?
A rerun of Matlock, the folksy drama starring Andy Griffith, was about to begin at 2 p.m. But there was reason to interrupt it with the breaking news: The driver of the Cabriolet was a murderer. Earlier that day—Friday; January 3, 1992—a 22-year-old unemployed electrician from Oregon named Darren Michael Stroh had stopped for gas in Los Banos, where he picked up a hitchhiker. Twelve miles south, Stroh’s 1979 Toyota Corona broke down. He pulled out a plastic emergency sign that read HELP. One person stopped, didn’t help, and drove on. One person stopped, helped, and died.
David Scott Baker was a 26-year-old boat builder from Washington State. Like Stroh, he was traveling to Southern California to visit a brother. Baker tried unsuccessfully to give Stroh's Toyota a jump, removed the cables, and returned to his Nissan. Without explanation, Stroh took a 12-gauge shotgun out of his trunk, walked up to Baker, and shot him twice in the chest. He dragged his body out of the car and looked over to the hitchhiker. Would he like to come along for the ride? The hitchhiker declined. An hour later, near Coalinga, Stroh bumped into the Cabriolet. When the driver got out to check the damage, Stroh got in and drove away.
The Turs worked out of a hangar at Santa Monica Airport, where they monitored scanner frequencies, listening in on the police, the fire department, the coast guard. They were in the air covering a rainstorm when they heard the CHP report that a high-speed pursuit was headed toward L.A. Theirs was the first news helicopter on the scene.
At KCOP in Hollywood, the assignment desk called in executive news director Jeff Wald to look at the feed. Wald had been the well-regarded news director at top-rated KTLA Channel 5 until 1990, when KCOP whisked him away to give its broadcasts some journalistic heft. The station manager, Rick Feldman, said at the time of his hiring, "No station in this market has a news product that they can really be proud of. ... Everyone is spending all this money, and no one is telling me anything but garbage." One of Wald's first moves was to hire the Turs.
Wald, an L.A. native, had never seen anything like the chase footage. No one had. Police had pursued murder suspects before, but not with the eye of a TV news helicopter trained from above. It was a real-time game of cops and robbers, Wald thought, and he needed to move on it. He called the station's general manager, Bill Frank, and shortly after 2 p.m., KCOP broke into Matlock.
Stroh used off-ramps, shoulders, his shotgun, anything he could to shake the CHP. Bob Tur narrated the scene with an even calmness. Midday there was little traffic. The occasional car or truck veered out of the way, but there was an ease with which the fugitive navigated the roads, blasting his gun through the back window. From the 5 Stroh merged onto the 170 and then the 101. He turned off at Melrose, darting down the streets of Hollywood, past City Hall downtown, over sidewalks in East L.A. He got on the southbound 710, then the 405. By that time other stations had picked up the chase. At 2:27 KNBC Channel 4 had gone live from their helicopter; at 2:35 KABC Channel 7 from theirs. KCOP cut back to Matlock. Viewers phoned in, demanding the chase. They got it.
At 2:45 Stroh ran out of gas and coasted to a stop on an off-ramp near Westminster. Eight CHP cars idled behind him; another blocked the exit. "We're going to see a drama unfold here," said Tur. Using bullhorns, officers ordered Stroh to drop his weapon. He refused. Until now Tur's narration and the whirring of the helicopter were the chase's sole soundtrack. An officer sprang up on the passenger side and shot several rounds into the car. Bang, bang, bang, bang—it was muffled, but there. Out the driver's window, a quick puff of smoke. The suspect was dead.
THE NEXT MORNING, the ratings came in. Stroh beat Matlock. The Los Angeles Times ran the chase on its front page, calling the event "a marriage of technology and tragedy." The police pursuit had found its television audience. Over the next decade the car chase—high speed, low speed, or, when a tire has flattened and the fugitive is running on sparks and stupidity, virtually no speed—would become another peculiar symbol of the city, an "Only in L.A." ha-ha, like surfing Santas and transvestite Tupperware salesmen. With the slow-speed chase of O.J. Simpson in 1994, the pursuit would become an international phenomenon. With plotline references in TV programs as disparate as The Larry Sanders Show and Seventh Heaven, it would become part of L.A.'s vernacular. With Fox specials such as World's Scariest Police Chases and best-selling video games like Grand Theft Auto and Need for Speed, it would become an industry.
Every news station in town invested in its own $1 million helicopter to monitor the skies. They outfitted them with costly gyro-stabilized cameras and digitally encrypted police radios and 50-million-watt Night Suns to illuminate the evenings. Pilots, who were on call 24 hours a day, competed for exclusive footage by throwing each other off course with misinformation such as "I heard he's going to Malibu," when they knew the driver was headed for Orange County. Of the 5,000 to 6,000 police pursuits that take place in California each year, half last less than two minutes; fewer than 100 stretch to more than an hour. No matter the length, if a pilot was savvy enough to get there in time, the station was guaranteed a jump in ratings.
On a simple level, L.A.'s obsession with car chases results from a confluence of factors: the LAPD's aggressive pursuit policy (which is under review by the police commission), the city's horizontality, an abundance of freeways, advances in camera technology, and a competitive TV news market that encourages imitation rather than innovation. Take away just one of those factors, perhaps, and there might not be a car chase filling the screen every time you flick on the remote.
In the past ten years, I have watched a tank trample a pickup and rip the belly out of an RV on a residential street. I have watched a guy pull over halfway through his chase and receive a drink from bystanders as if he had just completed mile 13 of a marathon. I have seen a woman who survived Auschwitz but not Encino when she crossed the path of a carjacker. I have watched a stolen bus back into someone's kitchen on the Westside. I have seen one cocky fellow lead a string of police cars through the parking lot of Capitol Records, and another perform slow doughnuts in an intersection as three squad cars followed like Shriners in a parade. I have watched an unarmed man, visiting from South Korea and driving erratically while high on coke, shot to death by officers who had to duck for cover from their own cross fire. I have seen teenagers give the finger to pilots through their sunroofs or strut and giggle as they engaged in the now-familiar rites of surrender—hands where we can see them, on the pavement spread-eagle—their baggy pants drooping about their knees.
Bob and Marika Tur no longer cover chases. After 230 televised pursuits, they stopped a year and a half ago. They kept the copyright to all of their film, and spend their days licensing footage from some of their 10,000 hours of tape and battling over copyright infringement.
"I knew the streets," Bob Tur tells me over a cup of coffee. "I had a great bond with this city." He is serious and intense, in wire-rimmed glasses and a short leather jacket. He's not macho; news helicopter pilots strike me as more science teacher than Chuck Yeager. Tur is an outspoken critic of how police handle car chases—he thinks most are unnecessary—and he is distressed by the networks' slavish devotion to them, but he makes a living off those tapes. "It was great for ratings," he says of pursuits, "but what I didn't see was that it would be the death of local news."
STEVE MCQUEEN tears up the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. Gene Hackman weaves under the el in The French Connection. Robert De Niro pummels Paris in Ronin. An exhilarating car chase can be the cornerstone of a movie, the most popular playback at a film retrospective. A televised police pursuit through this city is nothing like it is in the movies. Few since Stroh's have been as dramatic. Real getaway cars rarely hold murder suspects popping off a shotgun.
In the movies, we usually experience a chase from the nauseating viewpoint of the pursuer or his quarry. We, like they, bounce over speed bumps and dips in the road, swerve around stopped cars, absorb the hard asphalt. Our ears are assaulted with the screeching of tires, the crashing of trash cans, the exaggerated vrooms of a revving engine. An extended cinematic car chase lasts at most eight or nine minutes, and we know that, at its end, the actors will survive, improbably unscathed. There is no surrender, only escape.
Televised police pursuits tap into different emotions. Watching through the lens of a camera high in the air, we can't see the driver. We don't know what led him to this point in his life. We don't have a feel for his car. We can't hear its hiccups, its burps. It maneuvers through the streets like a silent Hot Wheel on a plastic racetrack, occasionally smashing into someone or something. We see the fire but don't feel the heat. A pilot or reporter or combination thereof narrates the picture for us. We want Steve McQueen's machismo; we get Paul Moyer's histrionics. If the newscaster begins to annoy us, we can turn down the sound and provide our own chatter. It can go on for much longer than eight or nine minutes, but thanks to those stabilized cameras, it is a smooth ride, nothing that will interfere with dinner.
We look down on the car from a vantage that only God is customarily privy to. Whether we're in our living room or in front of a bank of flat screens at Circuit City, we, too, can stand in judgment of the accused (though of what he is accused we rarely know). Like God, we have a broad view of the picture and can see what lies ahead—Oh no, a cul-de-sac!—before the driver can. Although we are all-seeing, unlike God we can offer no help to those on whom the driver is about to inflict harm. The mother of three in the black van approaches a downtown intersection. We know, with a sickening sense of powerlessness, that the hijacked bus is speeding toward that same intersection. Stop! Please, pull over! we yell at the van. She doesn't see the bus, just as we feared, and then there is the crash, the noiseless, ghastly crash, that drags her van down the entire block into a UPS truck and across a parking lot full of cars. It took only seconds, but we knew before she did. She is dead.
Ask pursuit enthusiasts what compels them to watch and invariably you hear the cliche "This is the real reality TV—you never know how it's going to end." That is only partly true. While there is a lot we don't know—will that cop spin out and slam into the wall? will that pedestrian step off the sidewalk for the last time?—we do know that, with a helicopter overhead, the fugitive will be caught. But how will the drama unfold?
Four years ago Ken Kuwahara, a police officer in the San Gabriel Valley, started PursuitWatch.com, a message service that alerts subscribers via phone, pager, or Internet when a live pursuit is on TV. Two thousand subscribers pay $5 a month for the privilege. "Nobody knew when one was happening unless a friend or relative called," says Kuwahara, sitting on his flowered couch in San Dimas, a nativity scene on either end table. "Unlike other cop shows, you didn't know when these were going to be on." An exceptionally quiet man, Kuwahara says he and his wife enjoy watching chases together—PursuitWatch registers three or four a month.
To report a chase, members call an 800 number. (The first three callers get free-membership rewards.) Volunteer verifiers are notified; once they determine that a chase is on TV, they trigger a server that sends a recorded message to all subscribers. That list includes Dean Spaul, a cardiac monitor technician who says he has had patients scheduled for open-heart surgery ask for a delay so that they can watch a chase. "In the hospital, it's `code blue' for cardiac arrest," says Spaul, "and `code pursuit' when one comes on TV." Wayne Coombs is another subscriber. Four years ago the self-employed Web master bought seven black-and-white TVs so that he would never again miss a pursuit. The picture tubes have blown on all but two. "Now I have TiVo set on Channel 9," says Coombs. "They're more likely to broadcast the pursuits. It's always recording. Believe me, it's much better than VCRs."
A televised police pursuit can connect us to the city. We recognize that corner, that overpass, that pedestrian bridge. We know someone who works in that area of town or who takes that route. On the other hand, L.A. is so big that a chase over multiple highways might be the only opportunity for us to see this unmanageable city as a whole. It can bring neighborhoods together. If we are desperate for anything, it is to feel close to each other, to have common experiences. The chases give us something to talk about the next day at work, or over the phone with Mom.
Listen to the story that Victoria Redstall, an actress, spokesmodel for GroBust ("a natural breast enhancer," she says), and PursuitWatch subscriber told me: "I was in Studio City, having a nice sit-down dinner. There were people quietly sitting in the bar, probably on their first dates. Then I get a cell phone call. On KCAL9Los Angeles, there is a pursuit. I say I have to go to the bar. I tell everybody there's a chase on right now, could we possibly put on Channel 9? Everybody in the restaurant gets up from their seats, glued to the screen. Nobody complained. I'm from Surrey, just south of London. Showing someone from out of town a car chase is like showing them the footprints in the pavement at the Chinese Theater."
I WAS CHASED ONCE. Not by the police, and not on TV, but by some deranged man in a white sedan on a summer day. About eight years ago, my boyfriend (now my husband) and I were traveling north on the 710 when I noticed in my rearview mirror a car too close to my bumper. I changed lanes. So did he. I changed again. So did he. His visor masked the top half of his face; below, all I could see was his smile, a row of gold teeth—was this some bad James Bond film?—shimmering in the sun. I had done nothing to provoke him; this was obviously how he got off on his Sunday afternoons. I laid on the gas of my pickup, crossing onto interchanges at the last moment, doing anything I could to get rid of him. It was terrifying, the most terrifying thing I'd ever experienced, but at the same time it was a thrill ride. Los Angeles was pure insanity to me that afternoon—the vastness, the recklessness. The freeways opened up for me as they never had before.
The chase lasted about 45 minutes. I exited in Studio City and headed down Ventura Boulevard, a place with which I was familiar—a common m.o., I would much later learn, of fugitives leading pursuits. He stuck with us. We yelled to fellow drivers to call 911. I pulled up to a Hamburger Hamlet and ran inside, past the Sunday brunchers, to the kitchen, where the unruffled staff hid us. The guy had stopped, too, and was dangling from the metal bars of a construction site across the street as if it were a jungle gym. When the police finally arrived, they told us they could do nothing but detain our tormentor while we drove home. He hadn't broken the law, they said. They didn't catch him speeding.
