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As onlookers speculate, investigators search for solid evidence

EVEN A CITY THAT SAW 421 MURDERS last year, these were startling. Near midnight on Sunday, June 12, police responding to a 911 call arrived to find two bodies sprawled alongside the blood-washed walkway in front of a $600,000 condo in the exclusive Brentwood section of Los Angeles. The young man was found lying in the bushes. Nearby was the body of a statuesque blonde woman, her beautiful face bruised and abraded. Both, said the county coroner, had died of "multiple sharp-force injuries and stab wounds"; the woman's throat was reportedly cut. Inside the four-bedroom condo, police found the woman's two young children, asleep and oblivious to the carnage outside. Neighbors later retrieved the woman's prize Akita dog, which, after leaving bloody pawprints on the walkway, was found wandering loose in the area, still trailing its leash.

The second shock came when police identified the victims: Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, ex-wife of onetime football star O.J. Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, 25, a waiter and part-time model. Then came the almost incomprehensible news that the prime suspect in the case was none other than Simpson himself. And on Wednesday afternoon the Associated Press, quoting an anonymous police source, reported that he was the only suspect and would be arrested within days.

As TV crews covered the fast-breaking story, the initial images seemed a surreal bad dream: Here was the strikingly handsome Orenthal James Simpson, who had risen from the housing projects of San Francisco s Potrero Hill to become a Heisman Trophy winner and National Football League superstar, then a successful NBC sportscaster and sometime movie actor, handcuffed in front of his $5 million Brentwood mansion. During three hours of questioning, Simpson, 46, protested his innocence, citing a brief business trip to Chicago the night of the murders. Yet press reports of an incriminating web of evidence—a bloodied glove at his home that matched one found at the murder scene (his lawyer insisted that law officers had made no such claim); bloodstains in his driveway and in his white Ford Bronco; and cuts and scratches on Simpson's body—raised disturbing doubts. Additionally, the L.A. Times reported that sources had determined that some of the blood found at the crime scene matched O.J.'s type, but not that of either victim. Publicly police, who from the outset appeared to be focusing on Simpson as their main suspect, nevertheless refused to officially accuse him, stating only that robbery was not considered a motive in the murders. On Wednesday, Simpson reportedly attended a private service for Nicole at the same time that speculation intensified that police were only waiting for forensics tests before charging him with the killings.

Shortly after the deaths, Simpson's children Sydney, 8, and Justin, 5, were removed from the condo by relatives who shielded them from the murder scene Friends, including Jermaine Jackson and Simpson's former Buffalo Bill teammate Bob Chandler, brought food and solace to O.J.'s home, where Simpson, says a close friend, was in a "zombielike state." His children with Nicole, said her sister Denise, "are the sweetest things and dearest things to me right now, and I'm not going to say anything about their daddy." Still, the speculation swirling around him did not diminish. In an ominous note, Simpson's longtime attorney, Howard Weitzman, withdrew from the case as lead counsel Wednesday, citing "my personal relationship" with his former client. Simpson's new high-profile lawyer, Robert Shapiro, is known less as a flamboyant trial attorney than as a masterful behind-the-scenes legal tactician.

Stunned friends of O.J.'s and Nicole's reacted with shock and disbelief not only to Nicole's death but to the chilling implication that her ex-husband might have been involved. "A lovelier guy never stood in shoes," says Alan Baker, former head of public relations for Hertz Rent-a-Car, for which Simpson has been a longtime spokesman. "He was in every respect a superstar. There must be 10 million kids out there with his autograph. He would go into the [company] garages and rap with the guys. And, believe me, it was genuine. It was the rare athlete who would do it." Neighbors found him equally gracious. "The only thing we heard from O.J. is how much he loved Nicole," says a woman who lived next to the couple at the Laguna Beach oceanfront home they sold after their 1992 divorce. "Sometimes I'd look at the two of them up on their deck and I'd say to myself, 'Wow, what a lucky couple.' "

True, there had been at least one significant blemish on Simpson's record. In 1989 he pleaded no contest to wife-beating charges; he was fined and underwent court-ordered psychiatric counseling. An even darker portrait of the football hero began to emerge in the days after Nicole's murder, as friends talked about the couple's life together.

Despite their divorce after seven years of marriage, Nicole and O.J. continued to see each other and socialize together. According to published reports, police were called to Nicole's town house on more than one occasion after the divorce to quiet bitter domestic arguments. A neighbor, Beverly Newman, heard the sound of "big fights" coming from the condo. "You could hear a woman, then you could hear a man," she says. "All the neighbors heard it, not just me. He was just yelling at her, like 'Get out!' They weren't arguments like would happen normally in your home. They were screaming fights." Another friend recalls seeing Nicole with a black eye.

In fact, Simpson's 1989 assault on Nicole may have been even uglier than court papers revealed. "It was a lengthy beating," says a longtime confidante of Nicole's. "Nicole would run, and Simpson would chase her and catch her. She told me that at one point when she was curled up in a ball and he was beating and kicking her, she thought she was going to die. She thought he was going to kill her." According to the friend, the incident that set off the beating was "something that was absolutely nothing. I forget what it was, but when she told me, it was like 'Are you kidding me?' " Nicole told her friend that Simpson, who isn't a heavy drinker, had been imbibing that night and that "once the violence started, he just snowballed. She ran to a friend's house. Simpson almost pounded the door down." However, the friend said, "he was absolutely sick, beside himself, afterwards."

The incident, insists a source close to Nicole, was terrifying, and Nicole told her that she was beaten more than once and that, shortly after their separation, Simpson began stalking her. "She saw him outside her house," says the source, "and he constantly was showing up at restaurants and bars where she was socializing. She was terribly concerned about his temper, his jealousy and the possessiveness." At one point, Simpson told Nicole, "If I can't have you, no one else can." Alarmed, the source warned Nicole that the threats ought to be taken seriously. "But she would say, 'Oh, he'd never do that. He's just making noise.' And then in the next breath, she'd say, 'I can't make him mad—he'll kill me.' " Nicole, says the source, was both fearful of Simpson and attracted to him. "She would always say she wanted a home, a husband, a family and a white picket fence, and that if she did things differently he would change. She looked frightened and beaten down, and she was unwilling to hurl his feelings by saying, 'It's over.' "

That private agony could not have been more at odds with the face that Nicole, born in Frankfurt, and raised in Garden Grove, Calif., showed the world. "She was a wealthy, gorgeous woman," says a friend. "She shopped and decorated and she threw parties. She lived the really good, lush life." Nicole was an 18-year-old high school graduate when she met the then-married Simpson. They lived together for seven years and married in 1985. "She became wrapped up in his life, but she wasn't lost in it," says the friend. "She still kept her own identity." When Sydney was born later that year, the friend reports, "that became the new focus of her life. From the minute she woke up in the morning, she was scrambling around making everything nice for her children, her husband, her home. She would be the one up on the roof, putting up the Christmas lights."

It was a life that Simpson (who has two children, Arnelle, 25, and Jason, 24, from a first marriage that ended in 1979) apparently missed after his split with Nicole. On the day of his second divorce, says an acquaintance of Simpson's, "He was wandering around in a daze." But an intimate of Nicole's says that she had little choice but to leave him. "When she did divorce him, [the violence] is what it had to do with," she says. "Nicole said she just couldn't take it anymore. She had to put up endlessly with lies and bed hopping, and then his massive control of her. Any kind of independence she would show, he would become enraged by. He loved her, but he thought as her as a possession."

Despite their stormy relationship, Simpson was frequently seen driving up to Nicole's home in his Bentley to take his kids on outings, and in recent months he was said by friends to be actively courting his ex-wife again. Just six weeks ago, Simpson and Nicole vacationed together in Mexico. About a month ago, at a local grocery store, Nicole struck up a conversation with an acquaintance and reported that "we're getting back together."

Psychologist Dr. Robert Gerard, who lived two doors down from the home that Nicole rented after her divorce and who often spoke with O.J., remembers that Simpson once casually mentioned the possibility of reuniting with Nicole, but "as a psychologist, I got a sense for the underlying longing and wish to have this woman again in his home."

Yet Nicole was enjoying an active social life away from O.J. "We're a little Melrose Place around here, and Nicole Simpson was Heather Locklear," says local boutique manager Leslie Letellier. "She was beautiful and flirtatious. You'd see her driving down this street looking hot in her white Ferrari." Her vanity plates read L84AD8—late for a date.

One of those attracted to her, apparently, was Chicago-born Ronald Goldman, who moved to California seven years ago. The handsome, 6'1" waiter had met Nicole at a local gym where, says Letellier, Nicole "made herself the center of attention to a lot of young, starstruck guys. Ron was a naive and innocent guy, a real puppy dog, someone who wanted to be loved. Ron and the others sort of idolized her. She was a rich, bigger-than-life blonde, out of place with these young boys. I remember telling them, 'She's gonna break your hearts.' "

Recently, Goldman had been seen driving Nicole's car, and he told friends that if Simpson ever saw him doing that "he'd kick my butt." The relationship was undoubtedly close. "I thought they were married," says Beverly Newman, who often saw Goldman playing with Nicole's children. "I thought they had adopted a little black boy and I thought how nice that was. Almost every night he would be out playing with the kids."

But others, who knew them, believe Nicole and Goldman were friends, not lovers. "I knew Ronald for about a year," says Letellier. "He would come into my shop almost every day. We all had seen them together, but always as a part of a group. If something was happening between them, it was recent and hush-hush. I never heard of Goldman going out with her anywhere. It was just a group of neighborhood people meeting at the gym, jogging, drinking coffee at Starbucks."

On the morning before the murders, "O.J. was in an up mood," says a friend who played a round of golf with him that day. "He planned on taking the red-eye to Chicago that night because he didn't want to miss his daughter's dance recital."

Both Nicole and O.J. attended the recital, but the couple reportedly did not sit together. Nicole, her children and a large party of relatives later ate at Mezzaluna, a Brentwood restaurant. She left with her children at 9 p.m., and shortly afterward telephoned to say that she had left behind a pair of sunglasses. Goldman, who worked as a waiter at Mezzaluna, volunteered to return them and clocked out at 9:30. Sometime between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m., neighbors would later say, they heard dogs "barking like mad." O.J. is known to have boarded a plane to Chicago at Los Angeles International Airport at 11:45 p.m., and he checked into the O'Hare Plaza Hotel at 6:15, Chicago time, the next morning. Not long after, notified by police that his ex-wife had been murdered, he rushed back to L.A.

In the aftermath, friends of the Simpsons' are still trying to comprehend the tragedy that has occurred, mindful that a horrifying turn may yet be coming. "Maybe it was a fantasy of Nicole's to think that she could ever leave O.J.," says her friend. "They were both crazy about each other. It was like they were in each other's blood."

LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER, TOM CUNNEFF, CHAMP CLARK in Los Angeles and KAREN JACKOVICH and JOHNNY DODD in Laguna Beach

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Champ Clark,
  • Karen Jackovich,
  • Johnny Dodd.