Twenty years after infamous Bronco chase, O.J. Simpson still a mystery
This story appears in the June 16, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine here and purchase the digital edition, go here.
Inside the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada, inmate No. 1027820 rises daily between 6 and 6:30 a.m. He and a fellow prisoner known as Smoke share a 15-by-8-foot cell, the walls concrete and painted beige, the floor concrete and painted gray. There is a bunk with two beds, a stainless steel toilet and sink, a pair of televisions, books and an air mattress purchased from the commissary.
Inmate No. 1027820 works at the gym. He supervises other prisoners who clean and set up for basketball games, during which he operates the clock and scoreboard. He also manages a slo-pitch softball team that plays in the yard. He can't bat because of a balky elbow and bad knees, but he likes to taunt the opposition, yelling, "Sit your ass down!" after missed swings. He loves playing dominoes, watches SportsCenter and crime dramas such as Person of Interest, and telephones his lawyer and old friends. He reads USA Today and the Game of Thrones books. He works out, though not as vigorously as he used to. He misses golf. He plays fantasy football; last season his team included Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. He also admires Marshawn Lynch. The way the Seahawks' running back plays reminds the inmate of another life. The life he once had.
"He never talked about the case from California," says Steven Speidel, a former fellow prisoner and friend of inmate 1027820. "He made it very clear not to approach him about that."
The "case from California" is not the reason inmate No. 1027820 -- full name: Orenthal James -Simpson -- is in jail, though in public fascination it overshadows his more recent legal troubles. Simpson is in Lovelock because he was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery in Nevada in 2008; he's serving a sentence of up to 33 years, with the possibility of parole in 2017. He will turn 67 next month, but the O.J. personage who remains a cultural touchstone is much younger. That one was born 20 years ago this week, on June 17, 1994, a day that spawned a series of events that are as ingrained in Americana as anything that happened at Valley Forge or in Dealey Plaza.
For those too young to remember, a refresher course: On June 12, 1994, Simpson's ex‑wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found dead outside her Los Angeles home, their throats slashed in a brutal double murder. The LAPD's investigation quickly focused on Simpson, the NFL hero turned Hollywood fixture, as the prime suspect, and he was to turn himself in to authorities on the morning of June 17. Instead Simpson climbed into a white Ford Bronco and, with the help of his old friend, teammate and chauffeur Al Cowlings, led police on a low-speed chase through the highways and byways of L.A. The pursuit, captured by helicopter-mounted cameras and broadcast live in all its unscripted absurdity on the major networks, was captivating. (NBC, which was airing Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Knicks and the Rockets, cut to split-screen coverage -- the O.J. chase the main image, the game relegated to a small box in the corner.) By the time Simpson surrendered to cops at his Brentwood mansion, 95 million people were watching, more than had viewed the Super Bowl the previous January.
It was the beginning of a quintessentially modern, made-for-TV celebriscandal -- and of a national obsession with all things O.J. After the chase came the Trial of the Century, which ended with Simpson's shocking acquittal on murder charges, which itself was followed two years later by a wrongful-death decision in a civil case brought by the Brown and Goldman families that left Simpson on the hook for $33.5 million. There were books, movies, investigations, documentaries, conspiracy theories, spoofs, even a musical about a guy trying to make a musical about O.J. Simpson. The televised trial turned legal wonks into celebrities (Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Lance Ito) and minted a generation of cable bloviators (Greta Van Susteren, Roger Cossack), late-night punch lines (Kato Kaelin! Black gloves!) and catchphrases ("If it doesn't fit, you must acquit"). We can thank Simpson for making the name Kardashian (Robert, the family patriarch, was a prominent member of O.J.'s legal team) synonymous with reality TV long before Kim, Khloe and Kourtney found the cameras. Sports, celebrity, wealth, race, sex and murder -- Simpson didn't invent the tabloid scandal, but he perfected it.
Yet, as bizarre as the 16 months between the Bronco chase and the not-guilty decision felt, the ensuing 20 years have matched it. The verdict set Simpson free but also imprisoned him, sending him into the world as both a celebrity and a pariah, found innocent yet presumed guilty. He was, he often said, determined to find the real killers. The search hit a speed bump in September 2007, in a Las Vegas hotel where Simpson and five accomplices were arrested for stealing -- at gunpoint -- a trove of sports memorabilia that Simpson claimed belonged to him.
