By John Geluardi
I was pleased Sunday night when “O. J. Made in America” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It is by far one of the most thorough documentaries I’ve seen and it recasts the killings of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the subsequent murder trial into a powerful context for those who watched the documentary’s five remarkable episodes.
While watching the documentary, I was struck by a scene that occurs about half way through episode 3 when Al Cowlings, at the end of the infamous low-speed chase, pulls the white Bronco into the driveway of Simpson’s Rockingham estate. In the vehicle’s backseat, the fallen sports hero and suspected murderer is supposedly suicidal and resting his chin on the barrel of a handgun while clutching family photographs.
During the scene, taken from helicopter-shot news footage, Cowlings gets out of the Bronco and a standoff between Simpson and the Los Angeles police begins. The scene is tense. Everybody is wondering if the police will shoot Simpson who is emotional and armed. Simpson’s family, the crowds who had poured into Brentwood to be part of celebrity history, the helicopter pilots hovering just overhead and the millions of Americans who watched the scene unfold on live television, all are holding their breath
But it wasn’t the noisy drama of the scene’s central focus that fascinated me. I was drawn to a very short, but compelling scene within the scene. About 10 feet in front of the Bronco, Nicole’s white and brown Akita, Kato, stands looking directly at the Bronco’s wretched occupant. The dog’s presence stuck me because the Akita — who by coincidence had the same name as the quirky human houseboy Kato Kaelin — was the only witness to the brutal murders of Nicole and Goldman.
On that June night in 1994, it was Kato who began to bark and wail “plaintively” at 10:15 p.m., which set the condemning murder timeline that showed Simpson had time to butcher his ex-wife and Goldman and still make it back to the Rockingham estate in time meet limo driver Allan Park who drove Simpson to the airport for an 11:45 flight to Chicago. It was also the Akita who went to the street, his paws soaked in Nicole’s blood, to alert neighbors that two bodies were lying on the walkway of Nicole’s home at 325 Gretna Green Way.
While there are no known human witnesses to the deadly attack, the Akita saw who killed his beloved owner and the young waiter whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The dog was never interviewed by police nor did he give testimony at trial, but five days after the killings, Kato was there waiting when Simpson pulled into his driveway with a dozen police cars in tow. Like Dr. T.J. Eckleberg overlooking the Valley of Ashes, Kato stood in front of the Bronco silently looking at Simpson while chaos surrounded man and dog.
Bred in Japan’s remote northern mountains, the Akita is the most ancient of Japanese dogs. We can only guess what Simpson experienced when afixed by the dog’s primordial eyes set deep in the dog’s bear-like head. Kato was the one being who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt of Simpson’s terrible transgression. I like to think the sports hero and pitchman was at that moment inescapably confronted with his abhorrent crime and, for at least a moment, slipped deeper into a morass of oppressive guilt. I also like to think that Kato’s knowing gaze leveled at him all those years ago still occasionally wakes Simpson from fitful sleep in his high desert prison cell at the Lovelock Correctional Facility
Like many involved in the trial, Kato became a minor celebrity. He even had his own spoof autobiography:“O.J.’s Dog Daze,” which was published in 2001 and came with a paw print autograph.
Fortunately Kato landed well. Once the trial was over and the media frenzy died down, Kato ended up in the beach town of Dana Point where he was cared for by Nicole’s parents, Judi and Louis Brown. After a long life, Kato died in October, 2004. The Browns are said to keep his ashes under the family piano, which was Kato’s favorite spot to curl up and watch over family activities with those deep-set, Akita eyes.