Fall of an all-American hero: Millions of viewers watched as the net closed in on O J Simpson - a real Hollywood climax to a real-life murder

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IT WAS a farce, a comedy, a thriller, a horror movie. It was also real, and as it played out live on millions of television screens, we all watched in stunned disbelief. It was as gripping an evening's viewing as anyone could remember. And it was the denouement of a week of awful, sickening tragedy.

To some extent, we had been softened up for it. Almost from the start, when the bodies of O J Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and a friend, Ronald Goldman, 25, were discovered in the early hours of Monday outside Mrs Simpson's home, it was clear that O J himself was a prime suspect. As the days passed, police leaks reinforced the impression. His blood-type, we learnt, matched samples found at the murder scene. And there was a history of marital abuse.

Still America could not quite grasp it. Such is the fame of Simpson in this country that just his initials - O J - suffice to identify him. Even more familiar is his nickname, 'The Juice'. Orange juice, yes, but also the juice that fuelled his quicksilver speed as American football half-back for the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills two decades ago.

From the football field sprang his second career as film producer, actor - most recently in the Naked Gun comedy series - and frontman for the Hertz rental car company. And yet another, as full-blown American hero and black role model.

No country in the world builds pedestals for its heroes, especially its sporting heroes, as high and as gilded as this one does. Then, one by one, they fall off. 'Magic' Johnson revealed that he had the Aids virus; Mike Tyson was jailed for raping a beauty queen; Michael Jackson was accused of child molestation; and now this. It only adds to the sadness that these figures happen also to be black role models - in this country, the ones needed most.

Yet the announcement on Friday morning was still shocking: O J was charged with double murder. Bail was ruled out. The charge sheet referred to 'special circumstances', implying that the death penalty would be considered. O J Simpson, a legend, considered a personal friend by so many millions, may be led to the gas chamber. Even harder for fans to contemplate: if he is indeed found guilty and execution is to be his fate, it will be because he did what the police say he did - sliced open the throat of the mother of his children and stabbed Mr Goldman until he too died. Too much to believe.

After the announcement came the mad part of Friday. First, the press conference called to confirm Simpson's arrest for two hours, was delayed; then, the LA police confessed: they had lost their man. The gasps of the journalists were audible as we watched on television. O J was a fugitive and the police had no idea of his whereabouts. The cliche for what ensued was that it went beyond what any Hollywood scriptwriter would dare to concoct. But every commentator had to say it. After all, O J was a movie man and the setting was LA.

From here on, there was no leaving your television set. CNN, the all-news global network, moved first, simply to wipe everything else off its schedule. This was the story. Live calls came in from distraught viewers around America, but also from Brussels and Berlin. Later all the main networks followed suit.

NBC faced the worst dilemma, with rights to a crucial basketball final between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. Eventually, the producers shrank coverage of the game to the top left corner of the picture, filling the rest with the live drama from LA.

America came almost to a halt. People watched and listened in bars, in their homes, in airports. At Seattle airport, passengers missed their planes, unable and unwilling to tear themselves away from the screens in the terminal.

The question on everyone's lips was: will O J commit suicide? For an hour, we watched aerial shots from cameras on helicopters of a near riot of onlookers and desperate media crews outside the Brentwood home of Mrs Simpson. Word had somehow spread that O J was inside, and that maybe he was dead. In the raw coverage that streamed on to our screens, the frenzy of the journalists added to the drama. 'You're standing on my cord,' a voice shouts. 'Who is the anchor?' 'That telephone conversation - let's not do that one now.'

O J was not there, but still we wondered about suicide. Our fears seemed justified when his friend Robert Kardashian appeared before the cameras to read out a letter written by the suspect just before taking flight. 'I can't go on,' it said. 'No matter what the outcome, people will look and point.'

It was a rambling, desperate epistle that sounded so much like a final farewell. In it, Simpson said he had 'nothing to do with Nicole's murder'. And pleading with the reporters themselves, it ended: 'Please, please, please leave my children in peace. Their lives will be tough enough.'

From there to the road movie. It's 6pm on the Pacific and 9pm here on the East Coast: prime time in America. The police have tracked down a white Ford Bronco jeep that is travelling the interstate freeway just south of LA, with O J inside. The driver is his old friend, himself a football star, Al Cowlings. O J, we learn, is sitting in the back, holding a gun to his own head. The television helicopters are quick to pinpoint the vehicle, and there before us is a scene as memorable as any television broadcast is ever likely to deliver.

There is the Bronco, its shadow lengthening in the evening sun, travelling at about 45mph, north up Interstate 405. Hanging back is the phalanx of black-and-white police cars.

You see the image and you cannot resist evoking all those chase films. Vanishing Point comes to mind. But this is a slow-motion version. And again you remind yourself: this is really happening.

The black humour is provided by the stumbling delivery of commentators who feel they must talk over this scene. The chase lasts two hours, so they quickly run out of original thoughts. Barbara Walters, that icon of ABC News, is reduced to mindless blathering. Her colleague, Peter Jennings, remarks simply: 'This is excruciatingly sad.'

The farce is the reaction of the public. The southbound lane is jammed with parked vehicles and people shouting and waving as the strange cavalcade passes by. Angelenos have crammed on to the overpasses, too, some waving placards of encouragement to the fugitive. 'Go Juice, Go]' 'Save the Juice]'

Finally the Bronco takes an exit and the destination becomes clear. O J is going to his mock-Tudor home in Brentwood. Still the helicopters hover close. The car draws into the brick drive and stops. Again we gasp. We see marksmen surrounding the property, heavy guns drawn.

A crowd of several hundred gathers in the street. As darkness falls and our view of the scene fades, the final stand-off continues. Cowlings emerges, but there is no sign of O J. Finally, under the shroud of darkness, he comes out, not carrying a gun, but clasping a framed family photograph. Inside his home, after telephoning his mother and drinking some juice, O J Simpson surrenders.

Now it is Saturday. The image on CNN is of the huge frame of O J swaying from side to side outside a police station in the early hours, handcuffed and on his way to custody. His police mugshot is broadcast, too. So is that of Cowlings, who is charged with abetting O J's flight, though he has been released on dollars 250,000 bail.

Now for the rest. Tomorrow, O J will formally be charged. Only much later will come the trial, and until then he is presumed innocent. Meanwhile, there is the fate to consider of the saddest figures of all in the whole sad tale: the children of O J and Nicole, nine-year-old daughter Sydney and six-year-old son Justin.

(Photographs omitted)