Soaring high above the City of Angels, Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard could claim to be the lords of all they surveyed.
Masters of the police chase, the highway pile-up and the epic drug raid, they revolutionised television’s coverage of breaking news stories by buying a helicopter and taking to the skies.
The married couple first fell in love over high-octane nights during which they rushed to film gangland killings and road accidents, only for it to develop into an obsession that took over their lives.
Some of the most gripping pieces of aerial news footage you’ve seen — including the unforgettable police pursuit of O.J. Simpson and the terrible beating of a white lorry driver during the Rodney King riots — may have come courtesy of Tur and Gerrard, the former in the pilot’s seat and Marika hanging perilously out of the chopper’s door, training a video camera on the action below.
The married couple first fell in love over high-octane nights during which they rushed to film gangland killings and road accidents, only for it to develop into an obsession that took over their lives
While neither of them took to the skies this week to film the aftermath of golf legend Tiger Woods’s career-threatening car crash outside Los Angeles, they nonetheless helped to create the conditions in which a calamity like that could be filmed.
However, until now, nobody else witnessed the marital squabbling in the cockpit — sometimes as dramatic as anything going on below — as a ferociously volatile Tur took out his frustrations, sometimes violently, on a wife who he felt never did anything right.
Tur’s brash obsession to be first with the news and his rage at anyone who got in his way would end not only in the collapse of their family life but also, far more surprisingly, in Bob transitioning to become a woman. After undergoing gender reassignment surgery, she now lives as Zoey Tur. Their extraordinary story and its surprising twist is related in Whirlybird: Live Above LA, a new episode of the BBC4 documentary series Storyville.
The pair were in their early 20s when they met in Los Angeles, where Marika was a student and the charismatic and energetic Bob never went anywhere without a video camera. On their first date, he took her to a gritty part of downtown LA to cover a brutal gangland stabbing in the back of a bus. Instead of going to restaurants or the cinema, they would head off to a car crash or fire.
Marika — who up to then had what she called a ‘low-key existence’ — was yearning for a change. ‘I was in love with the excitement of Bob,’ she tells the film. ‘He was definitely an adventurer.’
While neither of them took to the skies this week to film the aftermath of golf legend Tiger Woods’s career-threatening car crash (pictured) outside Los Angeles, they nonetheless helped to create the conditions in which a calamity like that could be filmed
Soon, Bob — a boyish dead-ringer for Superman’s alter ego, reporter Clark Kent — had roped her in to the adventure as they hared around LA following the news. ‘It was a great way to seduce a woman — you get her heart rate over 100 and it’s a done deal,’ Bob recalls. Or at least it was with Marika. It was the 1980s and the concept of breaking news was in its infancy, but the couple knew the first rule of success — that you had to be there first.
He got a Press pass and they set up as Los Angeles News Service. He also rapidly acquired a reputation as difficult, shouting at anyone in authority, including police officers, who tried to stop him filming. ‘Bob grew up in an abusive family and he had a hair-trigger temper,’ Marika tells the show. ‘If you crossed him, he didn’t sit back and calm down.’
Starting a family barely made a dent in their work lives as the young children, Katy and Jamie, simply came out with them. ‘My parents were 100 per cent consumed by the next big story, the next big find, and I think that was to the detriment of all other aspects of their lives,’ says Jamie.
Bob admits he would tear around at up to 120mph if it meant getting to an incident while it was still happening. However, LA’s network of freeways are notoriously congested and they lost precious minutes in traffic. Bob looked up and saw the solution.
Aged 25 in 1985, he borrowed $500,000 (£380,000) and bought a Bell helicopter. He took just enough lessons to get a pilot’s licence and they took to the air, sweeping aside Marika’s protestations that she was scared of heights. She wouldn’t just be flying high over LA but leaning out of the door with the camera to get shots that her husband insisted had to be perfect. Bob often took the chopper as low as telephone poles and palm trees would allow, all the while talking to people through half a dozen two-way radios.
Marika claims: ‘There was a lot of verbal abuse . . . Bob needed to be in control, and he would get very upset if he couldn’t control the situation, he would hit you, he would give you the silent treatment, he would scream.’
