Four weeks after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, a tabloid news producer made a discovery that stunned the world and turned a family name into a billion-dollar brand. Twenty-five years later, Burt Kearns tells the story of his greatest hit and its impact on 21st century pop culture.

[EXCLUSIVE TO PLEASEKILLME.COM]

From 1989 through the mid-1990s, I was a player in what became known as “tabloid television.” Working with the genre’s creator, Peter Brennan, I ran shows like A Current Affair and Hard Copy, covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed Jerry Lewis through one of his telethons and presented Rob Lowe’s sex tape to a national audience.  The story that got me the most attention was one I came up with in 1994.  It was a discovery that could have led to a different outcome in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, but merely wound up giving household recognition to a name that a dozen years later would become a brand and symbol of the demise of pop culture: the case of Robert Kardashian and O.J. Simpson’s Louis Vuitton garment bag.

 It all went down while I was helping Brennan launch and run a nightly tabloid series called Premier Story, a low-budget, scrappy operation being tested in a limited number of markets around the country. The idea was to go up against ABC’s Nightline, with a similar format — and tabloid twist. Like Nightline, Premier Story would feature two-way interviews with our host, along with one or two taped packages, but while Ted Koppel covered topics like Sarajevo or Rwanda, Premier Story would focus on Madonna or Madame Heidi. Instead of a pompous “anchorman” with a passing resemblance to Alfred E. Neumann, our host was a young import from London. Alison Holloway, a beautiful, brainy blonde television star, would be the first woman to take on the late night boys since Joan Rivers and—a decade before Simon Cowell’s television invasion—the rare U.S. television star with a British accent. 

 Premier Story premiered on Monday, June 6, 1994.  We’d been on the air for five nights and were preparing for a second week of shows when, on the evening of Sunday, June 12, two people were murdered quite savagely in the courtyard of 875 Bundy Drive, in a quiet, upscale Los Angeles neighborhood called Brentwood.  What follows is the story of the events that began in June twenty-five years ago, and how I wound up making “Kardashian” a household name; adapted from my book, Tabloid Baby, which was published twenty years ago:

WE GOT WORD from KCOP’s newsroom wire in the late morning. “An ex-wife of football star O.J. Simpson and an unidentified man were found murdered outside her condominium in Brentwood.”

Anita handed me the wire copy. “Hmmm,” I said. “I wonder if he beat her to death.”

Everyone in tabloid television knew that O.J. Simpson had been arrested for wife abuse some years back, but early word had it he was in Chicago at the time of the killings. We kept an eye on the story and carried on preparing our episode about Pearl Jam’s fight with Ticketmaster.

By late Monday afternoon, things had changed considerably. After Simpson returned home from Chicago, a KCOP cameraman stood atop his truck and shot over the wall of Simpson’s mansion, recording tremendous, exclusive video of the star in handcuffs. Either the cops had fucked up in a big way or O.J. Simpson was a suspect in a bigger way.

The studio crew had wrapped for the day, so we tore apart the show in the edit room, brought Alison outside to tape a new open and intros and put together a package on the murder to lead Monday night’s broadcast.

Premier Story was about to become The O.J. Simpson Show.


I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t a story that people were fighting for; it wasn’t in the air – nobody was poring over old videotape looking for clues. This Kardashian bag story came out of Premier Story’s edit room, and if we hadn’t run out of stories to promote, Kardashian would have gotten away with it.


ALISON AND I were on Rockingham Avenue outside Simpson’s mansion the next morning, recording promos and shooting interviews and footage. The exclusive, secluded neighborhood off Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood had overnight become a media encampment.  O.J. Simpson’s home, rather than the scene of the crime, had become the center of the world’s biggest story. Satellite trucks, microwave units, television crews, and reporters from around the world had taken over the neighborhood where Michelle Pfeiffer, the mayor, and many other celebrities lived in seclusion.

For Tuesday’s show we ran extensive footage of the vivid videotaped moments that had flashed by in the past two days: Simpson arriving home and being restrained; detectives taking shoes from Simpson’s house; a friend of Simpson’s houseguest, Kato Kaelin, showing up with the assumption that it was Kato who was killed with Nicole; and another little man taking a garment bag away from Simpson’s gate the morning after the murders.

