09/16/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE VICTIM: VINCENT BUGLIOSI, renowned lawyer, bestselling author. The crime: Someone or something was breaking his pencils. The suspect? Not a clue. Bugliosi was stumped.
Stumped? The prosecutor who put Charles Manson in jail? Who won 105 of 106 felony jury trials while at the Los Angeles district attorney's office? Who raised deductive reasoning to an art form? "I finally figured out my electric pencil sharpener was causing the lead to break," says Bugliosi, 62, shaking his head at the irony of it all. The steel-trap mind that produced Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder took several months to solve the case of the broken pencils. "There's a dichotomy between my professional life, where I'm on top of things," he says, "and my personal life, where I go around blindfolded. I know where the refrigerator is. But a hammer? Forget it."
Bugliosi didn't need a hammer to nail down the top spot on The New York Times bestseller list with Outrage, Norton's fastest-selling book ever. Its premise—that Simpson is guilty and that prosecutors bungled the case—is driven by Bugliosi's rage. "I've known a lot of murderers," he fumes, "but this guy is the most audacious murderer I've ever known. I'm convinced he feels he had a right to kill Nicole and that she did something to warrant the murder."
But lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a member of Simpson's so-called Dream Team, objects. "Vince has decided the villains in the case are the prosecution," says Dershowitz. "But the cops ruined the case." Neither Simpson nor prosecutor Marcia Clark has responded to Bugliosi's charges, though Christopher Darden pointed out to Larry King that the author "wasn't there." And UCLA law professor Peter Arenella, who followed the Simpson case for the Los Angeles Times, says that Bugliosi believes "if you disagree with [him], you're stupid. That arrogance undermines his criticisms."
Ah, another contradiction: Can the man who hands out $10 bills to the poor at Christmas and who cried when his cat died be as overbearing as some colleagues depict him? "I'm a down-to-earth guy," Bugliosi insists. "I fly coach, drive a 1989 Oldsmobile and have lived in the same house for 19 years." Prodded, he admits, "I am arrogant but not in the way I treat people. I just view the great bulk of humanity as incompetent."
His own competence has rarely been in doubt. As the youngest of five children born to Italian immigrants in Hibbing, Minn., where they opened a grocery store and he grew up, Bugliosi won a tennis scholarship to the University of Miami. There he met 16-year-old Gail Talluto and married her a month after graduating in 1956.
Bugliosi adjusted insurance claims before enrolling in UCLA law school (Gail then supported them both as a hospital clerk). He went on to join the Los Angeles district attorney's office in 1964. "The only area that interested me was criminal law," he says. "I wanted to try cases in court." That same year, Gail gave birth to Wendy, now 32 and a paralegal. Their son Vince Jr., 30, is a medical intern in New Jersey.
Bugliosi's big moment came when he led the prosecution of Charles Manson for masterminding the 1969 murders of Sharon Tate and others. "It was a weak case because [Manson] was not at the scene of the crime," says Bugliosi, who worked 100 hours a week on the trial, which ended in Manson's conviction and eventually a life sentence.
Flush from his victory, Bugliosi ran for district attorney, but after a narrow loss left the DA's office to try his learned hand at writing. Helter Skelter, his 1974 account of the Manson trial, became the bestselling true crime story of all time. Dabbling in defense on the side (he took on only clients he was sure were innocent), he has won three out of three murder cases while concentrating on writing—1978's Till Death Us Do Part and 1991's And the Sea Will Tell, both about cases he had worked on, also became bestsellers.
Bugliosi took on the Simpson trial at his editor's urging, finishing a hefty manuscript in March, only five months after the verdict. "It just came gushing out of me," says Bugliosi, whose factors in Simpson's acquittal include the decision to try the case in downtown L.A. (which he believes ordained a pro-Simpson jury), Judge Lance Ito's latitude in allowing race as an issue and, most of all, the "beyond incompetent" performances of prosecutors Darden and Clark. Bugliosi claims they ignored key evidence—especially O.J.'s statement to police and his "suicide" note—simply because Simpson stated his innocence in each. "I could take anyone off the street," he says, "and have them do a better job than these prosecutors."
That would be the arrogant Bugliosi talking. The down-to-earth guy likes to spend quiet evenings in his two-story home in an L.A. suburb with his wife and his latest cat, an inquisitive part-Siamese named Sherlock. "Our idea of a fun night," says Gail, "is dinner at a '50s-style hamburger joint and a movie." A fanatic for Latin love songs, Bugliosi is probably the only former prosecutor who has a record deal to compile two CDs of his favorite genre. And another Bugliosi book—The Phoenix Solution, his take on the drug crisis—has just been released.
Yet despite his literary success, he still yearns to assert the innocence of defendants in criminal cases, to make others see what is crystal-clear to him. "I'm happiest," says Bugliosi, "when I'm in a courtroom."
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles