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CRIME: O.J. Simpson: End of the Run

22 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

When asked how they could have let the most famous double-murder suspect in history slip away under their noses, the angry police commander and the tight- faced lawyer and the whole choir of commentators all said the same thing, without a trace of irony: “We never thought he would run.”

In crisis, people condense into their essential selves. O.J. Simpson was, essentially, a very great runner. That was how a bowlegged kid with rickets had escaped the slums where he was born, how a football superstar had become a national icon, always outrunning his obstacles, finding daylight where there wasn’t any. “I’ll tell you,” he used to say, “my speed has always been my best weapon. So if I can’t run away from whatever it is, I don’t need to be there.”

But there was never a run like last week’s final play. The chase had become a game: the police weren’t really trying to overtake him, and he wasn’t really trying to escape. He just wanted his mother. He wanted to go home. He found his blocker in his faithful friend and longtime teammate Al Cowlings, and together they slipped away from the lawyers and doctors who were there to mind him and eluded the police who had come to take O.J. into custody on charges of first-degree murder.

Word of the flight soon went out, and the crowds were on their feet, cheering. Police picked up O.J.’s cellular-phone calls and began tracking the Ford Bronco along the San Diego Freeway. Reporters pursuing in helicopters overhead said that he had a gun to his head. People pulled up their lawn chairs to the side of the road to wait for the cortege to pass. They lined the overpasses, waving, shouting, holding up signs — Go O.J. Go — as if he were trying to elude a pack of motorized tacklers.

Downtown at headquarters, the SWAT teams and crisis negotiators sat like ( everyone else, following the route of the Bronco on television. “Hey, it could be he’s headed right back here to turn himself in,” said one officer. “Yeah,” said another, “or else he’s going to blow his brains out.” But the police were still listening in on the calls: “He wants to head to his house.”

The 25-man SWAT team scrambled and moved out to O.J.’s Brentwood mansion in unmarked cars. They split into a sniper team with scopes, a negotiating team and a larger backup team that fanned out through the bushes and trees around the property, armed with stun grenades and automatic rifles. When Cowling drove up into the driveway, they could see O.J. in the backseat, holding a blue steel revolver pointed up against his own chin.

Simpson’s son Jason broke away from the cops in the doorway and ran toward the car.

“Who the hell is that?”

“That’s his son.”

“Get him out of there!”

The weeping young man confronted Cowling, who seemed to be crying too. Two policemen calmly went out, no weapons drawn, and led the boy back to the house. The crisis team had two problems. They were worried for Cowling’s safety, since no one was sure about O.J.’s state of mind, and they wanted to coax him out of the car and into custody. Cowling shuttled back and forth to the doorway, then the car, calming O.J., talking anxiously to the cops. “He was really pumped up; he was going — you could see that,” said SWAT team commander Mike Albanese. “Cowling wouldn’t come in the house because he figured we’d grab him.”

The swat team weighed the standard choices. They could use tear gas. They could wait until O.J. fell asleep. They could divert him with flash grenades and then move in to grab him. Or they could try to talk him out. What they wanted to avoid at all costs was what they called “suicide by cop,” when a cornered suspect comes out with a gun drawn and forces police to shoot him.

O.J. kept talking by phone to negotiator Pete Weireter about his successes and disappointments, about his demands. Your children need you, Weireter said, be cool, just relax. O.J. wanted to talk to his mother, who had been checked into a San Francisco hospital for stress. Pete said he could once he was inside. Call her; use the bathroom; get something to drink. O.J. wanted to be able to walk into his house. The cops promised not to tackle him. He wanted . . .

The phone battery went dead. Albanese yelled from the doorway that they would get another one; it would just take a few minutes. When they finally found one Cowling passed it along, and the talking began again — about O.J.’s kids and how much he loved them, about his wife. Finally Simpson said he wanted to come in.

“You’ll have to come to us,” said Albanese. Simpson said he was carrying two family pictures. Albanese alerted the snipers that those were not weapons in his hands. Slowly O.J. extended one arm from the truck. He seemed to step out and then step back in. “You’ve got to come to us,” Albanese called out. Finally O.J. emerged, clutching the pictures. When he reached the door of the house he collapsed into the arms of the officers, looking terribly sad and tired. They took him gently into the living room, gave him some orange juice and waited while he talked to his mother.

“O.K., are you ready? We need to take you out,” they said after a few minutes. They put the handcuffs on him and led Simpson outside. “I’m sorry, you guys,” O.J. kept saying. “I’m sorry.”

It was terrible to watch and impossible not to. That was the nature of the entire week, as America stopped its traffic to watch each clue scrape away another layer of the mystery. Where the facts were missing, the suspicions sufficed to keep the audience fed. When there was nothing new to report, the reporters interviewed each other, covering the coverage and defending themselves against accusations that they had already put Simpson on trial for murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman before he had even been charged.

Hearsay was not just admissible; it was broadcast live. Of course he did it — he had beaten her before, he was high on coke, he had gone into a jealous rage; of course he didn’t do it — he loved her too much, he was incapable of such savagery, he had an airtight alibi. Maybe he could have done it, but surely he would have been smarter, hired someone else and not left a trail behind.

All week long the clues and rumors leaked out, often from cops who were angry that the prosecutors were treating their celebrity suspect so delicately. First there were the bloody gloves — one at the murder scene, one at O.J.’s mansion. Then there were the bloody clothes in his washing machine, and the ski mask, and the stains on his driveway and in his car. The weapon was an antique samurai sword, then a sharp-edged military entrenching tool, the newspapers revealed, before the district attorney announced that no weapon & had been found. He’s killed himself, the Wall Street trading floors buzzed on Wednesday morning, before he appeared that afternoon at his ex-wife’s wake.

Pundits trotted out Shakespeare for references; talk-radio hosts searched for Larger Meanings, about the destruction of black male role models, the special treatment of celebrities by police, the danger women face from the men who profess to love them. But by the end of the week, with the last astounding twists to the case, it seemed that there were no larger meanings — just a howling, monstrous tragedy.

Americans honor the principle of the presumption of innocence, especially when they want it to be true. And through the days of promiscuous speculation, in the sports bars and on the radio shows and in the endless conversations over dinner, O.J. Simpson’s many admirers refused to suspend their disbelief. The most publicly shocking crime in years was received like a private death in the family. Before it was all over, millions of fans were already passing through the stages of their grief — mourning not only two victims they had never known, but the hero they thought they did.

He had smiled at them for years — first as one of the rare, great sportsmen, unruined by his gifts or his fame, warm, grateful, ready to sign one more autograph when he was dog tired and overstretched. He ripened into the affable ABC commentator, the smooth corporate pitchman, even a plausible movie star. The legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg helped him learn the craft, but the art was innate. “He already is an actor, an excellent one,” Strasberg said. “A natural one.”

By last week that comment might have been taken as a clue. Friends who knew Simpson well understood that he was a creature of careful intention, the natural ease a measure of his discipline. He did not so much change, from the days of his raw, painful childhood, as add layers, coats of polish that only occasionally peeled. One day he was making a television commercial in Oakland, California, and fell into his first language, the street-corner argot of his gang years. Furious with himself, he stopped the shooting, regrouped and then said he wanted to do it again. The second try went perfectly. “That’s what happens when I spend too much time with my boys,” he said. “I forget how to talk white.”

It’s not that Simpson was a phony; he was just a man who had traveled a long way, accumulating public expectations. When his image was autopsied last week, ; the story of his life provided evidence to both sides; that he was gentle and generous and violent and mean. His guiding principles, he once told a Sports Ilustrated reporter, were “my mother. The Bible. Do unto others.” But preserving sainthood was hard work. “You realize if you’re living an image, you’re just not living,” he said. “You find out the first thing in life is to be true to yourself. A lot of people think I’m the good guy who should drink milk and go to church every Sunday. I believe it’s good if you do, but I don’t . . . not all the time, anyway.”

