Vannatter died of complications from cancer Friday in Santa Clarita, his wife, Rita, said. He was 70.
O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden said in an emotional interview Sunday. "He did his job the best he could and he was a fine detective, one of the best."
Vannatter was among the first detectives to arrive at former football star Simpson's mansion in June 1994 after the stabbing deaths of Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Goldman.
In 1977, Vannatter arrested film director Roman Polanski in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on charges of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.
A grandfather known as "Dutch" among friends and as a "super cop" among colleagues, Vannatter rose to the elite Robbery-Homicide division of the Los Angeles Police Department early in his 27-year career and earned a reputation for meticulous, tough-minded work.
One colleague told The Times in 1994 that Vannatter was a bear of a man who once kicked a door off its hinges while arresting a robbery suspect on the Westside. When Vannatter worked as a detective in Venice in the 1970s he would have contests with colleagues to see how long they could hold a sledgehammer with one arm outstretched.
But his work was challenged repeatedly during the Simpson trial, and Vannatter often responded testily on the stand when Simpson's attorneys questioned him. In seeking to show that Vannatter illegally entered Simpson's property to collect evidence, the lawyers questioned every detail of his account of events. The detective stood firm, and Municipal Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell ruled at a preliminary hearing that the police had acted appropriately.
Simpson's defense team branded Vannatter a "devil of deception" and said he had used a vial of blood from Simpson to plant evidence at the former football star's estate. The detective acknowledged that he had a vial of Simpson's blood in an unsealed envelope in his car during a visit to Simpson's home, but was unapologetic about the matter and said he was simply carrying it to a criminalist.
"We were all supposed to be a group of incompetents, despite hundreds of successful investigations that we had collectively handled," Darden said. "He was really hurt and dejected by allegations that he mishandled the crime scene and mishandled the blood vial, but he was a kind man with a big heart. I never heard him say a cross word about anyone on the defense team."
Vannatter was perhaps more enraged by a member of his own team: Det. Mark Fuhrman, whose racist rants had been recorded in interviews with a screenwriter and who invoked the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination under questioning by the Simpson legal team about whether he had ever planted evidence.
In a book Vannatter wrote with his partner, Tom Lange, the two detectives credited "a brilliantly pragmatic legal-defense team" for using "a handful of police errors and the racist views of one rogue detective" to cause "our 'mountain of evidence' to melt down like a cup of Ben & Jerry's ice cream."
After Simpson's acquittal, Vannatter retired from the LAPD and lived in Vevay, Ind., on a large farm and worked as the chief deputy sheriff in the town of 1,683.
"It's 180 degrees different from living in a large city," Vannatter told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2002. "It's more comfortable, the people are friendlier, the people are more willing to help you. It's a lifestyle that I want to adopt."
Kim Goldman, sister of Ronald Goldman, who developed a bond with Vannatter during the Simpson trial, said Vannatter enjoyed horseback riding. "He was trying to get some peace and quiet and rebuild his life," she said. "He was such a family man. It made me feel like he had put some things behind him and was embracing the last stages of his life and that it didn't completely break him down."
In 2008, Simpson was convicted in Las Vegas of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, assault, robbery and using a deadly weapon.
"We got great pleasure seeing him incarcerated. But we didn't need that by then anyway," said Vannatter's wife, Rita.
Besides his wife, Vannatter is survived by his brother, Joe; his daughter, Donna; his son, Matthew, an LAPD officer; and five grandchildren.
A fund has been established in Vannatter's name with the Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation.