MY DINNER WITH OJ

Some of the most intimate details of his life are known to millions; in other respects, the world's most infamous star remains an enigma.
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The Independent Culture
The First thing you see when the iron security gates to OJ Simpson's estate open is a bunch of weathered figurines on a small patch of grass off to the right of the driveway, 2ft-high statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As sentinels, they are appropriate, because the line between reality and fantasy, in LA in general, and in the Simpson case in particular, is pretty much a blur.

I am here, at OJ Simpson's mansion in the exclusive suburb of Brentwood, a few hours after lawyers for the families of his alleged victims, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, have finished grilling Simpson in court, because I know somebody. In this instance, Dan Leonard, one of Simpson's lawyers, an old friend from Boston. That's how this town works. It isn't what you know, it's who you know. Ostensibly, I'm here as a journalist, but that line is a bit blurry, too. To get into the Simpson estate, to get access to the Simpson defence team and to Simpson himself, I have to abide by a list of ground rules, dictated by a gag order placed on the current trial's participants by Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki. Unlike his predecessor, Lance Ito, who willingly became a celebrity while presiding over the criminal trial, Fujisaki is determined to prevent the civil trial from becoming a circus.

But this is LA. This is OJ. Restraint, journalistic or otherwise, is not on.

In theory, journalists are supposed to be objective, or at least fair. But there is nothing objective or fair about the OJ Simpson case. Even those who say they haven't chosen sides have done so, if only subconsciously. And, once you approach the courtroom, let alone the house where OJ and Nicole once lived as man and wife, you betray your sympathies by the words you use, even by the greetings you offer those on one side or the other.

Earlier that day, inside the small courtroom in Santa Monica where the civil case against Simpson is being argued, I had been introduced to Simpson. He grabbed my hand and started pumping it, as if I were an old friend. I could feel the eyes of other people in the courtroom, including Ron Goldman's father, Fred, and sister, Kim, freeze on me. In their minds, if not in mine, I had chosen sides.

Later, during a break in the proceedings, I saw Kim Goldman hug a reporter for the New York Daily News. All that morning, in the courtroom, Kim Goldman had sat directly in front of her mother, Sharon Rufo, who was sitting next to me. The two women didn't so much as make eye contact. They are estranged. Goldman has accused Rufo of seeking to cash in on the death of her 25-year-old son, with whom she had had no contact for the previous 14 years. It is an unseemly accusation; but the image of Kim Goldman hugging a reporter while her mother sat a few feet away, ignored and alone, seemed infinitely sad, a sobering reminder of just how many damaged people are at the centre of this circus, this made-for-TV tragedy.

When I got permission to go to Los Angeles to do a profile for the Boston Globe of Dan Leonard, a Boston lawyer enmeshed in the most scrutinised trial in America, my ulterior motive was to get inside the estate at 360 Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood, to see and talk to a famous man who became an infamous man who may have got away with murder. Still, I am slightly embarrassed by my curiosity. I have always professed to not caring about the case; but, as the iron gates slowly part, I realise that I am no different from most Americans. I have absorbed the details by osmosis, and I am, against my better judgement, intrigued by all this.

The ivy that lines the 6ft high walls that surround the estate hints at grandeur within, and the two-storey Tudor-style mansion, with its carved stone entrance, certainly looks imposing. As we drive in, parking in the same spot where Simpson got out of the white Ford Bronco after the slow- speed chase with police, Jason Simpson, OJ's eldest son (by his first marriage), stubs out a cigar on a patio table and slouches off. He is not pleased that another stranger has been allowed into the sanctuary. I am told not to take it personally. Jason, a cook, is surly by nature. In contrast, Benny Baker, Simpson's brother-in-law, couldn't be friendlier. Benny was a bus driver before he retired early. He is married to Simpson's eldest sister, Shirley. The Bakers live in San Francisco, where Simpson was born and brought up, but they have moved into Rockingham for the duration of the civil trial. They are fiercely, almost parentally protective of OJ. In his mixed-up, muddled-up world, they are his anchors.

Inside, the mansion is surprisingly modest. Like many Brentwood homes, it has a Florida-style design, wide open, with few walls. The appliances, the furnishings, the floors are the kind you would find in most American middle-class homes. It's the address that vaults the property's value into the millions.