However, to a large extent, she shared his passion for getting a great story, describing the feeling she got when capturing some particularly impressive footage of a traffic pile-up as ‘orgasmic’.
The helicopter allowed them to get to stories often while they were still happening. In some cases, such as mountain rescues, earthquakes and forest blazes, it allowed them to reach stories that had previously been inaccessible.
They frequently got to a disaster in time to save people, Bob sometimes jumping out to resuscitate them himself. In 1988, he received a bravery award when he stopped filming an LA hotel that had collapsed in a storm, and made a dozen flights through high winds and almost zero visibility to rescue 54 people stranded on the roof.
Some of the most gripping pieces of aerial news footage you’ve seen — including the unforgettable police pursuit of O.J. Simpson (pictured) and the terrible beating of a white lorry driver during the Rodney King riots — may have come courtesy of Tur and Gerrard, the former in the pilot’s seat and Marika hanging perilously out of the chopper’s door, training a video camera on the action below
As Los Angeles News Service, by now an increasingly lucrative business with a team of staff, beat rivals again and again to stories, competitors got the message — suddenly, the skies were buzzing with choppers.
In the 1990s, new technology allowed Bob and Marika to transmit their footage straight to a TV studio rather than have to land and pass on a video tape. It also put Bob more in the limelight, as he provided second-by-second commentary on what was happening below.
Bob says audiences were particularly drawn to the prospect of witnessing violence live on air. They certainly got that during the ferocious 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of police officers who had been filmed beating senseless a black suspect, Rodney King.
As Bob and Marika hovered over the chaos in the city — being fired on by rioters — they alone captured what has been called the ‘iconic image’ of the race riots, the horrifying attack on a white lorry driver. Reginald Denny was dragged out of his cab and beaten up so badly that he almost died.
Bob was so appalled by the violence that he broke a reporting rule and willingly handed over his footage to police. After he gave evidence at the trial of Mr Denny’s attackers, he received death threats and responded by sleeping with a gun under his pillow.
The pair scored an even bigger scoop two years later, when they were the first media team to track down sports star O.J. Simpson, after he failed to turn himself in over the murders of estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. TV stations showed a convoy of police cars slowly trailing Simpson’s white Ford Bronco.
Bob and Marika later discovered their aerial footage had been watched live by 80 million viewers.
The couple were by now celebrities invited on to TV shows. While she conceded that working with your spouse could sometimes lead to tiffs, the truth was rather worse.
‘Chopper Bob’ was an utter nightmare to work with — a perfectionist and a control freak who would fly into a rage if everything wasn’t exactly what he wanted. Audio tapes of his screaming fits in the helicopter are deeply alarming, particularly given that he was the one flying it.
In one, what sounds like a slap can be heard before he tells Marika: ‘I don’t know how to communicate with you in any other way than through violence.’
Success only made him more volatile. The couple bought a bigger house, two Porsches and a state-of-the-art helicopter. Bob splashed out in the confidence that the work would keep pouring in. Instead, his main employer poached his staff and bought their own chopper. Aged 35, he had a heart attack and later needed surgery. His mother Judy developed cancer and died.
‘Judy was his buffer so that when he got really angry and really crazy, and dangerous and scary, she could go in and calm him down,’ says Katy.
In 2003, Bob and Marika divorced and he has also become estranged from his children. Ten years later, he announced he wanted to be a woman. The alpha male act he had kept up for years had been a fraud, he said. In 2014, he went to Thailand for transition surgery and hormone therapy.
After Bob became Zoey, she moved to the countryside and lives with two dogs. She now expresses immense remorse and ‘disgust’ for her awful past behaviour.
She blames it not only on her conflicted identity but on a father who physically abused her as a child. ‘Bob had a lot of devil in him, because Bob was in a lot of pain,’ Zoey says.
Marika says: ‘Maybe his toxic masculinity was this mask he put on.’
The mask may not be entirely off. In 2015, Zoey appeared on a TV chat show. When a fellow guest kept calling her ‘Sir’, she grabbed the man by the neck and threatened he’d be ‘going home in an ambulance’. What a story that would have been for the helicopter news junkies.
BBC4’s Storyville — Whirlybird: Live Above LA can be seen on BBC iPlayer.