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ON FRI., JUNE 10, TWO DAYS BEFORE SHE WAS MURDERED, NICOLE Brown Simpson seemed in uncharacteristically high spirits. "I want to talk to you," she told her close friend and neighbor Ron Hardy over the phone. "A bunch of things have happened, and I'm excited." Hardy was delighted to hear it. This buoyant, chatty 35-year-old woman was far different from the furtive Nicole who would abruptly cancel plans and drop out of sight for days or who would grow wary and timid in the presence of her ex-husband O.J. Simpson. Nicole invited Hardy to dinner on Monday. "I thought about it all weekend," says the 37-year-old Los Angeles bartender. "I was praying that she had made the decision not to see O.J. and that she would get on with her life."

Hardy, of course, never got to hear Nicole's plans. Just after midnight on June 13, she was found dead near her friend Ron Goldman outside her Bundy Drive town house in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. With multiple stab wounds in her neck and chest, she was nearly decapitated.

Today, eight months after the horrendous double murder and four weeks into O.J. Simpson's trial for that crime, many of those close to Nicole feel a wrenching self-reproach. Although the jury has yet to decide if O.J. Simpson is guilty of homicide, evidence introduced at his trial clearly indicates that Nicole Simpson had long been a victim of domestic abuse. "Dammit," says one friend, "we are all guilty—all of us who knew them." The Brown family is also in despair that they failed to comprehend the seriousness of the abuse. "They keep asking themselves," says Jean Vaziri, a close family friend, " 'Why didn't we see it coming?' "

Harsh though the question may be, it is impossible to dismiss. There were, after all, many witnesses to the abuse in the Simpson marriage. Friends and family members say O.J. humiliated Nicole in bars and restaurants. Neighbors heard him screaming threats and obscenities. The Brown family saw photographs of her battered face following the infamous 1989 New Year's Day beating. The police, answering her 911 calls, saw a beaten and frightened Nicole and had no doubt that O.J. was her tormentor.

Even after their 1992 divorce, following seven turbulent years of marriage, the situation didn't improve. When Nicole moved to her Gretna Green house, O.J. shadowed her, according to the prosecution, at one point standing in the bushes and peering through the window as she made love to a new boyfriend. "I'm scared," Nicole later told her mother, Juditha. "I go to the gas station, he's there. I'm driving, and he's behind me."

Through it all, however, Nicole, who was ambivalent about seeking outside help, was also let down by those who could have provided it. "One of the most amazing things to me when you study the Simpson case is that it appeared intervention failed at every level," says San Diego deputy city attorney Casey Gwinn, who runs that city's domestic violence unit. "Police didn't write reports when they went to the house. Simpson was not put in jail. Friends and family didn't confront him."

In many ways, though, Nicole's situation is a classic example of domestic abuse among the wealthy and prominent. "There's a myth that domestic violence is more common in the middle and lower classes," says Joan Farr, director of Metro-Dade Family and Victim Services in Miami. "In fact, it is simply more visible in those classes. They're more likely to call the police or turn to a public agency for treatment. A person in a higher economic bracket can go to a private doctor or psychologist." And spousal abuse is considered shameful, not a topic for polite conversation. "We respected her privacy," says Eve Chen, a friend of Nicole's since high school, "and it killed her."

Almost from the day she and O.J. met in 1977, friends had cautioned Nicole about his rough treatment. She was 18, three weeks out of high school and working as a cocktail waitress at the Daisy, a Beverly Hills restaurant. He was 29, a married father of two, with a three-year $2.5 million contract as the star running back for the Buffalo Bills. After their first date, according to Sheila Weller, author of Raging Heart, a chronicle of the Simpsons' marriage that was written with the cooperation of the Brown family, Nicole arrived at the apartment she shared with a platonic friend, David LeBon, with the zipper of her jeans ripped open and the button torn off. Alarmed, LeBon asked what had happened. O.J., Nicole said, had ripped her pants in his impatience to make love. "No, wait, David," said Nicole, as LeBon angrily paced their apartment. "I like him."

The mistreatment escalated during their first year together. One day, Nicole found a strange earring in her bed. According to a journal chronicling abuse that she gave to her divorce lawyer, when she accused O.J. of being unfaithful, he threw her against the walls of their apartment, then tossed all her clothes out the window. "I knew about that incident," says a friend of Nicole's. "That type of thing happened a number of times." Still, the friend wasn't concerned for Nicole's well-being; like others, she simply couldn't imagine the smooth-talking, gracious sports hero beating up a woman. According to abuse expert Farr, upscale batterers often take refuge behind their public image. "People see the image, and they don't think that these people have a mean, ugly, abusive side." Simpson, says Nicole's friend, "had a great sense of humor and wonderful charm. It was easy to think, 'Oh, pffff, he can't be doing her any harm.' "

But Nicole's older sister was worried. On Feb. 3, a weeping, distraught Denise Brown testified in court that one evening in the early '80s she had been with Nicole and O.J. at their home after dinner at a Mexican restaurant. When Denise accused O.J. of taking Nicole for granted, "he got extremely upset," she recounted. "He started yelling at me, 'I give her everything.' A whole fight broke out.... He threw her against a wall, picked her up, threw her out of the house."