To watch somebody lead the police on a pursuit is both comical and painful. A CHP study asked inmates who had been arrested for evading the police why they fled. They said they panicked. They said they had incriminating evidence in their cars. They also said that as soon as they heard a helicopter overhead, they knew it was over. We know that the driver will not become a celebrity from this, if that's what he's after, because TV news is dazzled by the spectacle, not the follow-up. Unless something truly bad happens during the chase, no mention of it will be in tomorrow's paper. There's no interest in the drama once it's over. We know that whatever set the chase in motion—he failed to yield, he stole the car, his tags are expired—his life is only getting worse with each ticking minute of this chase. Just by evading arrest he could be charged with a felony possibly his third strike, earning a 25-to-life sentence. The stakes are higher now. We also know that, on some level, he's getting high off this experience.
In 2001, police recorded 781 pursuits in Los Angeles—more than any other city in the United States. Of those, 36 percent ended in collision and 139 people were injured. Each law enforcement agency has its own pursuit policy. If I were to lead police from North Hollywood to West Hollywood coming over the 101, I would encounter the LAPD first, the CHP on the freeway, and the sheriff's department in West Hollywood, and each of them would chase me differently.
A two-and-a-half-week-old baby lost his left arm in November when his parents' car was hit by an attempted-murder suspect. The chase that preceded it lasted two minutes, not enough time for it to be televised. After the public outcry, police chief William J. Bratton defended his officers and blamed the culture. "In this town, you're fascinated with these chases," he said. "It's entertainment." However, the department is refining its pursuit policy to be more like that of the sheriff's, which relies heavily on air support. The chief has also spoken with TV news executives, encouraging them to curtail their coverage. He'd probably have better luck asking Starbucks to stop selling coffee.
I AM FIDDLING AROUND WITH the gyro-cam on the Channel 2 news helicopter at Van Nuys Airport. The chopper hasn't launched yet this afternoon, so the airborne reporter, Aaron Fitzgerald, is letting me play. The camera reminds me of an Etch-a-Sketch. As I shift its direction with one knob, I must move another to keep it stable and yet another to get it focused. Otherwise the camera, which is mounted underneath the front of the helicopter, would just continue to search for something to focus on. It is a mighty lens: Through it I can read the logo on the baseball cap of a Cessna pilot at the other end of the runway.
The maiden voyage of the word's first news helicopter, a "telecopter" owned by KTLA, was on July 4, 1958. From the air the station covered (on taped delay) the 1961 Bel-Air fires, the 1963 Baldwin Hills dam disaster, and the 1965 Watts riots. Twenty-seven years after that upheaval and three months after providing the first live coverage of a police pursuit, Bob Tur would hover over Florence and Normandie during the 1992 riots, the only pilot to document the beating of Reginald Denny, and ask, "Where are the police?"
At any given time there could be a dozen news helicopters in the sky above Los Angeles. They are an integral part of the city. Look out the window of any high-rise, any time of the day, and you'll likely spot one. All of L.A.'s major news stations own or lease a helicopter. Fox has two. The LAPD's air support division has 18 helicopters, three of which fly all day: one over the San Fernando Valley, one that covers an area from the Marina to the Hollywood Hills, and one over South-Central. The sheriff's department has 12 helicopters in its fleet; the CHP has one.
Fitzgerald has just begun his 3:30 to 11:30 p.m. shift for Channel 2. He is tall and youthful, well dressed in a sky blue shirt and black slacks. He served as a paratrooper in the army and began working at the Santa Monica Airport, pumping gas for Bob Tur, in 1994. He starts his shift by monitoring the scanners; as soon as he hears a tip, he launches, and is airborne for the remainder of the day, browsing the skies for structure fires and, when the sun sets, the flashing lights that denote police activity. Fitzgerald tracks an average of three pursuits a day, but since most last only a few minutes, he usually arrives too late. In fact, it has been about two weeks since he's covered a live chase.
In his off-hours Fitzgerald freelances as a pilot for KFWB News Radio, or goes on ride-alongs with police to learn about procedure, or brushes up on his Thomas Guide. "Chases are less of a mystery now to the public," he says. "Viewers are sophisticated. They have gone from `Why don't they just shoot that guy?' to `Why don't they use a spike strip?'" He gets a call from the KCBS assignment desk. There is a body on the 605 freeway. They'd like footage for tonight's broadcast.
Later that evening, during my dinner, Fitzgerald calls me on his cell phone. The drought is over. "We had launched on that dead body shot, which ended up going live, and then we got a chase," he says. "We picked it up in Placentia, and it ended in Brea. Channel 7 was also there. It was armed robbery suspects, with a baby on board, going up to 95 miles an hour. They got cornered, and the police pointed their guns at them. They gave up like little lambs."