Our coverage looked different than anyone else’s. We were devoting entire shows to one story and we weren’t cutting up the tape into quick little soundbites. This wasn’t the usual packaged reality; we were letting scenes roll. Premier Story had hit on a trademark style through necessity: the editing process was too slow to do a lot of cutting. We had to let tape run just to get the show on the air.

Soon, we’d be known for using a quick ten-frame burst of light called a “white flash” as a transition between scenes and interview segments. Other shows copied the innovation. We only came up with it because our editors took too long to do dissolves on the unfamiliar equipment.

By Tuesday evening, Simpson hadn’t been charged but it was apparent he was the prime suspect in the murders. The following morning, attorney Dominic Barbara, who the previous year, when Brennan and I were at A Current Affair, arranged our $500,000 interview with Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco, phoned in to Howard Stern’s radio show. “Mr. Simpson – and I won’t call him O.J. anymore because he’s no longer a sports hero but an accused murderer – I think we have to get used to the idea that Mr. Simpson may face the death penalty.”

We booked Dominic for a two-way interview with Alison, as one of the first of the talking-head attorneys who’d take up so much airtime as the Simpson case dragged over the next eighteen months.

Rafael Abramovitz, the irascible, genius storyteller, reporter and pal who’d joined us as producer, was energized by the story. He headed to the Mezzaluna Restaurant where Nicole had eaten her last meal, with an edge over the other journalists who took up just about every other seat. The manager was an actor he’d used in one of his Hard Copy re-enactments.  He promised to give Raf an exclusive interview the following day.

July 1994 Burt Kearns in edit room with editor Jack Foster

Thursday’s show was dedicated to the victims, beginning with Nicole’s funeral, an endless procession of L.A. businessmen and their blonde trophy wives. When O.J. Simpson arrived at the church doors to be escorted inside, our camera crew was in the middle of the media crush on the other side of the iron fence. The cameraman cursed one another as they jockeyed for space, called out to Simpson, and acted altogether unfunereal.

Premier Story was the only show to run the footage with full sound, to show what it was really like being there.

The second section of the show was dedicated to Nicole’s burial.  The cemetery was closed to the media, so we paid a neighbor to let us shoot from his yard, using a long lens to capture the sad scene fifty yards away. The scene played out for six minutes with minimal sound.

The show ended with similar footage of Ron Goldman’s funeral.

It was a risky style, but we found out the next morning that it had paid off. Thursday’s show outrated Nightline, Leno, and Letterman in New York. Premier Story was number one. Premier Story was on the map.

The next night, with O.J. Simpson postponing surrender with his infamous low-speed Bronco chase, even Ted Koppel got on the Simpson bandwagon that his highfalutin show had ignored all week.  Of course, Ted apologized to his audience, explaining that occasionally his program had to diverge from the truly important stories to shine a light on the obsessions of the media in general.

I sat in a tape room watching the Simpson chase play out live on five different cameras on five separate monitors. This simple motorcade said so much about celebrity and race in America. That a black man could become one of America’s greatest sports heroes and most beloved advertising pitchmen, that he could earn millions of dollars, marry a California beach blonde, move into one of the richest, most conservative, and whitest neighborhoods in the country, that he could golf with presidents, believe he had “overcome” his blackness – yet wind up like Stagger Lee racing down the road with the po-lice on his back – was both unimaginable and totally American.

When Simpson’s alleged suicide note was read live on television by his friend Robert Kardashian, I was moved that he’d be enough of a man to take the blame and kill himself.  As the Bronco rolled past cheering fans, I was touched. It was obvious these people were not applauding his crime, but in effect were saying goodbye to a fallen hero and encouraging him not to take his life. By the time Al Cowlings piloted the Bronco back to the Rockingham estate, I was certain O.J. Simpson would be shot dead by police on national television.

I held a thick yellow pad to take screening notes for a special live version of the show. As Simpson was apprehended peacefully, I pried the pad out of my mouth. I’d bitten straight through.

PREMIER STORY had been on the air five weeks when the Simpson pretrial hearing ended on July 8th. Along with all the evidence revealed in the televised proceedings, many of the faces we couldn’t put names to in the hours after the murders were identified and developed into important characters.

None was more intriguing than Robert Kardashian, O.J. Simpson’s close friend and business partner. Kardashian read Simpson’s supposed suicide note the day of the Bronco chase and later reactivated his law license to help in his friend’s defense.

We had video from the morning after the murders showing Kardashian waiting at the mansion gate for Simpson to arrive home from Chicago. When Simpson got out of the car and was led onto his property by police, Kardashian remained planted outside. A woman who’d accompanied Simpson from the airport walked over to Kardashian with a stuffed garment bag. She and Kardashian embraced. She put her head on his shoulder. It looked as though they were crying, but when I blew up the tape, it was obvious he was whispering something. His eyes scanned the scene.

When Simpson was led out to be driven to police headquarters for questioning, Kardashian took the garment bag and scooted away, unnoticed by anyone but another observant KCOP cameraman.

We’d noticed the man with the bag. We just didn’t know who he was at the time.

We promoted a story on the Kardashian tape to run the following Monday, four weeks after the murders. It would be a look back at the mysterious doings outside the mansion and the people we didn’t know then, but knew all too well now. It made for a good promo.

On Monday, July 11th, editor Jack Foster and I squeezed into the tiny airless editing closet and began work on the piece. I had him slow the tape, stop and start it, even zoom in on faces in the crowd as I tried to find a story angle to fit the promo.

“Let it run in slow motion,” I instructed him, sipping coffee as I watched little Kardashian, in his jeans and polo shirt, walk away with the suitcase.

“Can you make it slower?”

“Sure.”

Kardashian and Simpson’s secretary in plain sight

Slower. The police officers were concerned with keeping the cameras away from the car holding Simpson. Attorney Howard Weitzman seemed to make eye contact with Kardashian before calling over to the lead detective and placing an arm over his shoulder. Kardashian and the woman were on the move, walking past cops and detectives. Detective Bert Luper almost bumped into the pair walking out of the driveway.

The big Louis Vuitton garment bag – we could tell by the markings – was too heavy for the little man.  He switched hands, and as he did, I noticed something. “Roll that back.”

“You got it.”

“Real slow.” I leaned toward the screen. My eyes had to be fooling me. Kardashian moved slowly in reverse. The bag changed hands. Three tags flew up from the handle.

“Freeze it!”

Jack did. “Back a little. Thanks.”

Three tags: one said “Hertz”; the others were for American Airlines.

“Fuck me.”

“What is it?”

Fuck me.”

Simpson, the Hertz spokesman, flew American Airlines to and from Chicago. It was O.J. Simpson’s bag; the one he brought back from Chicago; the one police were searching for. They’d never found a murder weapon or bloody clothes – or the Louis Vuitton garment bag.

Robert Kardashian was getting away with O.J. Simpson’s bag – and who knows what else.

Holy shit.

Jack, veteran of many a story, realized what we had. He whistled and smiled. “Wow.”

I got on the phone to Brennan’s office. Raf picked up.

“Is Peter there?”

“He’s on the other line.”

“You guys better come over to the edit room, like now.  I’ve got something really big. A major heavy. A major fucking heavy.”

 

THE PICTURE WAS frozen on the screen: Hertz and American Airlines Premium Class.

“Well, fuck, you’ve solved the case, Burtie.” Brennan lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.

Raf shook his head. “Holy shit. You did it. This is fucking big. I don’t believe this.”

Louis Vuitton bag with tags for American Airlines and Hertz

The only question was the identity of the woman; the one who handed Kardashian the garment bag in the first place. She looked like Cathy Randa, Simpson’s faithful assistant of twenty years; yet she seemed a bit heavier than in the other pictures we’d seen of her.

Stephen Green, a budding filmmaker who was creating our tape library singlehandedly, pulled out a tape of Randa at the pretrial hearing. We still couldn’t tell.

“Push in on the side of her head.”

Jack blew up the courtroom video. She was wearing the same earrings in court that she wore the morning after the murders.

Everything was falling into place. Cathy Randa had come from the airport with Simpson. When Officer Thompson grabbed Simpson and took his shoulder bag, she was able to carry out the garment bag, unmolested.

It looked like we had ourselves a conspiracy.

“Let’s get hold of the cops.” Raf was pumped up. He called the LAPD detectives and Bert Luper was in our office within the hour. Our camera crew videotaped as he and his fellow detectives watched the tape and shook their heads. “That’s the bag we’re looking for, all right.”

It had been four weeks since O.J. Simpson arrived home from Chicago, four long weeks since the day Robert Kardashian took the bag, and five weeks since our show had made its debut.


Simpson, the Hertz spokesman, flew American Airlines to and from Chicago. It was O.J. Simpson’s bag; the one he brought back from Chicago; the one police were searching for. They’d never found a murder weapon or bloody clothes – or the Louis Vuitton garment bag.

Robert Kardashian was getting away with O.J. Simpson’s bag – and who knows what else.


I wrote a piece for Raf to read. He added the section about the detectives and tracked the story before he went off to makeup so he could talk about the discovery with Alison on the set:

Watching the tape in slow motion rang the bell for senior producer Burt Kearns. He called me up to the editing room. He showed me what he had spotted. It all looked strange – too strange to be just anyone’s bag. Strange enough to find out if the cops investigating the case were interested in this piece of video. Bert Luper and his partner were at the O.J.  mansion the morning that Kardashian walked off with the bag. Bert Luper was in Chicago looking for the murder weapon.

What we didn’t know was that he was after this very garment bag. They screened the tape, and it was all too clear what this bag meant to them. That it was the “V” bag they had been looking for. The designer garment bag that left with O.J. for Chicago. A bag they believed contained evidence in the case. A bag that was on the scene in plain view; which turned out to be the perfect place to have it go unnoticed.

“You’ve done it, mate. You’ve made your bones,” Raf said in all seriousness. “I had the Robert Chambers tape and the Amy Fisher tape; now you have this. You’re up there with us now. This was your baptism.”

“So, what do we do next?” I asked. “With the bag story, I mean.”

“We wait,” said Brennan.

“We should have Raf go after Kardashian.”

“No,” Brennan said. “This is going to blow the case wide open. Let’s let it settle and see what everyone does with it first.”

“We don’t even know if Simpson did it,” I said.

“He did it,” Raf said.

“Hey, I admire Kardashian,” I said. “He’s the best friend a man could ever hope to have. Without question, he went over the line for his friend.”

“Now we know why he renewed his legal license,” Raf said. “So he can’t be forced to testify.”

“I feel bad ratting him out.”

Brennan lit a cigarette. “Let’s just see what happens next.”

Kardashian walks away with the bag

What happened next was even more astounding. It seemed everyone else in town tried to take credit for the discovery.

I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t a story that people were fighting for; it wasn’t in the air – nobody was poring over old videotape looking for clues. This Kardashian bag story came out of Premier Story’s edit room, and if we hadn’t run out of stories to promote, Kardashian would have gotten away with it.

Even worse, this cowardly theft of historical credit actually began in our own building. The KCOP news team was upset we didn’t notify them of our scoop in advance or mention it was their cameraman who shot Kardashian with the bag. The next morning, they sent a reporter to interview us about the discovery, but ran a segment that night that didn’t mention Premier Story at all.

It was small-town, small-time bullshit, but nothing compared to the gall of KCBS.  They not only ran the bag story without mentioning Premier Story, but they had Associated Press run a story around the country that gave a KCBS reporter credit for nailing Kardashian with the bag.

One of the more blatant credit-takers was Harvey Levin, a chunky attorney-turned-reporter who played a nasty-tempered Geraldo with an adenoidal voice.  Levin went on the air a couple of days later with a scoop of his own. “Sometimes it pays to go back and study the old footage to see what we missed the first time around,” he said, as if it were his idea. “That’s what we did…”

Levin’s scoop was tape of Marcia Clark leading a search of Simpson’s mansion. According to the “time code”–  the hour and minutes displayed on the video — she was snooping around the property an hour before a search warrant was issued. If true, the result could be devastating to the prosecution, barring important evidence and removing Marcia Clark from the Simpson case.

The next day, KCBS made Harvey Levin apologize over and over again. He said he was wrong, claiming the time code on the tape referred not to 9:45 a.m., but 9:45 p.m., the time the tape was fed from a remote truck outside Simpson’s mansion. Being that the time code for 9:45 p.m. would have read 21:45, it’s more likely that KCBS or Levin reached some agreement with prosecutors not to blow their case so early in the game.

Levin looked like a buffoon. He deserved everything he got.

“The bag” became Premier Story’s hook. It gave us an identity and it gave Alison a memorable tagline. For weeks after the discovery, she ended each show with the line, “Where’s the bag, Mr. Kardashian?”

We hired a plane to fly over Los Angeles, from Brentwood to Hollywood to downtown L.A., trailing a banner that read “Where’s the bag, Mr. Kardashian?” Producers and reporters, even spectators, began to hound O.J.’s friend by shouting the question whenever he appeared in public.

We wanted to take the story to the next step and find the bag. Brennan got one of his private eye connections to start calling every marina along the local coast to see who rented small boats in the days following the murders.

Brennan was convinced the bag was dumped in the Pacific, and when a porn star told some reporter that her boyfriend Al Cowlings told her the murder weapon “sleeps with the fishes,” his hunch seemed to be borne out.

In the meantime, he had another idea.

“Let’s buy a Louis Vuitton bag that’s exactly like Simpson’s, let’s attach Hertz and American Airlines tags, and let’s dump it in the ocean so it washes up on the shore at Malibu.”

“Should we make it bloody?”

“No, just a bag. Let’s see what happens.”

“You can’t do that,” Raf said.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

 

PREMIER STORY hit its stride in September, when jury selection began in downtown Los Angeles, and we began to do the show from outside the courthouse.  Most of the network reporters and anchormen, and even some of our tabloid competitors, divided their time between a media room upstairs, where no cameras were allowed, and the scaffolded encampment around the corner and across the street that was dubbed “Camp O.J.”

That was typical hands-off network television.  We set up in “The Pit,” at the foot of the stairs that led from the sidewalk to the metal detectors at the courthouse door.  That was the gantlet Robert Kardashian had to walk each morning as he arrived with a fresh suit for his pal O.J. to wear in court, and this was where Alison planted herself in the middle of the scrum, at his side, walking along asking, “Where’s the bag, Mr. Kardashian?” and other questions about his activities and motivations.  For those weeks, and through the trial, Robert Kardashian was considered to be some kind of accomplice with big secrets that led to him to reinstate his law license.  With Kardashian the center of attention and of a developing mystery, his name became a household one, under our watch and because of our revelation about the Louis Vuitton garment bag.

PREMIER STORY was canceled after its initial six-month run ended in December.  Though it rated higher than A Current Affair and other news shows, corporate parent Chris-Craft decided it was too costly to commit to a year-long syndication run. Besides, over the past six months, television had changed.  While the tabloid shows once had stories like O.J. Simpson’s to themselves, now even the “respectable” network news had gone tabloid.  O.J. Simpson was news from the Today show in the morning to Jay Leno  and Ted Koppel at bedtime.  In the spring of 1995, the Premier Story team was running the flailing New York City-based A Current Affair from the L.A. office, It was around that time that detectives came by to collect the Kardashian bag video and I was encouraged to buy a necktie because I might be called to testify.

I wasn’t.  Some time later, the Simpson defense team produced a Louis Vuitton bag in court.  It was empty, flat, and it seemed to be a different bag.  Prosecutor Christopher Darden compared the bag with to one Kardashian made off with in the video. “When you look at the video, you see it was bulging,” he said, then dropped the bag, theatrically. “What was in that bag?” he asked.  For his part, Kardashian claimed he’d never looked inside.  O.J. Simpson was acquitted on both counts of murder on October 3, 1995.

Did I think the Louis Vuitton bag contained bloody clothes, or better yet, a murder weapon? Probably not.  Actually, of course not.  But since it was in the possession of O.J. Simpson in Chicago, it could have contained a fiber, a trace of DNA, something that, if he was guilty of the crime, could have connected him incontrovertibly.

Simpson and Kardashian stunned after hearing the verdict

Robert Kardashian and O.J. Simpson never spoke again after the verdict.  Kardashian became a pariah in his former social circles. He lost friends and business because of his support for Simpson.  If not for the discovery of his complicity in the “the bag” scandal, he might have remained in the background. Kardashian died of esophageal cancer in 2003.  He was 59.  The television series Keeping Up with The Kardashians, featuring his ex-wife and their four children, debuted in October 2007.  By then, the name was already part of American pop culture.

###

Dedicated to Steve Dunleavy, the greatest reporter of all time.

(Special thanks to Alison Holloway, Peter Brennan, Rafael Abramovitz, Robyn Hale, and A.J. Benza.)

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