June 16, 2014 at 6:04 PM ET
You wouldn’t have known it was that Ford Bronco unless you walked up to it and read the placard. But there it was, in the summer of 2012 in the middle of the elegant Luxor Hotel lobby, soaking up admiration from thousands of Las Vegas tourists.
Months later, the 1993 Bronco that served as O.J. Simpson’s getaway car appeared at a completely different gathering in Connecticut, a fancy Brant Foundation art opening where elite guests, like photographer Terry Richardson or fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, could pose for photographs with it on the polo lawn.
But where had the Ghost Bronco been all this time, and why, considering its macabre ties, was it now being displayed as a prized relic? That doesn’t seem to be where three mysterious businessmen were headed when they bought the white sport utility vehicle in the ‘90s from Simpson’s childhood friend and former NFL player Al Cowlings.
The world-famous Bronco, the one Cowlings leisurely drove on a Los Angeles freeway during the nation’s first televised car chase, did not belong to Simpson as many believed. The football hero accused — and later acquitted of killing his ex wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman — had a rented Bronco at his house on the night of the murders. But it was Cowlings' white Bronco that became the stuff of legend.
In December 1995, two months after Simpson was acquitted in Los Angeles Superior Court, Cowlings sold the SUV to three California men for $200,000, his lawyer told the Associated Press. Because of the publicity, “he couldn’t drive it any longer," attorney Steve Stone said at the time.
Then, just like that, it vanished.
The three businessmen intended to flip the Bronco quickly and make a lot of fast money, said a source with knowledge of the transaction that requested anonymity.
"But because the whole thing was so racially fueled at the time, they didn’t want the perception of profiting off murders and racism,” the source told NBC News. “So they just hung onto the car for a very long time.”
For years, the famous Bronco sat in storage, waiting for the nation to heal. In fact, some believe the model triggered such polarizing emotional reactions that Ford discontinued the Bronco line in 1996 as a result.
“That’s an interesting theory,” said Steve Sampson, president of a Bronco club in San Diego. “I’ve actually never heard that inside the Bronco community. In my conversations with Ford, they said they lost interest in having a two-door vehicle. They intended to re-introduce it a few years ago but Ford was hit with hard times and they dropped the whole idea. I can certainly see how the timing would make people think that.”
But then the Bronco began resurfacing, like a ghost, at special events. Organizers who rent the vehicle are required to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to reveal the identities of the owners.
“These people are very secretive about owning it,” the source told NBC News. “They don’t want anyone to know.”
A representative for the Brant Foundation in Connecticut declined to disclose to NBC News how the Bronco wound up displayed as art at the opening for artist Nate Lowman, who once painted a portrait of a topless Nicole Brown Simpson derived from a photograph her sister sold to the tabloids.
James Beckmann, the owner of the Vegas sports memorabilia store and museum Score!, which leased the Bronco in the summer of 2012 and displayed it at the Luxor lobby, also would not reveal how he ended up with the Bronco. But, calling it “an interesting relic from the past,” Beckmann said the Bronco would not be exhibited at his store or museum again.
“Most people loved it and were taking photos in front of it and posting them on Twitter and Instagram,” a former Score! employee told NBC News. “People were really excited and they couldn’t believe that we had that piece of memorabilia. But I’m sure that wouldn’t have been the response we would have gotten 15 years ago or 10 years ago.”
Eventually, MGM Resorts International, which owns the Luxor, forced Beckmann to move the Bronco out of the hotel after an executive saw it and “was disgusted by it.” Twenty years later, the Bronco — and what it stands for — still evokes visceral reactions.
Despite the cloak of secrecy surrounding its ownership, a businessman and collector who lived in Los Angeles then and now lives in Miami became publicly associated over the years with the original sale of the Bronco. Although many assumed he had long since sold it, Michael Pulwer, a 64-year-old developer and restaurant owner, reluctantly admitted to NBC News that he is one of the Bronco’s holders and thinks it will eventually wind up in a car museum. For now, he said, the Bronco is in storage.
One person who really wants to see it is retired Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Sewell, who was in the second police car that pursued the Bronco for 60 miles 20 years ago. After a buddy saw it at the Luxor, Sewell made the trek to Las Vegas in 2012. He was too late.
“I was so disappointed. I really, really wanted to see it again,” Sewell said. “I couldn’t believe it was still around. I spent a lot of time behind that car. It was such a strange and unforgettable day. Who knows, maybe it will show up somewhere else.”