He didn’t pretend to be more humble than he was; his mother Eunice, a hospital orderly, recalls that even before he went to kindergarten, he would tell her that “someday you’re going to read about me.” But not, surely, as one of the greatest sports heroes of his generation. For him and his friends growing up, the path to prison looked short and straight. They hung out in the San Francisco projects, stoning cars, fighting, getting hauled into juvenile hall. “I only beat up dudes who deserved it,” he once said, “at least once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday night. If there wasn’t no fight, it wasn’t no weekend.”

His talent saved him. “If it hadn’t been for football,” Simpson said, “we wouldn’t have come to school.” By the time Simpson was a junior at U.S.C., he was well along toward becoming the greatest running back college football had ever seen. He was late reporting to the Buffalo Bills training camp because he held out for a bigger salary. “Money means everything to the ghetto kids who don’t have any,” he explained. “I want to do youth work. If I can show them I got something from sports, they’ll respect me. When I was a kid, Willie Mays was my hero. Not because he was a good baseball player. But because he had a big house.”

O.J. got his big house. He married his childhood sweetheart Marquerite and had three children before the first tragedy struck in 1979. Their two-year-old daughter Aaren fell into the backyard swimming pool and drowned. When O.J. heard about the accident, he rushed down the hospital hallway screaming, “She murdered my child, she murdered my child!” That year he and Marquerite were divorced, and he had knee surgery. His playing days were over.

But Simpson had long had his other lives: his friends, his movies, his television production company — and his new love. In 1977 he found Nicole Brown, a beautiful, blond, 18-year-old waitress at the Daisy Club in Beverly Hills. “O.J. came in and fell in love,” says their friend Michael Dubasso. “He quickly moved her in.” They married in 1985 shortly before the birth of their first child, Sydney.

Simpson liked to tell interviewers that “I’m a one-woman man.” It fit the wholesome image, but it didn’t bear checking too closely. Nicole and O.J. played the perfect, handsome couple; even after their divorce in 1992, they were often seen together with their two children or at parties. “Like all long-term relationships, we had a few ups and downs,” Simpson admitted in the extraordinary letter his friend Robert Kardashian read after O.J. fled his house. “If we had a problem, it’s because I loved her so much.” But he also had a message for his current girlfriend, Paula Barbieri. “Paula, what can I say? You are special. I’m sorry we’re not going to have our chance.”

Friends described Nicole and O.J.’s relationship as far more complicated than Simpson admitted, or Hollywood mythmaking allows; his own words even confirmed the impression of a passion always running near full boil. “At times,” he said, “I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend, but I loved her.” Though friends believe what he said, they also say his love did not prevent him from pursuing other women freely during their marriage. Occasionally Simpson would order Nicole to go back to her parents for visits so he could play the field for a while. Once during a lunch with a reporter, Simpson asked the restaurant hostess to put money in the parking meter next to his Mercedes convertible. She complimented him on the car. He offered her a ride, and off they went to a condo. Recounting his conquest later, he said with a laugh that he got her back to work in time for cocktail hour.

The marriage persisted through the fights, separations, reconciliations. The most public explosion came at around 3 in the morning on New Year’s Day 1989 when police received a 911 call to the Simpson estate. Wearing only a bra and sweat pants, Nicole came running out from the bushes to let them in. She was badly beaten with a cut lip and a black eye, the officers reported, and kept saying, “He’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me.” Police asked whether he had a gun. “He’s got lots of guns,” she replied, and later complained, “You never do anything about him. You talk to him and then leave. I want him arrested.”

O.J. appeared wearing a bathrobe and started yelling at the cops. “The | police have been out here eight times before, and now you’re going to arrest me for this?” he said. “This is a family matter. Why do you want to make a big deal out of it? We can handle it.” Nicole eventually decided not to press charges, but the city attorney brought up O.J. on a misdemeanor charge of spousal battery. He was fined and placed on two years’ probation after pleading no contest. So impermeable was his image, however, that the conviction did not prevent NBC Sports from signing him to a broadcast contract three months later. Last week, city district attorney Gil Garcetti called the handling of the case “a joke, a terrible joke. This whole thing is the result of the justice system not dealing with domestic violence.”