"This is a quiet house," Shirley Baker says, tidying around the kitchen. She is a religious woman, and she has let it be known that local black church groups are welcome at 360 Rockingham. Some of OJ's staunchest defenders have come from black churches, and Benny thinks it's a good idea that the local groups should use the house as a drop-in centre to gather and talk about issues of concern to the black community. It brings a certain stability to the place, Benny says. Good for the kids, he says.

Justin and Sydney, the children (aged eight and 11 respectively) of OJ and Nicole, are never far removed from conversations at Rockingham. The custody battle over them has been waged simultaneously with the wrongful death suit. Just before Christmas, OJ was awarded custody, but when I visited he was still torn between two trials. One day, he would be in Santa Monica saying, "No, I did not kill my wife." The next, he would be an hour away, in Orange County, saying, "Yes, I can be a good father." And, surreal as it seemed - one court approaching the conclusion that the children belong with their father because their mother is dead, even while another court seems likely to find that the mother is dead only because the father killed her - the appearance of a good, stable home was all important.

OJ likes the church ladies, to an extent. They cook mean chicken, and tonight it's spread across the marble counter-top in the middle of his kitchen. "It's baked, not fried," OJ says, patting his stomach, "I love fried chicken, but it don't love me. Baked is much better for you."

OJ puts a piece of chicken on a plate and hands it to me, insisting he will not eat alone. At 49, Simpson still has the physique of an athlete - broad shoulders, powerful arms. He complains that he is putting on weight. His knees are chronically sore, and he can't exercise as much or as hard as he would like.

The church ladies have cooked up a mess of collard greens and pineapple cake. But OJ wants them to pack it in so that he can watch the Los Angeles Lakers basketball game on television. Simpson has just come home from a round of golf. In the aftermath of his acquittal in the murder trial, he was snubbed at some of the country clubs where he used to play. This being LA, the solution was obvious. "I made new friends," he says, shrugging. He never has trouble finding partners these days.

OJ has parked his golf shoes by the door, neatly, side by side, and is padding around in black stockinged feet. He is wearing a baseball hat emblazoned with the logo of NBC, the television network for which he was a sports commentator, and for which, acquittal or not, he will never work again. As the church ladies leave, he charms them, and they titter out of the door. OJ heads for the living-room. His 75-year-old mother is sitting there; when she sees us enter the room, she rises to leave. OJ is solicitous. "Mama, you don't have to go. We're just going to talk."

She waves him off. She has just had knee surgery and is walking gingerly. "Isn't she something?" her son asks. "I had surgery, I was laid up. Look at her. She's unbelievable."

The living-room is airy, with two fireplaces, and white leather couches facing OJ's "entertainment centre" - a huge television and stereo built into the wall. Off to the right of the entertainment centre there is a billiard-room, with framed magazine covers of OJ's sporting exploits on the walls.

OJ walks with a noticeable limp. He offers to get me a drink. I ask for Irish whiskey, and he hobbles to find some. "Good stuff," he says, "but I don't drink it. Benny likes it. Don't you, Benny?"

"Um-hmm," says his brother-in-law, who has wandered in from the kitchen.

We're supposed to discuss Dan Leonard, who is not just Simpson's lawyer but has become a good friend. Leonard has for the last year lived on Simpson's estate (in the guesthouse once inhabited by Kato Kaelin), returning home to his wife and two children in Boston every other weekend. But while Simpson starts off about Leonard, he quickly changes subject, going on about various and sundry matters, with seemingly no rhyme or reason. He goes on at great length about being "a good guy." He was a good guy to his team-mates, his fans, his wife, his kids. He never said no to an autograph.

Defending his right to make money off what some call the crime of the century - he's made around $2m from one book, and says he may write another - he says: "Everybody is making money off this, especially the media, which you work for. I'm not doing anything that anyone else isn't doing.

"I can't believe how irresponsible some in the media have been," he adds. "People just quote anonymous sources, to get scoops. They just make stuff up. I know that one day someone's going to write that I wasn't that good a football player, because they've accused me of everything else."

He speaks very seriously, constantly using his hands to express himself. When he says "me", he often bounces his fingers, all of them extended, off his chest. "This is me," he says, bouncing his fingers. "This is who I am."

OJ tells me that he's selling off his assets to pay his legal bills; that his case has exposed and might help narrow the racial divide in America; that he's studying Islam. I glance at the Bible that lies on one of the tables. "I read the Bible a lot," he says, "but I've been reading the Koran, too. It's really interesting. It all goes back to the same trail; it all goes back to the God of Moses."

And then, inevitably, he asks me what I think.

"About what?" I ask.

"About all this? The case."

Well, I begin. I didn't sit through the first trial, so I don't feel entitled to an opinion but ...

"But?"

But I never saw a motive.

"Exactly!" Simpson says, slapping his thigh. I have pleased him.

I don't tell Simpson that I think the circumstantial evidence points to his guilt. When I was watching the criminal trial from afar, it struck me that the LAPD may have tried to frame a guilty man, and that such malfeasance, combined with the prosecution's breathtaking ineptitude, accomplished the near-impossible acquittal.

Still, my longstanding professional relationship with Leonard had caused me to have doubts. Even before he took on Simpson's case, Leonard had told me he thought Simpson was innocent, and Leonard was never one to tell me one of his clients was innocent if they were not. Besides the absence of motive, Leonard contends it was virtually impossible for Simpson to have killed Nicole and Goldman and still made a flight that night to Chicago. He acknowledges that the blood evidence is extremely damaging to Simpson's claims of innocence. But he claims that Detective Mark Fuhrman's racism - demonstrated devastatingly in court by Leonard's partner, F Lee Bailey - and another detective's shoddy and unusual handling of samples of both Simpson's and Brown's blood, make the planting of evidence "a very real possibility".

Leonard is an effective advocate. As I sit with Simpson on his couch, about 3ft apart, I can look him in the eye and honestly say, I don't know if he killed his wife and Ron Goldman.

"You know something?" OJ says. "I've had a lot of girlfriends. Not one of them has said I've mistreated them. And there are people out there offering them money to say that, and they won't, and some of them needed the money. None of them have said that I'm anything but a gentleman, because that's how I am with women."

Simpson uses a remote control to find the Lakers game. Of the roughly half-dozen channels he surfs past, his image flashes on the screen on several.

"You'd go crazy if you watched all this," Simpson says. "So we don't."

The Santa Monica courtroom seats just 80 people. I am seated in the middle of the second row, where the defence seats end and the seats designated for the victims' families begin. To my left is Terry Baker, Shirley's and Benny's daughter. To my right is Sharon Rufo, Ron Goldman's mother. Terry Baker is warm and gregarious. Rufo eyes me suspiciously. I say hello to her, but she looks away.

There is a cachet to this trial, unlike the criminal trial, because it is not televised. There is a premium on seats, most of which are taken up by reporters. At dawn, spectators begin lining up for the 16 seats reserved for the public. Many who get into the courtroom seem pleased with themselves. In a culture obsessed with status, getting a seat at "OJ II" is the ultimate status symbol.

Gerry Spence, the celebrated millionaire defence attorney, is among those at the courthouse. Spence has watched OJ deny repeatedly that he killed his wife. He has watched Simpson keep his cool, refusing to take the bait of the victims' lawyers. He has noted Simpson's body language, his voice inflexion, and his scripted turns to the jury box, to make eye contact with the jurors at precisely the moment he denies butchering his wife and Ron Goldman. Gerry Spence has a considered opinion. "He is," says Spence, "the best witness I've ever seen."

Indeed, watching Simpson - not hearing the evidence, but just watching him, especially outside the courtroom - it seems as though he really believes he is innocent. One is tempted to reduce it to this: either this guy is innocent, or Hollywood badly miscast him in light comedy. If Simpson killed his wife, he should have been playing Othello instead of Nordberg, the goofy cop in the Naked Gun movies.

Today's hearing is brief: Judge Fujisaki calls a recess after dismissing a female juror for flirting with a paralegal. After the courtroom is cleared, the bailiffs lead us out of a back door. In the parking lot, there is a gauntlet of cameras. Melrose Larry, a professional heckler who is actually employed for this purpose by the Howard Stern radio show, screams above the crowd at OJ.