FOR A MOMENT IN 1998 IT looked as though the televised pursuit might disappear. One spring day a man parked his truck on the interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways and began to wave a gun and lob Molotov cocktails at passing cars. He unrolled a banner that read HMOS ARE IN IT FOR THE MONEY. LIVE FREE, LOVE SAFE OR DIE. Then he set his truck on fire, with his retriever mix inside. After tearing off his burning pants, he took a rifle out of the pickup bed and shot himself in the head. Seven news helicopters hovered above, showing the whole thing live. Several of them had tight shots.
After that there was hand-wringing. It was a "wake-up call," news directors said. "We won't go in so tight anymore," they reassured people. "We'll institute a seven-second delay." This wasn't a pursuit, it was a standoff. But it became a sign of a station's seriousness when a general manager would declare "No more car chases," as Paula Madison did at KNBC in 2001. Everyone agreed to stick to medium shots. No one, however, stopped airing chases, KNBC included, and no one instituted a delay. A year and a half later, in November 1999, a pursuit ended when police shot the suspect to death. KNBC, KTLA, and KTTV showed it live.
"Very often a pursuit is a legitimate news event," says Hal Fishman, the long-time anchor at KTLA. "Thousands of people are affected by it, imperiled by it, sometimes tens of thousands are delayed by it. I was not about to apologize for the fellow in the pickup truck who killed himself live on TV. That is the world in which we live. Our job is to bring you what happened."
For Jeff Wald, who is back as news director at KTLA, car chases peaked the day that man committed suicide. "We were hardened by it," he says. We are sitting in his office, where he is once again monitoring feed from a news helicopter. The latest offering is the aftermath of a crash near Lawndale, where three sheriff's cruisers collided with two vans as they joined the pursuit of a suspected carjacker. Rescue workers are extracting a badly injured deputy from his car—no longer a car, really, but a wad of mangled metal. "I've never seen an officer's car look so bad," says Wald. "Even now, after so many chases, there's always something different." A news editor pops in to comment—"Are you seeing this? This is really bad"—then the station's general manager says hello and is momentarily transfixed. On air at KTLA is an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. There was a time when the station would have cut in with the accident, says Wald, "when it was a novelty, yes. But now we ask ourselves, `How many people is this story affecting?' The chase is over, this isn't holding up traffic on a freeway."
These are human stories devoid of their humanity. In the papers over the next week, we would learn more about the man who killed himself. The story involved AIDS—he was HIV positive. It involved the breakdown of the country's health care system—it had failed him. But we didn't know that while we watched. Daniel Jones was newsworthy, in those last moments of his life, simply because he was holding up traffic.
There are limitations—painful limitations—to the form. Because of the immediacy with which the drama is unfolding, we learn little of the reasons behind a pursuit. Instead, what are possibly the last few minutes of a person's life, or at least of his or her freedom, are documented with filler.
ON ONE OF THOSE JUST-AFTER-A-STORM days, when the city is particularly bright and crisp, I fly out of Van Nuys in KTLA's Morning News helicopter with reporter Jennifer York and cameraman Steve Howell. We are scanning the Valley for traffic tie-ups. The pilot, Desiree Horton, swoops down the 405 and then over to the 134 and the 5. Canyons rip through mountains, freeways through neighborhoods, but homes and cars are mere rectangles and squares on a grid. Above the ridgeline but beneath the clouds, the helicopter straddles the real and the unreal, which is sort of like living in L.A.
On the headset, somewhere over Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills, York gets a tip: The police are in the midst of a sting operation. A six-foot-four cop is dressed as Santa Claus. He is strolling back and forth along a crosswalk in front of Sherman Oaks's Fashion Square to see if drivers stop; motorcycle cops wait around a corner.
It is our job to find Santa. Flying at 106 miles an hour, we get there in about four seconds. Even in a red velvet suit, white beard, and floppy hat, the cop isn't easy to spot: He looks dinky from 500 feet. KTLA asks us to hover until someone is pulled over. It doesn't take long. Santa steps off the curb and a dark SUV barrels right through the crosswalk. In an instant a motorcycle cop is behind the car, lights flashing. The SUV continues down the block. This is it! I think. At the corner, the car turns right, slows down, and pulls into a parking lot to get a ticket. In a way, I'm disappointed. Even after all I've seen, part of me wishes he had kept going. It wouldn't have made for great news, but it would have made for great TV.