When you are the senior correspondent on E! News, your work life revolves around the intersection where entertainment and news collide. Buffalo native Ken Baker navigates that intersection every day.
But long before Hollywood and broadcasting, Baker was a part of the summer intern class at The Buffalo News, learning about the craft of journalism and doing whatever stories his editors told him needed to get done. For Baker, that included one of the biggest news/entertainment stories of the 20th century: the infamous white Bronco chase of former Buffalo Bill - and soon-to-be murder defendant - O.J. Simpson.
As fate would have it, Baker was working a general assignment shift that June night in 1994.
"We were watching it in TV in the newsroom with slack jaws, and then the assignment editor sent me out to grab quotes and reaction," Baker said in an email. "I remember going out to Main Street and just approaching random people for a reaction. I also popped inside Jim Kelly's restaurant. I remember everyone being in shock. O.J. at the time was considered something of a folk hero in Buffalo. I had grown up with a No. 32 Bills jersey, so that whole night was quite surreal."
Baker shared a triple byline with two longtime News reporters: Dan Herbeck, who with fellow staffer Lou Michel went on to gain fame as co-author of "American Terrorist," the story of Oklahoma City bomber and Pendleton native Timothy McVeigh; and Charles Anzalone, later to become editor of the monthly News magazine "First Sunday."
Their article, published June 18, 1994, follows:
WNY BREATHES EASIER AS HUNT FOR O.J. ENDS
When he was a kid, North Buffalo's Sam Calcaterra got chills watching O.J. Simpson on television.
But that was when O.J. was breaking touchdown runs for the Buffalo Bills. Nothing Calcaterra saw in those days prepared him for the heart-pumping drama that unfolded around Simpson late Friday night.
When O.J. finally took a gun away from his head and turned himself in to Los Angeles police shortly before midnight EST, Calcaterra and thousands of other Western New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief.
"I'm relieved. I'm numb. I'm just glad he didn't pull the trigger," said Calcaterra, 36. "Things still look real bad for O.J., but I didn't want it to end with him killing himself on national TV.
"I can't believe what I saw tonight."
Stunned Western New Yorkers like Calcaterra sat in front of television sets and joined the nation in a horrifying, nail-biting Simpson death watch that lasted for hours.
At the Sports City Grill, the downtown bar owned by Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, patrons were glad to learn Simpson, a suspect in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, had given himself up. Earlier in the evening, only the tinkling of glasses could be heard in the crowded bar as the truck carrying Simpson pulled into the driveway of O.J.'s Brentwood, Calif., mansion.
"It's weird. It's been like the 'Movie of the Week,' " said an exasperated bar patron, Lou Ciaccia, 22, of Kenmore. "It's scary. I'm starting to feel sorry for a murderer. He (allegedly) killed two people, so he really doesn't deserve any more sympathy than a murderer."
The surrender ended an astonishing turn of events that will no doubt put Simpson and another former Buffalo Bill -- Al Cowlings -- in the memories of people all over the country for decades.
Although the drama ended peacefully, many Western New Yorkers say their image of O.J. will never be the same.
Now that Simpson has been charged with the two murders, some area residents are turning against the man who was once considered the region's brightest star.
Before leading police on the chase, Simpson wrote a letter to the public that denied any connection to the crime. But many of his former boosters have come to the painful conclusion that Simpson was probably involved in the Los Angeles murders of his ex-wife and Goldman, her friend.
"For him to say he's not guilty, but threatening that he's going to commit suicide, that doesn't make sense. It doesn't add up," said Carolyn Zemko, 40, who spent Friday night watching the news reports in her Sloan home.
"If O.J. is innocent, he should fight. He shouldn't run away or commit suicide. How would his committing suicide help his kids?"
"When I first heard about it, I said I thought it was a frame-up," said Kerry Switalski of Cheektowaga. "I still hope he is innocent, but it's looking more and more like he was involved."
"Everyone was surprised the first few days we heard about this," said Ray Simmons of Parkdale Avenue. "But toward the end of the week, you had the feeling he did it, or at least he somehow had a part in it."
"Unfortunately, I think it's pretty obvious he's guilty," said Randy Bougard of East Aurora. "He's a big star, with a big ego, and he couldn't handle rejection from a woman he loved."
"I think he's gone berserk," said Muriel Valenti, 64, of North Buffalo. "He's always seemed to be a man who had it all together. Now his world is falling apart, and he can't handle it."
And many who pitied Simpson earlier this week are turning their sympathy toward the two victims and the Simpsons' children -- Justin, 6, and Sydney, 9.
"Now his kids don't have a mother. If he did kill his wife, justice will prevail because everything in the dark will come to light," said Elizabeth Williams, a customer at The Shining Light tavern on Fillmore Avenue. "He was treated more than fairly. He got to be with his kids during the funeral. He got to walk around free all week, walk around like a big shot."
Mark Iacono, 40, of Amherst, said he feels sorry for Simpson, but at the same time feels Simpson got special treatment from police in Los Angeles.
"If it was you or me, with all that evidence built up against us, we'd be locked up from Day One," Iacono said.
The Simpson case also was on the minds of Rose Meyers, 61, of Cheektowaga, and seven friends and family members who gathered at Kelly's bar Friday night. The ladies were out for a few laughs. They wound up talking about O.J. and watching TV reports about O.J.'s disappearance and the manhunt conducted by the L.A. police.
"I just feel really bad for his two kids," said Mrs. Meyers. "They have nobody. Their mother is dead, and now it looks like they aren't going to have a father, either."
"I hate to say it, but when I heard O.J. was missing, my first thought was, 'He's killed himself,' " said Leslie Kosicki, 38, a daughter of Mrs. Meyers.
And while Simpson was threatening to kill himself Friday night, some callers to radio talk shows were demanding that the Bills remove his name from the Wall of Fame at Rich Stadium.
On a WGR Radio show hosted by Tom Bauerle and Barry Beutel, listeners got into heated arguments over whether Simpson's name should remain on the stadium wall.
"It seems to be running about 50-50," said Bauerle. "The instant a line frees up, we get another call about it. It's a heated discussion because people around here feel a tremendous emotional attachment to O.J."
Bauerle said his own opinion -- shared by many of his listeners -- is that if Simpson is found guilty of the murders, his name should be removed.
"If he is guilty, you do not leave the name of a murderer on a Wall of Fame, out of respect for his victims and for all victims of spousal abuse," Bauerle said. "Regardless of his football achievements, if he's convicted of murder and his name stays up there, it's going to cast a darker shadow on Rich Stadium than any of the Super Bowl losses ever did.
"I keep thinking to myself, how would Ronald Goldman's parents feel, looking at that wall with O.J.'s name on it?"
West Seneca's Nancy Mazurowski, 35, said the whole shocking case provides a good lesson about the fragile nature of stardom.
"You never know what's going on under the surface with a famous public figure," said Mrs. Mazurowski.