Denise stayed up all night with Nicole, trying to persuade her to leave O.J. Nicole promised she would. But when Nicole returned to pick up her clothes, Denise later told Sheila Weller, "of course, he schmoozed her back in."

Today the Brown family believes that O.J. not only beat Nicole, he murdered her. But in the weeks just after O.J.'s arrest, they contended that Nicole was not a battered woman. Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island, attributes this apparent blind spot to what he calls "the Burning Bed phenomenon"—named for a 1984 TV movie about a battered wife. "To be recognized as a battered woman at risk," he says, "you have to look the way Farrah Fawcett looked in that movie. You have to be covered with black-and-blue marks and be ferociously beaten. Nicole's family and friends very seldom—and most of them never—saw strong physical evidence, as she apparently hid it very well with makeup."

Her extraordinary physical presence may, in a tragic paradox, have been among Nicole's fatal weaknesses. "She was very tough, very powerful," says her friend Candace Garvey, wife of former baseball star Steve Garvey. "When she walked into a room, every head would turn." One neighbor recalls a scorching day when Nicole was wearing a heavy shawl. "The shawl slipped, and I saw faint bruises on her right arm," he says. "She said she'd been knocking around with the kids and things got a little rough." The neighbor was aware of O.J.'s jealous rages, but he immediately dismissed the notion of physical abuse. "She was a ballsy woman." he says. "You couldn't imagine that she'd take that stuff."

But in September 1986, Nicole came to the attention of someone who could—and did—recognize signs of possible abuse. Nicole later wrote in her diary that after she and O.J. returned home from an evening with friends, "[O.J.] beat me up so bad...[he] tore my blue sweater and blue slacks completely off me." Nicole's head was so badly bruised that O.J. drove her to a local hospital, where she told the physician treating her—Dr. Martin Alpert—that she had had a bicycle accident. As he told investigators, Dr. Alpert did not believe Nicole's explanation. It's not known whether he reported his suspicions; only in 1993 did it become a misdemeanor under California law to fail to report domestic abuse.

What is clear is that the state judicial system failed to protect Nicole. At around 4 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1989, John Edwards and another police officer responded to a 911 call: "At 360 North Rockingham, woman being beaten." (In 1993 in Los Angeles, there were 42,958 domestic violence calls.) As Edwards recounted in his police reports and his gripping Jan. 31 court testimony, when he arrived at the Simpsons' home, a hysterical Nicole ran to him screaming, "He's going to kill me!" Her lip cut, her cheeks swollen, her eye blackened, "she clung onto me," Edwards continued. "She was beat up." Nicole yelled to the police, "You guys never do anything about him." Emerging from his house in his bathrobe, O.J. spewed obscenities at the officers, and when they told him they were taking him to the police station, he shouted, "You've been out here eight times before, and you're going to arrest me for this?"

O.J. was charged with assault, but he suffered few consequences. Former police officer Ron Shipp, who'd received special training in domestic violence, testified at the trial on Feb. 1 that Nicole had called him a few days after the incident and asked him to talk to O.J. about his violent behavior. Though Shipp told Simpson that he fit the police profile of a batterer, he also listened to the pleas of his idol to help squelch the case and spoke to a police supervisor on O.J.'s behalf.

It's unlikely that Shipp wielded much influence, but the L.A. courts did seem loath to prosecute. O.J. pleaded no contest to the spousal abuse charge. Municipal court Judge Ronald R. Schoen-berg did not impose a stiff punishment. Simpson was ordered to pay $470 in fines and penalty and $500 to a shelter for battered women. Directed to receive domestic violence counseling, Simpson was allowed to choose his own therapist, and in September, when he moved to New York City to work for NBC as a football commentator, the judge permitted O.J. to continue his sessions by phone. Deputy city attorney Alana Bowman said that out of the 20,000 domestic violence cases her office handles each year, O.J. was the only defendant allowed to undergo counseling by phone.

Though Nicole repeatedly called the police for help, no other records of O.J.'s assaulting her have surfaced. There is speculation that O.J. talked the police out of filing such reports. As Shipp testified, O.J. was always happy to show off his Heisman trophy to local police—over the years, Shipp says he brought 40 cops to the Simpson home—and O.J. once even appeared as a celebrity guest at their Christmas party. "The average cop on the street is just as starstruck as the next guy," says an L.A. County deputy district attorney. "Add to that the fact that officers may actually have partied with the Juice, and Nicole didn't have a chance."

It would seem that after the 1989 incident, the Brown family finally had the evidence they needed to prevail upon Nicole to get out of the marriage. Denise had, at Nicole's request, taken a photograph of her bruised face, which Nicole locked away in her safe-deposit box. Her father also saw that photo, says Vaziri, "but he dismissed it. Now he feels he should have done something." Meanwhile, both O.J. and Nicole told the Browns how deeply they loved each other and that they were determined to work things out. The violence, they both swore, was finished. In fact the beatings had not been a constant in their relationship. "It's hard to believe," says a friend, "but it wasn't the norm. There was a lot of good. There was a lot of fun." The violence was real but sporadic. "There is a great myth," says domestic violence authority Gelles, "that abusive husbands are abusive 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year. They are not."

Some say the Browns were dazzled by O.J.'s stardom and seduced by his wealth; he had secured a Hertz dealership for Nicole's father, Louis, and he paid the college tuition for her younger sisters Dominique and Tanya. "When you're not that rich and your daughter marries a rich person," says Jean Vaziri, "it's like a Cinderella syndrome. If she has the beautiful clothes and all that, what could be wrong?"

Faye Resnick takes an even tougher line. In her controversial best-seller, Nicole Brown Simpson, Nicole's close friend says some members of the Brown family tried to talk Nicole out of divorcing O.J. in 1992. Resnick quotes Nicole as saying, "It's just like everything else, Faye. O.J. always controls everyone and everything around him." But the Brown family lawyer, Gloria Allred, grows livid at that suggestion. "If anyone thinks that a member of the Brown family would rather have a trip to a football game instead of Nicole sitting at dinner," she says, "they're mistaken. No gift can be a license to kill."

But O.J.'s celebrity might have constrained Nicole to keep silent about the abuse. Often, says Farr, the wives of public figures fear they'll face financial ruin and social humiliation if their husbands are exposed as wife beaters. "They have more to lose than if he had less income or their status was more equal," she says. "These women definitely feel more of an obligation to conceal the abuse."

It is likely that the Browns never knew the full truth about the degree of violence in their daughter's marriage. Nicole revealed only fragments of her life with O.J.; no friend or family member saw the whole picture. Denise, says Eve Chen, was distraught that she couldn't get her sister to open up more. And as close as Nicole was to her mother, there were some things she simply wouldn't discuss. Once, after Nicole told her about the nasty fights she'd had with O.J., Juditha Brown expressed fury at her son-in-law. From that day on, says Chen, Nicole seldom confided in her mother. "The reaction of Nicole's family and friends," says Sheila Weller, "boils down to, 'If I tell her what a horrible guy O.J. is, she'll hate me for it.' "

What Nicole did share with her friends in recent years were only certain aspects of O.J.'s psychological abuse. She tended to downplay even these, dismissing O.J.'s stalking as "an annoyance." Still, when Nicole initiated a reconciliation with O.J. in May 1993, says Ron Hardy, "We all at some point pulled her aside and said, 'Is this what you want to do? He's not going to change.' Sometimes she'd say, 'I want to make it work for the kids.' Other times she'd be abrupt and say, 'I know what I'm doing.' "

What could Nicole's friends and family have done? What should they have done? For those who suspect a friend or relative is being abused, Fair's counsel is to "offer yourself as someone to talk to. Express concern in a nonthreatening way and give her the number of the domestic violence center in your area." The advice, she admits, is not foolproof. "The bottom line," says Farr, "hard as it may be to accept, is that victims must take the first step and reach out for help."

There is evidence that Nicole had begun to reach out. Five days before her death, she had reportedly called the Sojourn Services, a local shelter for battered women, seeking advice. The news she wanted to share with Hardy, some friends say, is that she had found a house in Malibu she loved and would finally be putting some distance between herself and O.J. Candace Garvey, who saw Nicole just hours before her death, is convinced that she was on the brink of forging a new life on her own.

For Nicole's friends and family, along with thoughts of what might have been, comes the agonizing voice of self-recrimination. "Maybe I single-handedly couldn't have helped Nicole," says a close friend, "but if she had heard time after time, 'You are strong, you are good, you can do it on your own, you don't need to take this....' If she heard that enough times in the voices of enough people who loved her, maybe it would have saved her life."

SHELLEY LEVITT
LORENZO BENET, THOMAS CUNNEFF, JOHNNY DODD, LYNDON STAMBLER, LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles, CINDY DAMPIER in Miami and JANE SUGDEN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Thomas Cunneff,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Lynda Wright,
  • Cindy Dampier,
  • Jane Sugden.