Free, but Not Clear

updated 11/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 01:00AM

THE WAY HE SEES IT, HE HAS BEEN acquitted of murder, so why would anyone bear him a grudge? Yet often when he is at home in his landmark Rockingham mansion in Brentwood, Calif., O.J. Simpson uses a remote control to flick restlessly among the three television sets he has mounted on one living-room wall. Almost everywhere he turns, there are unflattering references to both him and the verdict that freed him, forcing him to keep surfing the dial for calmer water. "A lot of times," says Simpson's niece Terri Baker, 32, who has been a regular visitor, "we just flip the channels to find something entertaining."

In all likelihood that isn't going to get any easier, since Simpson and his attempts to rebuild his life are still in the news almost every day. Three weeks ago he flew in a private jet to Florida for a rendezvous with longtime girlfriend Paula Barbieri. A hotel desk clerk confirmed to PEOPLE that they spent at least two nights together—but those will apparently be their last. Last week on ABC's Prime Time Live, Barbieri, 28, took the extraordinary step of publicly dumping Simpson, saying they no longer had a relationship "of any kind."

That may be the least of his problems. A little more than a month after he left the L.A. county jail, ostensibly a free man, Simpson, 48, must prepare for yet another legal onslaught. Proceedings are already under way in the wrongful-death suits brought against him by Ron Goldman's family and by the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson, which is administered by her parents, Lou and Juditha.

If Simpson needed a reminder of the problems he still faces, Judge Lance Ito provided it last week when he refused to turn over some of O.J.'s personal effects until the civil court can review them. (Among the items: the infamous fake goatee and moustache, a handgun and a VIP card for Hooters, a chain of restaurant-bars featuring minimally clad waitresses.) The opening of the civil cases will mark another trying time for Simpson, since he will almost surely be compelled to testify about his actions on the night of the killings. Though in criminal cases guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, a civil court could find that the preponderance of evidence indicates Simpson caused the deaths of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman. In that event he could face huge financial penalties.

Simpson is also facing the pressing issue of how to earn a living. In an interview with The New York Times eight days after his acquittal, he sounded very much like a man protesting too much when he insisted he was not broke and boasted, "I still have my Ferrari. I still have my Bentley." What he also has is a serious cash-flow problem. So far, several potential schemes for earning quick money, such as a TV pay-per-view extravaganza, have come to nothing, and the possibilities for other sources of revenue—product endorsements included—seem limited. Last week, Simpson, who was dropped by his longtime talent agency ICM, stirred only more controversy when it was revealed that he may appear at a memorabilia show in Atlantic City next February. He is scheduled to sign such items as photos of the Bronco chase, and portraits with lawyer Johnnie Cochran, for as much as $160 apiece.

While preparing for the civil suits, Simpson has apparently decided not to press now for the return of his two young children, Justin, 7, and Sydney, 10, who have been in the custody of the Browns since just after their mother's murder. Those close to Simpson say he has held off forcing the custody issue so that the kids would not be pulled out of school. According to a knowledgeable source, he has been paying the Browns $5,000 a month in child support. On Oct. 17, Sydney's 10th birthday, he was in Florida playing golf and visiting Barbieri, though he had taken his daughter to Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch the weekend before to celebrate.

Simpson's breakup with Barbieri, a starlet and former Playboy model, comes as a hard blow as well, both in personal and public-relations terms. There is no doubt that at one time the two were deeply involved, with Simpson delighting in the fact that Barbieri was often mistaken for Julia Roberts. "O.J. liked to talk about the times they'd go out to restaurants and how afterward the valet would look at Paula and say, 'Here's your car, Miss Roberts,' " an acquaintance remembers. "O.J. loved that."

Throughout Simpson's legal troubles, Barbieri stood by him, and last week she told Diane Sawyer that she still thinks he is innocent. When he flew to her hometown of Panama City Beach, Fla., for a four-day stay, they seemed a happy couple. Simpson checked in at the Edgewater Beach Resort, where he registered under the name D.H. Lawrence to throw off reporters and rented two $136-a-night suites—one for himself, one for his entourage, including a pair of bodyguards. On three days, Simpson played golf with local acquaintances, with Paula tagging along. (Simpson reportedly shot an 82 one day, a 79 the next.)

But according to a close friend of Barbieri's who is in contact with her, the whole scene was a sham, a visit that was arranged by Simpson and the tabloid Star for photographs. "It was all of a sudden, 'They'll pay lots of money for pictures of you and I together,' " Barbieri told Sawyer, "rather than a quiet 'Let's get back to who you and I are.' " According to Barbieri's friend, Simpson offered her part of his fee from the tabloid, but she refused. "This is not her way of living," says the friend. "She'll be a friend, but she won't be a party to exploiting a tragedy."

What's more, the intense scrutiny of being with Simpson had become something of a curse for Barbieri. Last week a videotape surfaced on which she used the word "nigger" during a modeling session eight years ago. At the same time, some members of Barbieri's family seem determined to cash in on her. Both her father, Vincent, and half-brother Jeff have reportedly been paid to appear on TV talk shows. And when approached by a PEOPLE reporter for an interview, her brother Michael, 31, who has been busted several times on drug charges, demanded he be paid. "I'm not going to stab my sister in the back for nothing," he said.

In recent weeks, Simpson has been linked with another woman, former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader Gretchen Stockdale, though associates maintain they are just friends. But still there were persistent rumors during Simpson's stay in Panama City Beach that he was looking at homes to buy near Barbieri's. Relocating to Florida would seem to make financial sense for Simpson, since under laws in the state, his home and personal property could not be touched if he were to lose his civil cases.

Even Simpson's family and friends concede that he may not be able to hold on to the Rockingham estate, which has increased in value to an estimated $3 to 4 million. Outside the gates there is a more or less permanent assembly of supporters and hecklers. The vast majority of Simpson's neighbors want him to leave, either because they believe he is a murderer or simply because they dislike the circus atmosphere. (Since his acquittal, Simpson has often steered clear of the Rockingham home and spent nights with friends in order to avoid attention.) "I could count on one hand all those who want him to stay," says David Horowitz, a television and radio consumer reporter who has lived in Brentwood for 30 years.

Simpson is also unlikely to find himself welcome at some of his favorite haunts, notably the Tony Riviera Country Club, where he once spent much of his free time playing golf. Though officials at the club have not taken formal steps to bar him, they have made it clear that he will be shunned if he shows up—which so far he has not.

Part of their concern is that security for Simpson would be disruptive. The other, perhaps more compelling, factor is that many female members oppose his return. "They don't want him here because he's a wife batterer," says one ranking male member. "They have a right to say we don't want that kind of character at this club."

Redemption of course is never easy, and for Simpson it will be doubly difficult. That cold reality may now be dawning on him. "Uncle O.J. is a fighter, he's positive," says niece Terri Baker. "But he knows his life is never going to be the way it used to be."

LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER, TOM CUNNEFF, JOHNNY MOD and TODD GOLD in Los Angeles and MEG GRANT and DON SIDER in Panama City Beach

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