In a marriage of technology and tragedy, afternoon television viewers were switched away from soap operas and reruns Friday to watch police chase a suspected murderer along the freeways of Los Angeles and Orange counties, finally shooting him to death in a showdown that was broadcast live.
Los Angeles television stations KCOP (Channel 13), KABC (Channel 7) and KNBC (Channel 4) preempted regular fare such as "Matlock" and "General Hospital" to show as much as 40 minutes of the helicopter-shot pursuit.
At one point, when Channel 13 went back to the "Matlock" rerun, viewers began telephoning the station to demand that it return to the real-life drama.
Authorities said the driver, identified as Darren Michael Stroh, 22, killed a good Samaritan about 10:30 a.m. 12 miles south of Los Banos, stealing first his car and then another vehicle. Somewhere south of Bakersfield, California Highway Patrol officers, alerted by police in Merced and Fresno counties, began trailing the second stolen vehicle.
Helicopter pilot-reporters Bob Tur and Bob Pettee said they were in the air filming the rainstorm and its effects when they heard a police broadcast that the CHP was pursuing Stroh, who was driving a stolen red Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible, over the Grapevine along Interstate 5.
"At a time like that, you want a helicopter that can go 300 m.p.h., but we can only do about 120," said Pettee, who flies for KNBC television. He and Tur--who flies for KNX radio and KCOP television--picked up the pursuit and were followed by a chopper from KABC television.
Although a CHP helicopter and a Los Angeles Police Department chopper were also in the air, there was no confusion, the pilot-reporters said. They determined where they would fly and got CHP permission to hold their routes. Pettee said he flew about 300 feet off the ground, about 150 feet above the CHP helicopter.
Robert Sims, news director of KNX radio, said news copters monitor numerous freeway chases without broadcasting them. However, the gravity of this crime and the length of the pursuit gave stations time to clear the air for the live broadcast.
"This kind of story stands alone, a classic L.A., Southland story," said KFWB radio news director Scott Gorbitz, whose station covered the pursuit with ground-based reporters and later with a helicopter.
Gorbitz, whose station broadcasts regular airborne traffic reports, said that "this was a situation where a whole lot of commuters probably had no idea why this red Cabriolet was driving down the freeway with four CHP cars behind him. Classic."
Pettee and Tur said Stroh drove up on sidewalks to outflank traffic as he sped through Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles before turning onto the southbound Long Beach Freeway.
"At one point, he got off the freeway and drove through gas stations at speeds up to 60 m.p.h. with people standing there pumping gas," Tur said.
Near Long Beach Boulevard, Pettee said, a pursuing CHP car rammed the Volkswagen from behind to try to make the driver stop. But he kept going and began firing a shotgun through the rear window of his car at the cruisers, which dropped back, Pettee said.
"It was an amazing pursuit. It was one of those Wild West stories you hear about, a chase with shots fired along busy freeways. It was just incredible. And in the rain. What was incredible to me was looking down and seeing motorists oblivious to this, a chase down the freeways with six black-and-whites alongside," Tur said.
Tur's wife, Marika Gerrard, was the camera woman aboard the helicopter. They both had a bad feeling about the likely outcome of the pursuit, Tur said, thinking "the suspect was going to be shot. There was no way this guy was going to be caught. That was apparent from the way the guy was driving and the persistence" he showed.
Stroh did not stop until the Volkswagen ran out of gasoline in Westminster. The same thing nearly happened to KABC and its news van.
KABC news director Roger Bell said the van almost collided with a CHP vehicle in Los Angeles County. At the end, the van "rolled up to the scene out of gas, on fumes, so to speak," said Bell.
As viewers watched the footage shot from the hovering news helicopters, a police officer approached the Volkswagen.
The helicopter pilots said police repeatedly broadcast demands to the driver to drop his weapon. When he refused, and perhaps motioned toward police, one officer shot at the driver, killing him, the pilots said. As the shot was fired, television viewers could clearly see a puff of smoke coming out the driver's side of the Volkswagen.
At a Circuit City store in Santa Ana, officials said that the chase drew customers immediately to the television screens. About 30 customers were transfixed by a bank of 100 color television sets.