Philip Vannatter, 70, Dies; O. J. Simpson Investigator
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Philip Vannatter, who as a Los Angeles police detective helped lead the investigation of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman in 1994 and who was a major prosecution witness in the failed attempt to convict O. J. Simpson of the crime, died on Friday in Santa Clarita, Calif. He was 70.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Rita.
Detective Vannatter was a 25-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and no stranger to high-profile crimes -- he arrested the film director Roman Polanski in 1977 on charges of having unlawful sex with an under-age girl -- when he was called before dawn to the home of Ms. Simpson in the Brentwood neighborhood on June 13, 1994. There he found the slashed bodies of Ms. Simpson, the former wife of Mr. Simpson, the football star and broadcaster; and an acquaintance, Mr. Goldman.
After surveying the scene, Detective Vannatter and three other detectives -- Mark Fuhrman, Ronald Phillips and Tom Lange, who was the other lead investigator -- visited Mr. Simpson at his home nearby in order to tell him of his former wife's death, Detective Vannatter testified.
Mr. Simpson was not at home, but Detective Fuhrman found blood spots on Mr. Simpson's car, a white Ford Bronco, parked in front of the house. Concerned for Mr. Simpson's safety, he and Detective Vannatter later said, Detective Fuhrman leapt a fence and opened a gate to let the other detectives onto the property. Shortly thereafter, Detective Fuhrman found a piece of evidence that was featured crucially in the trial -- a bloody glove. (A matching glove had been found at the crime scene.)
Much of what happened among the investigators that morning -- as well as when Detectives Lange and Vannatter questioned Mr. Simpson -- was criticized in the news media and used by defense lawyers to paint a portrait of an inept and vindictive police team that had decided that Mr. Simpson was the killer and that may have fabricated evidence to gain a conviction.
Tape recordings proved that Detective Fuhrman had lied when he said he never used offensive language to refer to blacks, and the defense raised the suspicion that he had planted the glove. Detective Vannatter's testimony that Mr. Simpson was not yet a suspect when they first visited the house was widely disbelieved, and his and Detective Lange's interrogation of Mr. Simpson was criticized as lacking thoroughness; it lasted only 32 minutes, and they failed to press Mr. Simpson after he gave vague and elusive statements.
Detectives Vannatter and Lange defended their work in a 1997 book, "Evidence Dismissed," written with Dan E. Moldea, saying that the documentation they provided for Mr. Simpson's guilt was a solid "mountain of evidence" and that defense lawyers, led by the flamboyant Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., "used a handful of police errors and the racist views of one rogue detective, Mark Fuhrman, to create a courtroom firestorm that, in the eyes of the jury, caused our 'mountain of evidence' to melt down like a cup of Ben & Jerry's ice cream."
Philip Lewis Vannatter was born on April 18, 1941, in Griffithsville, W.Va. His father was a coal miner who died when Philip was a boy. He moved with his mother to Culver City, Calif., when he was 14. He went to Santa Monica College and later Humboldt State University, where he played football, but left after his junior year. He was working at an auto parts store when he met a nurse, Rita Freeman, and soon married her. He served in the Army in South Korea, and after his discharge in 1968 he enrolled in the Los Angeles Police Academy.
Mr. Vannatter lived in Santa Clarita and in Vevay, Ind., where he and his wife moved after his retirement to help care for her parents in nearby Cincinnati. He worked for three years as chief deputy for the Dearborn County police in Indiana.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a brother, Joe; a son, Matthew; a daughter, Donna Thomas; and five grandchildren.
After Mr. Simpson's acquittal, many of Detective Vannatter's critics were inclined to give him a break, casting him as an honest policeman who had made some mistakes and run into bad luck and a tide of ill will toward the Los Angeles police that was heightened in 1991 by the beating of Rodney King and exacerbated by the recordings of racist statements by Detective Fuhrman.
"In a trial that showcased a good deal of shoddy detective work, the investigators also scored some brilliant successes," Jeffrey Toobin wrote in his 1996 book, "The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson."
Perhaps the most poignant illustration of Mr. Vannatter's good work and bad luck was the glove that Detective Fuhrman found in the Simpson yard. At the trial, the defense manipulated the prosecution into having Mr. Simpson try both gloves on, and he struggled to get them over his enormous hands. It was a powerful visual cue for the jury and led to Mr. Cochran's telling the jury in his closing statement, "Remember these words: If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
Before then, however, it was Detective Vannatter who had been able to determine that the glove found by Detective Fuhrman was very rare, and that Ms. Simpson had bought one of only 200 pairs of that exact size and style that had ever been sold; he was even able to produce the receipt.
"Besides the DNA evidence, this sales receipt may have been the most incriminating evidence in the entire case," Mr. Toobin wrote. "Who else in Los Angeles except O. J. Simpson would have had access to these extremely rare gloves? Who else except O. J. Simpson would have used them to murder his ex-wife?"
First Published January 24, 2012 12:00 am