The Simpsons’ marriage began to take on the classic signs of a fatal struggle. Friends called the relationship dangerous, dysfunctional, two passionate people goading and scraping at each other. One mutual acquaintance, cabaret singer Jennifer Young, recalls walking down Rodeo Drive one day after a lunch party with O.J. and another woman. Nicole drove up in her Mercedes convertible and began following them down the street, screaming obscenities, until the police came and sent her away. “He has a temper, but she had a temper too,” Young says.

After the divorce, Nicole was counseled by therapist Susan Forward, author of the book Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. Within 24 hours of Nicole’s murder, Forward was claiming O.J. had beaten Nicole all through the marriage and had stalked her after the divorce. “He was telling her girlfriends and her that if he ever caught her with anyone, he would kill her,” one friend told the Associated Press. “She totally broke it off with him three weeks ago.”

In any domestic murder, the husband or lover is always the first to come under scrutiny because, police have learned painfully, women are commonly killed by the men closest to them. When the bodies were found outside Nicole’s condo on Sunday night, cautious officials announced that they had no primary suspects. But they began building their case against O.J., even as he denied any involvement and went about his grieving for the mother of his children.

Some discern a classic love triangle. O.J. and Nicole had been together that very day for their daughter’s dance recital. But he was not included in the dinner celebration that followed at Mezzaluna, the local restaurant where Nicole’s friend Goldman, an aspiring actor, was a waiter. She called the restaurant later that evening to ask whether she had left her glasses, and Goldman offered to drop them off at her nearby condo.

Sometime after midnight, a neighbor out walking his dog found the bodies. Nicole, wearing only a nightgown, lay in a pool of blood, her head severed to the spinal cord. A barefoot Goldman lay nearby, his body laced with signs of a ferocious struggle and 22 knife wounds. It was the neighborhood dogs that sounded the alarm, their paws spreading a bloody mosaic on the sidewalk around the house. One of the first cops on the scene, a longtime veteran, said, “It was the bloodiest crime scene I have ever seen.”

In the hours that followed, those who saw him say Simpson did not behave like a killer. He caught the 11:45 flight to Chicago for a meeting with Hertz executives and ran into an old acquaintance, photographer Howard Bingham, on the plane. They chatted, mainly about golf, and O.J. seemed in a cheery mood. “I did not notice anything out of the ordinary,” Bingham said, astounded when he heard the news later. Employees at the O’Hare Plaza Hotel said Simpson arrived at dawn, tired but upbeat. He hung around the front desk for a few minutes, joking with the staff and signing autographs before heading up to suite 915. A few hours later, after getting news of the murder by phone, he returned to O’Hare Airport to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. He spent three hours with police and then went home; they described him as simply a witness, not a suspect.

But as the week went on and the scrutiny mounted, Simpson grew more and more despondent. The circus parked outside his house in Brentwood Park, a glossy enclave in West Los Angeles where police are always nestled anyway to protect Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, D.A. Gil Garcetti and several judges who live there. The homeowner’s association hires 24-hour plainclothes security men, who watch over the homes of Angela Lansbury, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, Roseanne Arnold, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. In fact, some neighbors of Nicole’s had a confession of their own. They hoped that O.J. had done it, that this was a classic crime of passion, something insanely logical, that it hadn’t been a random killer who had punctured their security. “You know what scares me?” one neighbor admitted. “What if O.J. didn’t do it? I’m scared. This is a nice neighborhood.”

Simpson remained in seclusion, visited by friends like Jermaine Jackson, ( Dionne Warwick and former U.S.C. football teammate Bob Chandler. He did attend Nicole’s wake on Wednesday and funeral mass on Thursday at St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church; he was treated as a mourner, not a murderer. Friends who talked to Simpson last week said he was distraught. Said movie agent Jack Gilardi, who has represented the ex-footballer for 21 years: “He could hardly talk. He was in tears and everything.”