Family members and Simpson's manager, Norman Pardo, say that these days Simpson is depressed. He also, according to which tabloid you believe, suffers from brain cancer, weighs more than 300 pounds, is on a hunger strike, has high blood pressure and steals oatmeal cookies from his fellow prisoners at Lovelock. That's all "a bunch of crap," says Speidel, who worked with Simpson in the gym until Speidel was released in April after seven years. "He's not a monster," Speidel adds. "He's very outgoing. He's very involved."
The guards at Lovelock often address Simpson, who did not respond to multiple interview requests from SI, by his inmate number, not his name. And yet, two decades later, O.J.'s fame -- and infamy -- endure.
Christie Prody met O.J. Simpson in the summer of 1996, less than a year after his murder acquittal. She was 21, originally from Minnesota, and had recently moved to L.A. Prody was driving in Brentwood when she spotted Simpson, perched atop an electric bike at an intersection near the estate he owned on Rockingham Avenue, the one that usually had a crowd of camera-toting tourists gathered out front. Simpson asked Prody to get out of the car. She says he later told her he wanted to see how she looked.
Prody, now 39, was Simpson's girlfriend off and on for 12 years. She has been in a state prison in Minnesota since July 2013, serving 15 months after a conviction for stealing prescription painkillers from an elderly couple. She detailed her relationship with Simpson -- which covered most of the period between Simpson's not-guilty verdict in the murder case and his conviction in Nevada in 2008 -- in four interviews with SI. "What would your family think if they knew you were talking to me?" Prody says Simpson asked her in one early telephone conversation. "Here you are, this young, impressionable girl, and here I am, I've just gone through this major trial on national television."
The murder trial, even long after it ended, dominated their relationship. Prody says that once, when the couple left a sushi restaurant in L.A. in the late 1990s, a woman turned to her and asked, "How could you have dinner with that murderer?" Another time someone sprayed graffiti on Simpson's house in Florida, and Prody says Simpson regularly received in the mail copies of the many "anti-O.J. books" written about his case.
Prody says there were two distinct sides to Simpson's personality: While he could be charming and engaging in public, she often saw a different person. "I didn't realize he was that good of an actor," she says. "I didn't think he was a good actor at all in those old movies he was in."
Prody also says that Simpson used drugs during her time with him. She says that soon after meeting Simpson, she tried cocaine for the first time, snorting the powder through a rolled-up $50 bill. At first, she says, he used the drug occasionally, but eventually he was using every weekend. She says he also regularly smoked marijuana, often while watching NFL games. The cocaine use, she says, would often lead to ramblings about the murder case. "He talked about the trial and talked about the trial and then talked about it," she says. "He got obsessive about it."
According to Prody, Simpson blamed the deaths of Brown and Goldman on their lifestyle, which he told Prody included drug use -- parroting a theory, floated by his defense team, that the murders were carried out by drug dealers the victims were involved with. Simpson often said this, Prody says, when he himself was high. He also frequently compared Prody to Nicole. "Oh, Nicki used to look good in that," he would say if he saw her in certain outfits, or, "She would look good with her hair that way." Prody says now that the comparisons made her uncomfortable. She also says that Simpson exerted great influence and control over her life. He did not want her to leave the house. He took her car keys, her cellphone. She says he never physically abused her, but there were threats.
"He would tell me to stop doing the things I was doing if I didn't want to end up like her," Prody says. Prody knew that her was Simpson's dead ex‑wife.
Simpson has been infamous for so long that it's easy to forget why he was famous in the first place. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 as a USC tailback, then gouged holes in NFL defenses for 11 years, nine with the Bills and two with the 49ers. In Buffalo he ran behind an offensive line dubbed the Electric Company, with schemes consisting mostly of five plays, like the old Tecmo Bowl video games: O.J. left, O.J. right, O.J. middle, a fullback run and the occasional pass. Simpson won four league rushing titles, and in his epic 1973 season he became the first running back to crack the 2,000-yard barrier -- in an era when the NFL schedule was 14 games, not 16.
Even while he was playing, Simpson was moonlighting in Hollywood: an appearance on Dragnet in 1968, a big-screen role alongside Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno in '74, a turn in the critically-acclaimed TV miniseries Roots in '77 and a Saturday Night Live hosting gig -- only the second by an athlete to that point -- in '78. One Bills teammate, Earl Edwards, remembers seeing passengers miss flights to wait for Simpson's autograph. Edwards also recalls going to dinner with Simpson in Washington, D.C., when the Bills were in town to play the Redskins; before they could get inside the restaurant, a crowd of 60 people formed outside to catch a glimpse of O.J. "He was as big as you could get as an athlete," says Vince Evans, an acquaintance -- not friend, he stresses -- of Simpson's and a fellow USC alum. "Listen, when your initials are the only thing that they need to describe you, that's pretty popular."
And then, after Simpson retired from football in 1979, his fame grew larger. He flourished both as an actor -- his IMDB pages list 33 credits -- and as a broadcaster. The Naked Gun, Monday Night Football, Hertz commercials and Wilson ads -- by the late '80s Simpson was ubiquitous. He had looks, charisma, money, friends in Hollywood and corporate boardrooms. He topped it all off with a seemingly boundless amiability, an ability to ingratiate himself with everyone. In '75 Simpson had paid for his Bills teammates to watch Ali-Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila, in a theater. He held Halloween parties at his house. After he passed 2,000 rushing yards, against the Jets at Shea Stadium in December '73, he refused to conduct his news conference without his offensive teammates. Later he gave his linemen gold bracelets to commemorate the record-setting season, inscribing each with the player's uniform number, we did it and 3,088, the franchise rushing mark they had set.
Simpson knew how to charm those outside the locker room as well as in. When David Israel, a syndicated newspaper columnist, wrote flattering columns about him in the late 1970s, Simpson sent him a thank-you telegram. He was a thoughtful and articulate interview, able to sell newspapers, magazines and television shows. "He was almost inescapable," Israel says. "He was LeBron. He was Jordan. He would have broken Twitter. There aren't enough chips on earth to power something like that."
That O.J. Simpson, the gregarious, gracious, generous running back, was on full display on Aug. 3, 1985, the day he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In his speech Simpson recalled advice given him by Jack McBride, his coach at Galileo High in San Francisco -- words that are as foreboding now as they were touching then. "He said, O.J., in this world there are rules that we all must live by," Simpson told the audience in Canton. "You've gotta learn that if you're ever going to be successful in this world, you are going to have to learn to accept the responsibilities for your actions."
On Halloween night in 1995, a few weeks after Simpson was acquitted, the doorbell rang at Israel's home in Los Angeles. It was Simpson, television executive Don Ohlmeyer and their dates. Simpson wore a full clown costume, with gigantic shoes, a rainbow wig and white gloves. On the walk from the gate to the front door, one of Israel's border collies nipped at Simpson's shoes, growling incessantly -- as if, Israel jokes, "they got some information passed along the doggie Western Union."
Simpson wanted a vodka. He and Israel talked as he drank it, and Simpson tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Israel for a trip down to Santa Monica Boulevard, a gathering spot for Halloween revelers. As Simpson left for his SUV, Israel realized, mortified, what Simpson had left behind on the kitchen table. "O.J.," he yelled as he ran into the street. "You forgot your gloves!"
Later that night Israel and his wife, Lindy DeKoven, were watching the late-night news; there was a segment broadcast live from West Hollywood, with a correspondent reporting breathlessly that the year's most popular costumes were O.J. Simpson and Judge Ito. DeKoven yelled at the TV, "O.J.'s there, you idiot! He's right behind you!"
