From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
O.J.'s biggest kick was being the good guy

AT THE FUNERAL OF HIS BEAUTIFUL 35-year-old ex-wife, a grieving O.J. Simpson, 46, embraced his family and friends, touching them one by one as if for solace. Holding the hands of his two small children—Sydney, 8, in a print dress, and Justin, 5, in long pants and a jacket—he was the very picture of bereavement, unsteady and stricken, while Nicole Simpson's body, her throat cut to the spinal cord, lay in her closed, flower-covered coffin. But one of the guests, an old friend of the football star, later confessed to conflicting emotions. "I had very mixed feelings when we hugged each other," he says. "I didn't know whether to offer my sympathies—or spit in his face."

He was not alone. After a week that included a bizarre, slow-motion car chase along Southern California's freeways, a grisly autopsy report that spoke of a murderous rage beyond all reason and the release of 911 tapes that graphically portrayed the depths of Simpson's explosive temper (see box, page 35)—in contrast to all that was the image of Simpson standing in an L.A. courtroom during his arraignment and, through his attorney, requesting a special pillow for his jail cell. Asked how he pleaded to the charge of killing Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman, 25, he spoke the two words that friends desperately hoped were true: "Not guilty."

But the case against him appeared to gain momentum. His caretaker, Brian "Kato" Kaelin, may have failed to back up Simpson's claim that he had been at home at the time of the murder. An unidentified woman was said to have seen O.J. speeding away from the crime scene at 10:50 that night, "screaming and freaking out" when a car in front of him stopped for a light. And on the day of the murders, Simpson called a model and actress named Traci Adell, this month's Playboy centerfold, whom he had never met, and engaged her in a 45-minute conversation in which she says he made romantic overtures, spoke of the end of his relationship with Nicole and of his need to reset priorities in his life. "He said, 'I've had enough, I've lived my life,' " says Adell. "I think he knew that he was reaching the point where he'd lose it if he didn't stop soon."

What exactly was the "it" that Simpson was trying to hang on to? Did even he know anymore? No one, it seems, has ready answers. "I know that two people are dead and the prosecutor says it's him. But this is not the O.J. I've been around," says Simpson's longtime acquaintance, onetime National Football League superstar Jim Brown, 58, who has himself been arrested—though not convicted—for assaulting women. "I don't understand this behavior. I don't understand the position he took. I don't know who the guy is."

In the wake of a double-murder accusation, small clues about someone's life loom suddenly larger. Once as a youth in San Francisco's Potrero Hill projects, Orenthal James Simpson was hauled into a local police station for a minor offense. When asked his name, he replied, "Burt Lancaster," and watched gleefully as a cop wrote it down. "I was really putting one over, a teenage black kid fooling the Establishment into accepting a fake identity," he wrote in an autobiography O.J.: The Education of a Rich Rookie. "I can understand how others got the same feeling of achievement and kept right on fooling people—and themselves—for the rest of their lives."

Simpson also once admitted to his biographer Jim Baker that "I stole when I was a kid. And when I got money, that way I developed pride." It was a bargain he apparently enjoyed. "He'll cheat on you at cards if you turn your eyes," a friend and teammate said of him some years after Simpson won the 1968 Heisman Trophy. "He'll look in your hand. He doesn't think that's wrong; he's just so competitive. If he's caught, it's comical to him; he'll laugh."

Simpson, because of his charm and his talent, has often been saved from the consequences of his actions. Al Cowlings, for example, has remained his close friend and may well have saved Simpson's life last week as he drove the apparently suicidal O.J. into the waiting embrace of the L.A. police. But nearly 30 years ago, when they were both in high school, Simpson enraged Cowlings after the latter asked him to act as a go-between with a girl named Marquerite Whitley. Simpson promptly asked Whitley out on a date himself—and wound up marrying her a few years later. "Marquerite was everything I wasn't—square and churchgoing and middle class," Simpson said. "But she was a good-looking woman and as interested as anyone ever had been in what happened to me." Marquerite had her own take on what made the marriage work. "Football players have big egos, and O.J., he's got to be the center of attention," she said in an interview. "If I ever became famous, he couldn't accept it. I know I wouldn't be married to him any longer."

It wasn't her fame but his philandering that finally broke up the marriage some years later. Elizabeth Moe, a friend from the '70s, recalls, "I remember what she said: 'I can understand. He's an athlete, and athletes, they live by their body. Having a wife who's older becomes a reflection of their being older. That's how they are.'

"He was pretty much arrogant in those days," remembers Moe. She believes now, as then, that Simpson "needed to possess the women in his life. As soon as they became independent, it frightened him. I think he had a major fear of being deserted."

In fact, independent women, by his own account, seemed an oddity to him. He once described his relationship with the much younger Paula Barbieri, a stunning model who, he often bragged, looked like actress Julia Roberts. "This is the first woman I've been involved with who had a career and has been successful in her own right, which is interesting. It is the first time I had to make concessions to another schedule, which is weird to me. She gets along with people easily, and I don't have to work as hard as I normally do. At times, she'll even direct the conversation." In 1979, soon after their marriage broke up, the Simpsons suffered the loss of their 23-month-old daughter, Aaren, in a swimming-pool accident. When O.J. arrived at the hospital where Marquerite was keeping vigil in the intensive-care unit, he ran down the corridor screaming, "She murdered my child! She murdered my child!" Last week a former part-time clerical worker at the hospital, who was there the day Aaren Simpson died, told PEOPLE, "I asked what had happened, and they said that O.J. was upset and had gone after his wife and had to be restrained."

Millions of people saw O.J. Simpson behave; only a few saw him misbehave—and they were most likely to be women. One was a female publicist who accompanied him on a promotional tour when he was a spokesman for an orange juice company in the early '80s. At a gathering at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, Simpson asked her to hold his blazer while he mingled. The woman draped the jacket over her arm and was chatting with coworkers when O.J. suddenly stormed over to her. "He grabbed the coat off my arm and snapped, 'What are you doing?" she recalls. 'He said, 'When you hold my coat, hold it like this and don't wrinkle it!' Then he put his arm out in a perfect 90-degree angle. That's how he expected me to hold it, to stand there with my arm held rigid. He was absolutely furious, just seething with anger."

The full potential of that rage was nowhere more evident than in the handwritten police report that chronicles the night of Jan. 1, 1989, at Simpson's Brentwood mansion. Summoned by a 911 call, police arrived to find Nicole, wearing only a bra and mud-stained sweatpants, darting out of some bushes near the house. She "collapsed on the gatepost," according to the report, pushing the exit button frantically and screaming, "He's going to kill me! He's going to kill me!" When the gate swung open, she ran out. "She grabbed me and hung onto me as she cried nervously and repeated, 'He's going to kill me,' " wrote the officer, adding that he could clearly see Nicole's face, which was "badly beaten with a cut lip, swollen and blackened eye and cheek. I also noted a hand imprint on [the left side of] her neck."

The officers covered the trembling woman with a uniform jacket and sat her in the back of their squad car. "As she was giving the crime info to my partner, she kept saying, 'You never do anything about him. You talk to him, then leave. I want him arrested. I want him out so I can get my kids.' "

When Simpson, wearing a bathrobe, emerged from the house, it was only to vent more anger at Nicole. "I don't want that woman sleeping in my bed anymore!" he screamed. "I got two women and I don't want that woman in my bed anymore!" Told by officers that he was going to be arrested, Simpson yelled, "The police have been out here eight times before, and now you're going to arrest me for this?"

In a follow-up telephone interview with police several days later, when told he had "punched [Nicole] on the forehead and slapped her numerous times," the 6'1", 210-lb. Simpson was described as being "surprised" at the extent of her swelling and bruises. Later, Simpson would say of the beating: "No one was hurt. It was no big deal." Even in the letter he left behind before evading arrest on June 17, Simpson played down the 1989 incident, characterizing his relationship with Nicole by saying, "At times I have felt like a battered husband."

After his arrest, Simpson was allowed to pick his own psychiatrist for counseling and conduct sessions over the phone, something prosecutors say should never have happened. "I was not happy with the sentence," said one. "1 felt that the case merited jail time."

That it did not was yet another example of the special license that was so often accorded him. "He's had nothing but the world by its tail for many, many years now," says one intimate. "Simply walking in a room, a restaurant, where the whole room would cheer him on, for God's sake, for nothing, for absolutely doing nothing. He was used to that."

Maintaining that persona, however, took effort, as Simpson acknowledged. "I don't have the kind of face that I can just sit on a chair at an airport and wait for the flight," he said in 1993. "If I'm tired, I have to find some nook and cranny lo go and sit where I'm out of the way. Otherwise I have a constant stream of people coming up to me. I'm always nice to them, but it's work, especially when I'm worn out."

Something that the pressures of fame couldn't account for was his insistence on treating the women in his life as possessions. "When he met Nicole, she was 18 years old and he had already come into his celebrity," says a close friend of both. "She was right out of high school, this sweet young thing. She didn't even know who he was. He scooped her up, brought her into Beverly Hills, brought her into his life, and, dammit, she was his." His sense of domination over her was apparently broken only by her death. During the last few months, Simpson tracked her whereabouts relentlessly, and he telephoned her male friends, warning them to stay away. So frightened was Nicole that she was planning to move from her Brentwood condo, which was just two miles from Simpson's home, to Malibu, 15 miles away.

The image of a fearful, anguished Nicole Simpson is confirmed by Cynthia Garvey, former wife of ex-baseball star Steve Garvey, who had written a well-publicized book about her troubled marriage. At an L.A. shopping mall last Christmas, Nicole, whom Garvey had met several times, approached her and complimented her on her haircut. "I realized that was just an opening," says Garvey. "She came up to me and held me by the sleeve." Then, says Garvey, Nicole broached the subject of Simpson's violence. "I kept asking her, 'Are you okay?' and she kept saying, 'They won't believe me. He's charming. People don't know.' When she started to cry, she stiffened her back and pulled away. I can still see her holding on to the sleeve of my jacket. Just before walking off, I pulled her pigtail and said, 'Nicole, you be smart. You know what to do.' She was trying to be strong, but she just got in above her head."

As for O.J., he may for years have fooled himself and the world, but in retrospect it is clear that recently, even in public, cracks were beginning to emerge in his carefully constructed facade. After one ugly disturbance, he was asked to leave the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas, where he sometimes gambled. "He didn't have a real good rep over there," says one Vegas source. People on the set of the recently filmed pilot Frogmen, in which Simpson had a role, say that six weeks before the murder, he talked frequently about Nicole, Paula Barbieri and other women, often referring to them, according to a source on the set, as "bitches.... His whole line of talk, besides golf, was women."

The note he left behind on June 17—declaring his love for Nicole and saying that their problems were within the normal ups and downs of any long-term relationship—has been described by experts as a textbook example of a spouse abuser's denial. The night that letter was released, during his procession up L.A.'s 405 freeway, Simpson was still living within his own reality. "He kept telling Al he was innocent," says a source. "Everyone close to him is maintaining his innocence."

But in the sordid denouement of what will surely rank as one of the most disturbing crimes in recent memory, even O.J. Simpson's most stalwart fans may soon have to rethink their position.

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
NANCY MATSUMOTO, CRAIG TOMASHOFF, JOHNNY DODD, LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER and STAN YOUNG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Stan Young,
  • Rochelle Jones.