Simpson’s highflying defense lawyer Robert Shapiro called in a team to help him through the crisis: forensic experts to go over every piece of evidence, an internist to monitor O.J.’s health and a psychiatrist to handle his deepening depression. On Friday morning Garcetti called Shapiro with word that the scientific tests were back, and that charges had been filed of first- degree murder involving special circumstances — meaning that Simpson could get the death penalty if convicted.

Shapiro agreed that his client would surrender that morning at 11, but the fear of suicide was so great that the lawyer wanted the doctors to see Simpson first. “When I saw O.J., he was kind of resigned that he had to go to jail,” said forensic expert Dr. Michael Baden. “He was depressed — I mean, truly depressed. So they called the prison doctors to tell them that O.J. should be watched.”

But Simpson still had some surprise moves to spring even on his own team. The surrender deadline came and went; when Los Angeles police department Commander David Gascon finally appeared before reporters, he was in a quiet fury. O.J. had failed to surface, he announced, and was now a fugitive. D.A. Garcetti arrived about an hour later to warn anyone against helping Simpson escape. “If you assist him in any way,” he said, “you are committing a felony.”

The drama of that news left reporters gasping. But there was more to come three hours later, when Shapiro finally stood before the cameras. It turned out that Simpson had remained in one place ever since Nicole’s funeral the day before — not at his Brentwood mansion, where a stand-in had decoyed the media, but at the San Fernando Valley home of his friend Robert Kardashian. Shapiro said he had greeted Simpson that morning with news that he had been charged and that the surrender had been scheduled. But O.J. still had some things he wanted to do.

First he called his family lawyer and dictated a new codicil to his will. Then he wrote three letters — to his children, to his mother and “To whom it may concern.” As Shapiro explained later, Garcetti’s office finally called and said police were coming to take O.J. into custody. But when the forensic psychiatrist went to get O.J., he and Cowlings were gone. The hunt was on.

As if that were not enough, after Shapiro finished his account, Kardashian stepped forward to read the letter Simpson had written to posterity. It sounded in every way like a suicide note. He protested his love for Nicole and his innocence of any crime, and he denounced the press for mistakes. “I can’t believe what is being said. Most of it is totally made up,” he wrote. He thanked his friends, then concluded, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person.”

The police by now were receiving anonymous tips on where O.J. had been spotted. At 7:15 p.m., L.A.P.D. Detective Tom Lange, who had been one of the lead investigators, reached Simpson on a cellular phone in Cowlings’ car. Lange functioned as a crisis negotiator through the wild ride down the freeways. Simpson’s friends went on the radio to plead with him to give himself up. “O.J., Al, if you’re listening to me, if you can hear me, guys, please, please stop,” said ex-N.F.L. player and sportscaster Jim Hill. “Just turn on your emergency blinkers and just pull over to the side. There are a lot of people who believe that if you two keep up with what you’re doing right now, the worst is going to happen. People still love you, O.J., and they don’t want to remember you going this way.”

When it was all over, when the slow-motion chase ended in his driveway and night fell with the news that he was in custody, there was a national sigh of relief: O.J., still our O.J., had been pulled back from the brink of suicide; he was safe; it was over. The L.A.P.D., which earlier in the day had looked like Keystone Kops, accepted laurels for patience and restraint. It had been a day full of incipient violence, but as more than one commentator was heard to say at the end of it all, “at least no one was hurt.”

At least no one was hurt?

In the Goldman home the phone kept ringing. It was friends of Ron’s, calling his parents and sister to tell them how much they had loved him, sending their love and energy to the family. “It’s hard to imagine that a 25-year-old could touch so many people,” his father Fred said. “He was a special human being. He didn’t deserve for this to happen.” The children, Sydney, 9, and Justin, , 6, were with Nicole’s parents. Their school had called in a psychologist to help their friends cope. One child broke down, wondering if she had anything to do with the murder because she knew Nicole and the kids. Outside Nicole’s home, the flowers friends had placed at the murder site wilted in the hot June sun.

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