In September 2000 Simpson bought a house in Miami, largely so he could take advantage of Florida's asset protection laws to shield himself from the wrongful-death judgment the Brown and Goldman families won against him. The families reportedly received very little of the $33.5 million they were awarded. But many others tangentially connected to the case did their best to cash in. Mike Gilbert, Simpson's former business manager, wrote a book titled How I Helped O.J. Get Away with Murder. Faye Resnick, a friend of Nicole's who Simpson's defense team insisted knew the drug dealers who they said carried out the killings, wrote two books. Kaelin, the houseguest whose testimony at the murder trial seemed lifted from a sitcom, went into so many businesses -- he's currently marketing a line of loungewear called Kato Potato -- that he eventually was able to purchase his own home.
Simpson, meanwhile, settled into the life of a celebrity outcast. Just before the Bronco chase, Kardashian had read a rambling statement on Simpson's behalf that came off as part expression of innocence, part suicide note. "I can't go on," the statement said. "No matter what the outcome, people will look and point. ..." Simpson always did know his audience. His acquittal divided the country -- polls showed that while black America overwhelmingly believed Simpson was innocent, white America largely thought he had gotten away with murder. Yet the country remained united in its fascination with him. Sherman White, a former Bills teammate, recalls being part of an autograph session with Simpson in Las Vegas. A woman walked away with Simpson's signature and said, "I got an autograph from a killer!"
Barrett Prody, Christie's older brother who often hung out with Simpson, says Simpson was "well aware" of how the vast majority of Americans perceived him. Simpson warned Prody that crowds might not be kind. One night in 2007, he and Simpson were having dinner in South Beach when a couple posed for pictures near their table. "That camera's on us, not them," Simpson said -- and sure enough the image was broadcast on the local news that night as the anchor said, "Well, O.J. should be behind bars, but instead he's out at bars." Barrett says "upper-scale white crowds" tended to heckle Simpson more. He often responded, "God bless you."
Simpson, friends say, mostly approached his new life with humor and self-deprecation. When he and Barrett Prody encountered lines at nightclubs in South Florida, Simpson would say, "We're not going to have to wait in line because of this," and gesture toward his face. In rare moments, though, he admitted privately to feeling bitter over being unable, despite his acquittal, to reclaim the life he once had. "He felt like he had a part of himself stripped away," Barrett says.
There was more collateral damage -- like the fallout for the children Simpson had with Nicole Brown, Justin and Sydney. Justin, now 25, and Sydney, 28, live in the Miami area. Justin was watching the NBA playoffs when reached last month by telephone. "Yes, I have examples," he said of what his family has endured, though he refused to provide details. "It's my life."
Simpson still has staunch supporters. Cowlings is a frequent visitor to Lovelock, and O.J.'s older brother Melvin says, "His family still believes in him, and that's what he has, his family support." But Simpson's own behavior could test that support and did little to discourage the public from gawking at him. In 2007 he licensed his likeness to a football video game in which a character in his image played for a team called the Assassins; after he scored a touchdown, a hooded character appeared and stabbed at the screen with a knife. In 2006 he wrote a book called If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Shortly before its scheduled release the publisher, HarperCollins, pulled the plug. But the book was published by a smaller imprint two years later, and the message was clear: Despite continuing to maintain his innocence, even O.J. didn't know what to make of himself. "O.J. doesn't believe he did it," Pardo says. "But he is afraid of whoever did do it. Every time I ask him what happened that night, he tells me I don't want to know."
No wonder, then, that Simpson was an object of perverse fascination wherever he went. He may have been booted from country clubs and restaurants, but he was welcome at down-market movie premieres and South Beach club openings. Pardo says he has 70 hours of unreleased Simpson footage, which he is trying to sell. He maintains that the video, shot in 35 cities between 1999 and 2006, shows that people loved Simpson. He wants to turn it into three films called The Unpromotable, The O.J. Tapes and The O.J. Special.
"Nobody treated him wrong," Pardo says. "Every drink he ever wanted, free. Older white people, too. Grandmas hugged him. They said, It's just terrible what they did to you. Nobody treated him like a pariah. It confused me, even."
The racial elements of Simpson's saga complicated things, too. During his murder trial, many African-Americans -- rightfully wary of the justice system's treatment of the black community -- found it easy to conclude that the LAPD had framed Simpson. And there are still those who believe that the national reluctance to embrace a man found not guilty was motivated by his color, that it was some sort of karmic payback from white America for the heights he had reached in his football-and-Hollywood- prime. "When O.J. became king, it was very tense in America segregationwise," says Edwards. "The apparatus of equality wasn't really established. [White America] really didn't want him to be where he was. But the system couldn't curtail O.J."