"Have a good Thanksgiving, you murderer," he bellows. Then he starts yelling at me too, assuming that I'm just another lawyer. "Hey, you in the red tie," he screams. "You're defending a murderer! You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

OJ glances back at me and smirks. I've been baptised. I am now officially part of the entourage. OJ, his in-laws, and Tom Gleason, his 6ft 6in bodyguard, duck into a waiting $70,000 black Chevrolet Suburban and drive off, Melrose Larry's abuse drowning in the distance.

The Next evening, I decide to push my luck and try to arrange a photograph inside Rockingham. OJ doesn't object, but he does insist on the photographer being someone he knows, a black guy whom he says is professional and discreet. At the last moment, however, the plan is squashed by Kathy, OJ's personal assistant. Kathy is upset that I am even at Rockingham. She is worried that, with the custody battle on, lawyers for the Brown family will portray the Simpson home as a place where lawyers and reporters congregate at all hours - hardly the kind of place to raise young kids. I try to reassure Kathy, telling her that I am not out here to judge, that whatever I write will be considerate of privacy concerns, and that, from what I've seen, Rockingham is certainly no den of iniquity. She seems assuaged, and turns out to be friendly. Her sensitivity is understandable: the walled estate is still besieged by journalists, groupies and weirdos. A television van is waiting outside as we speak.

Not long afterwards, F. Lee Bailey, Leonard's partner, comes in, looking tanned if not especially fit. "OJ," he sings.

The two men embrace, then do an impromptu jig, like football players after a touchdown. Bailey and Simpson have a little business to discuss, along with Leonard, Bob Baker (OJ's lead counsel) and Phil "Baby" Baker (Bob's son and associate), who are also there; so I step out into the kitchen. Gigi, the Filipino maid, is cooking dinner for OJ and his lawyers. OJ's mother is watching television. We engage in small talk.

"This must be very hard on you," I say, speaking louder than normal, assuming she is hard of hearing.

But the old woman hears fine.

"It's hard on all of us," she replies.

It's getting late. OJ and the lawyers aren't going to eat for a while. Leonard and I decide to grab some dinner close to the airport before catching the red eye back to Boston. Shirley and Benny say that they will come with us. We get up to leave.

OJ grasps my hand, seemingly harder than when we first met. He is a charismatic man, smooth, probably would have been good at politics. But, as we exchange pleasantries, I can't help wondering: were these the last eyes Ron Goldman saw?

We dine at Petrelli's steakhouse, near the airport. Shirley does much of the talking, pumping me for my views. I tell her I don't have an opinion on the case because I didn't see or hear all the evidence.

"That hasn't stopped a lot of people from deciding he's guilty," she says.

As I tell Shirley Baker that I never saw a motive, I realise that I am seeking her approval. I don't know why I'm saying this, although at one level I'm being honest, because no one has offered a convincing motive for why Simpson would have killed his wife.

"I wish more reporters thought like you," Shirley tells me. "I don't think many of them are fair."

But what is fair? There may be a "fair" ending, a little solace for everyone. The jury could and probably will find against OJ, but the victims' families have insisted this case is not about money, it's about justice. Whatever money the jury awards will, in effect, be money that could go to Justin and Sydney. It would be easy for the jury to structure a decision that will give justice to the Browns and Goldmans, strip OJ of much of his wealth, and ensure that money is set aside for the children. It's a compromise that might allow everyone to walk away with a modicum of integrity.

As for Simpson's guilt, it doesn't really matter what the jury decides, because everybody has their minds made up already. A jury's decision isn't going to make OJ, his family and his friends think he's any less innocent, any more than it will make the Goldmans and the Browns feel he is any less guilty.

Outside Petrelli's, we say our goodbyes. Benny and Shirley have their own car. Dan calls over his shoulder to Benny and Shirley. He'll see them in a few days. I turn back, offering my hand to Benny. Then I turn to Shirley, and there's an awkward moment. She is holding a doggy-bag. I lean forward and we embrace.

"You come back and see us," she says to me.

I vow I will, although I know it's unlikely. Later, on the flight, I think about the embrace. I don't regret it. It was not exactly the professional, detached thing to do, but it was the cordial, considerate thing to do.

I just wish that I could have hugged Kim Goldman, too. She seemed to need it more. !

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