The O.J. Simpson white Bronco is now a museum piece. In Tennessee.

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The O.J. Simpson white Bronco is now a museum piece. In Tennessee.
The 1993 white Ford Bronco made famous in O.J. Simpson's flight from arrest, on display at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Some 95 million television viewers watched the low-speed chase unfold on June 17, 1994, when a swarm of police cars followed the white Bronco over 60 miles of Southern California freeways, with Simpson holding a gun to his head in the back seat. (Alcatraz East Crime Museum via The New York Times)

by Beth Braden and Emily Cochrane

PIGEON FORGE, TENN.- Tyler Starrett was on vacation with his family in Pigeon Forge, about 35 miles from Knoxville in eastern Tennessee, when they learned on Thursday that O.J. Simpson had died.

So they changed plans. They had heard that one of the key artifacts of the Simpson case happened to be on display nearby at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum: the 1993 white Ford Bronco that Simpson fled from police in, just days after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, his former wife, and Ron Goldman. They could not resist.

“If the Bronco is here in Pigeon Forge, why don’t we go see it?” Starrett, 23, said.

Starrett is too young to have been among the 95 million television viewers who watched the low-speed chase unfold on June 17, 1994, when a swarm of police cars followed the white Bronco over 60 miles of Southern California freeways, with Simpson holding a gun to his head in the back seat. But he was among those who visited the museum to see the vehicle in person on Thursday, as a 3-minute clip of the police chase played on loop in the background.

Pigeon Forge, best known for Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park, is at first glance not an obvious home for such a relic. But in recent years, this town has increasingly become a place for attractions and museums dedicated to the offbeat and believe-it-or-not interests of an American tourist — including the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, which is housed in a prisonlike building designed to be a cross between the Tennessee State Prison just outside Nashville and the original Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay.

Inside the museum, the white Bronco is one of several notorious vehicles.

It sits alongside the 1968 Volkswagen Beetle that was owned by serial killer Ted Bundy, the 1933 Essex-Terraplane used by bank robber John Dillinger and the so-called death car from the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” riddled with bullet holes. (A Pigeon Forge snow globe featuring the museum, the Bronco and the Beetle can be purchased for $10.99 in the gift shop.)

“There are events in history that will always stick in people’s minds, and I think the O.J. chase is one of those for a large number of people,” said Ally Pennington, the artifacts and projects manager for the museum.

The chase, captured by news helicopters and broadcast live on television, gripped the nation. Networks interrupted Game 5 of the NBA Finals and prime-time shows, and brought star news anchors back to their newsrooms to narrate the scene.

Simpson, a former football star, eventually surrendered at his Los Angeles home. He was later acquitted of both sets of murder charges after an equally high-profile criminal trial, but he was found liable for their deaths in a civil suit several years later.

The Bronco is among the most popular and most prominent exhibits at the privately owned museum, which opened in 2016 after a similar crime museum closed in Washington. The vehicle belonged to Al Cowlings, Simpson’s friend and former teammate, who was driving it about 40 mph as Simpson fled the police.

The car was previously featured on a 2017 episode of the reality television show “Pawn Stars,” on which Mike Gilbert, a former agent for Simpson, said he purchased the car in part to keep it from potentially being used by a tour company. He unsuccessfully sought more than $1 million for it on the show.

The museum declined to say who allowed for the display of the car, citing privacy concerns.

“Different generations have different responses to it, because obviously people who watched the chase live and who were around for that respond differently,” Pennington said. She added, “Most people are just shocked to see it because it is the white Bronco from the O.J. chase and it’s such an iconic moment in history.”

Never far from the museum’s mind, Pennington said, are the victims of the crimes featured in the exhibits, or the pain experienced by those who survive them. She said that while Simpson’s death might change aspects of a temporary display recognizing the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, it planned to focus on the victims.

On Thursday, the museum had taped a label acknowledging Simpson’s death on a Plexiglas case next to the Bronco that displays a set of his golf clubs. At least two visitors learned of his death from the sign.

“It was pretty wild — you’d have people arguing about it, you know, at Waffle House,” David Hardigree, who was visiting from Northern Kentucky, recalled of the Simpson trial, and the debates over whether he was guilty or not.

But his visit Thursday, he said, was just “ironic timing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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