To Edwards, the fact that Simpson married a beautiful white woman who ended up dead was "the cornerstone of the hatred." The perception of Simpson would be different, Edwards believes, if the victims had been black. Does Simpson believe that? "Nobody really knows O.J., to be honest," Pardo says. "His true friends stayed with him. But I'll tell you, it's hard to stand by O.J. Simpson.
"You're seen as friends with a murderer."
Everything changed again for Simpson on Sept. 13, 2007, around 7:30 p.m. The arrest report from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lays out the details: how Simpson arrived at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino and went to room 1203 to meet two men selling memorabilia; how he brought five men with him, two armed with semiautomatic handguns; how he wanted to recover memorabilia he believed had been stolen from him years earlier. Guns were pointed, and Simpson allegedly announced, "Don't let nobody out this room." He and his crew left, and a trove of memorabilia did as well: Simpson told police he only took things that belonged to him. Among the items taken, according to the police and subsequent media reports: footballs and photographs with Simpson's signature; a Simpson family video; baseballs signed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider; a pair of Joe Montana's cleats; a photo of Simpson with late FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.
Officers met with Simpson at the Palms hotel the next day. He told them he did not care about the memorabilia and wanted only to recover "family stuff." Simpson continued to talk. An officer wrote down snippets:
I never had a real manager. I had lawyers.
They said, Take it, we cool, Juice.
Why are they not in trouble?
On Sept. 16 police searched the residence of one of the men who allegedly accompanied Simpson to the Palace Station. They found a Beretta .22-caliber handgun, a Ruger .45-caliber handgun, a suit that matched one worn by a suspect and an assault rifle, among other items. Detectives returned to the Palms and arrested Simpson, charging him with 12 counts, including kidnapping, robbery and assault -- each with a deadly weapon.
Pardo says Simpson called him early on the morning of Oct. 3, 2008, before the jury in his trial was scheduled to deliberate. He says Simpson told him he felt like a "black man in the '40s in an all-white justice system," and that two jurors had snickered at him the day before. But Pardo also says Simpson asked that race not be the focal point of his Nevada defense because Illinois senator Barack Obama was running in the presidential election that November and Simpson didn't want to hurt his chances.
Exactly 13 years to the day after he was acquitted of the murder charges, Simpson was convicted on all counts. To many close to Simpson, the stiff charges and the verdict felt like retribution for the murder rap he beat -- justice served so many years later.
Simpson arrived at Lovelock in December 2008. Speidel, his fellow inmate, says prison officials kept Simpson separate at first, mostly for his own protection. Speidel also says he discussed the Nevada conviction with Simpson. "He realizes he f----- up," Speidel says. "He gets that. He was very apologetic."
On June 4, Simpson's lawyers resubmitted an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, arguing that he was misled by his former attorney and he didn't get a fair trial. The original appeal, filed in May, came in almost 6,000 words over the court's limit. In July 2013 Simpson appeared before a parole board. He struck a apologetic tone and said, "My crime was trying to retrieve for my family my own property."
Barrett Prody has visited Simpson at Lovelock and spoken to him via telephone. He says Simpson wants to ignore life beyond the prison's walls. "He just kind of accepted the fact that his life was in the Lovelock Correctional Center," Barrett says. "He found the more he talked to people about what's going on outside, the harder it was for him to cope with it."
Shane Rabindranath, a guard at Lovelock from 2007 until '11, says most inmates left Simpson alone. There was a fight at the gym once, and guards, following standard procedure, handcuffed all the prisoners in the area. Rabindranath needed two sets of cuffs for Simpson, who was not in the fight, because he was so broad in the shoulders.
Pardo says that if Simpson is released, he should move to a "nonracist" country. Maybe the Bahamas or Jamaica. To escape. "But honestly," Pardo says, "I don't think he's getting out of there. I think he's going to die in prison."