That’s me standing at the peach-colored condo‘s tubular metal gate, staring at the killing ground where Nicole Brown Simpson’s thick blood once flowed, where Ronald Goldman also died in a deep crimson pool of his own gore unleashed by a vicious knife attack.
I’m in Los Angeles for the January 24, 1995, opening statements in Orenthal James “OJ” Simpson’s double murder trial. America’s got the Juice on the brain. I’m there to pick and squeeze the gray matter of his existence. But I can’t get in the courtroom. I’m not important enough to gain access. All media seats are taken I’m told when I get here. I can’t even fit into the overflow room. Don’t ask me why this comes as a surprise to me or my bosses. It just does. Knowing me, everybody just figured I’d find a way to crash the event.
I flew the whole way across the country to cover the first week of the trial for my mid-sized newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, PA, because everything OJ is that important to American culture. The editor grudgingly agreed to send me to LA to provide my hard coal country take on what some people are calling the trial of the century.
By 5 a.m. on opening day I’m one of the first press people on the scene. I’m so irked about being banned I start busting off to a woman in the parking lot about elite media darling scum. I tell her although my newspaper is owned by Capital Cities/ABC the beautiful ABC news people won’t even give me a free cup of coffee from their stinking catering truck. The woman, a CNN producer, is impressed enough by my diatribe to put me on live TV.
My then partner (now wife) Stephanie in Wilkes-Barre, PA, hears my familiar roar as does a colleague who’s under the weather on vacation in Kenya and believes he’s suffering a malaria hallucination. But it’s just me fuming about murder, media elite and the cruel, violent collapse of sanity, decency and common sense.
When the trial players start to arrive I position myself by the courthouse door. Here comes OJ attorney Robert Shapiro. Pushing my way to the front of the crowd I throw a curve to see how he’ll react.
“I hear OJ flunked a lie detector test,” I say. “What do you have to say about that?”
Shapiro stares at me like I just hit him in the face with a phone book. He keeps walking. Long after the trial ends, the Associated Press reports OJ did prove “deceptive” on a lie detector test Shapiro arranged before the trial, but nobody outside the Dream Team inner circle knew that at the time I came up with and asked my question. No wonder Shapiro looks at me like I’m a deranged, bearded Biblical prophet.
That night at dinner I order the same rigatoni pasta entree Nicole ordered for her last meal at Mezzaluna, the hip restaurant where Goldman worked. For dessert I head down the street to Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream the same way Nicole did.
The next day I’m watching LA cops roust a homeless Black guy who later tells me his name is Mr. Green and he’s a military veteran coming back from the local VA hospital. He says he knew OJ. Another Black guy at a bar that night tells me he knows OJ, too. It dawns on me that everybody in LA seems to know OJ whether they do or not.
Now I’m ringing the buzzer at the gate of OJ’s Rockingham estate where key witness Kato Kaelin once lived in the guest house and heard three bumps the night prosecutors say OJ Simpson banged into a wall air conditioner and dropped a bloody glove as he rushed into his house after coming home from the slaughter.
A woman’s voice comes over the intercom. Using my slickest persuasion, I plead my case. C’mon, I need a column I tell her. The intercom clicks off and goes silent.
Now I race to the Brentwood neighborhood crime scene. That’s me lurking near the front door of Nicole’s condo. Now I’m across the street banging at a neighbor’s door in a dull house with drawn blinds. I head back to the condo’s rear gate trying to look in the window. I’m loitering in the alley trying to figure out who might have seen the killer race away that terrible night when I spot a Mexican house painter. He says he knows OJ, too.
The grisly scene gets more intense when two bony kids appear in the sunshine like they’re waiting for the school bus near where police bagged Goldman’s body. Why are these juvenile vampires posing like twin slasher film ghouls at what’s currently the most famous murder scene in the world? Mom appears, making the blooming bloodsuckers stand closer together as she raises her camera. C’mon, Dad, get in the picture.
Everybody say, “Bloodbath!”
Who but Manson family members would see the appeal of posing your children for snapshots at a human butcher shop? I grill the little devils like bratwursts at a summer beach barbecue. They can’t understand my surprise or dismay at their treating a double death scene like Disneyland. Their parents are delighted. So I take pictures of the young fiends, too.
The next morning I’m back at the courthouse with a plan.
My columns each day set a good scene but I need more than color. I need to get where OJ’s trial is taking place. I take the elevator with a silent gang member from East LA who wears the number for the 84 Main Street Mafia Crips tattooed across the back of his skull. He gets off at the district attorney’s office. I go to the 9th floor. When an armed deputy sheriff stops me I act like I own the joint and take him by surprise with a trick question.
“Other trials are underway on this floor, right?”
“Yes,” says the surly deputy impeding access.
“I want to go to them,” I say.
Cornered, he grimaces.
“Fifteen minutes,” I say. “That’s all I need.”
He lets me pass and I’m off, breezing by the closed door to the OJ courtroom and moving down the hall where Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss is on trial for running a celebrity prostitution ring. I burst into the courtroom looking for big name stars. But the trial is delayed that morning and the room is empty.
Hearing voices down the hall I rush out and see a break in the OJ testimony. Whoa, there’s OJ lawyer Johnnie Cochran coming out of the courtroom talking on a cell phone dressed in a squirrel gray suit and aorta-colored silk necktie.
Double whoa, here’s Nicole’s sister Denise coming my way swinging her thick mane of long black hair, wearing black jeans, black sweater and cowboy boots with a large silver cross dangling from her neck. I step up and introduce myself. We talk. Denise is nice. I’m making column headway.
Now here’s Goldman’s mother coming out of the restroom. I stop her. She snaps she won’t talk with the press and who do I think I am. I understand. Goldman’s sister gives me a sad smile.
And out of nowhere my column comes alive.
OJ’s mother and Nicole’s mother are walking toward each other like high noon at the OJ Corral. Juditha Brown and Eunice Simpson close the distance. So do I. Acting like I’m not paying attention, I eavesdrop on their every word, the first time these mothers-in-law have met since the murders. They embrace, seem awkward and exchange tense small talk. I take in the pathos and stress oozing from the scene.
This will be my best column of the week. The only better piece would be from inside the courtroom into which I realize I can easily sneak and take a vacant seat until the legitimate occupant arrives.
But checking my watch I know my 15 minutes are almost up.
I gave the sheriff my word.
So I leave, thanking the stony-faced deputy on the way out.
When the trial ends more than eight months later, I sit at my computer in the newsroom and try to make sense of OJ’s acquittal. On October 3, 1995, when the OJ jury announces its verdict, this is some of what I write for my newspaper, The Times Leader:
“One day last January I stood on the LA sidewalk near where the bodies fell. I touched the ground and imagined the horror that happened there. Smelling the flowers and sensing the night and the nice neighborhood, I felt so sorry for the dead.”
“Racking up the ultimate ground gain, OJ beat the system.”
“So break out the champagne and watch him slap high fives with all the cheerleaders and coaches who helped make his victory possible. It’s over. And OJ’s just as scary as he ever was.”
I recently sent OJ a Twitter message asking if he’d like to talk about old times. He failed to respond. If “innocent” OJ would like me to help him find the person he calls “the real killer,” all he has to do is answer the door the next time I ring the bell.
More than 26 years later, an executioner still stalks the living.
A famous cut-throat still walks among us.