Cold Comfort

UPDATED 03/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

EVEN IN THE WILDERNESS, MARK Fuhrman cannot find the anonymity he craves. Whenever he heads into the mountains outside his home in Sandpoint, Idaho, hunters and hikers he encounters along the trail inevitably call out his name. Likewise, whether he's gassing up his car or shopping for a new suit at Nordstrom in Spokane, Wash., about 80 miles away, he is surrounded by people who gawk and whisper. The attention is hardly ever hostile; most folks are just curious. But the experience is unnerving. "Really, it's like walking around naked," says Fuhrman, 45, over a breakfast of bacon and eggs from Connie's, a popular cafe in Sandpoint where he is often warmly greeted by the regulars. "I mean, people even know my birthday now, for Chrissake."

If everything goes as he hopes, though, they will soon know a good deal more. Fuhrman's account of the O.J. Simpson case, titled Murder in Brentwood, has just been published and is already raising hackles among some former colleagues. As defensive as ever, Fuhrman, who received an advance said to be comfortably in the six figures, insists he didn't produce the book (which he wrote himself) simply to make money. Instead, he says, it is his attempt to set the record straight following his plea of no contest to perjury after he was exposed as a liar for denying during the Simpson trial that he had used the now famous "N" word. "I decided I needed some closure," says Fuhrman. "I needed to get this off my chest."

One of the ironies of his book is that Fuhrman goes relatively easy on those who sought to demonize him during the trial—notably Simpson lawyers Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Bailey. Even his comments on Simpson, whom he flatly brands a murderer, are not tinged with bitterness. "O.J. Simpson doesn't anger me," says Fuhrman. "The crime—the case—is a tragedy." Instead he directs a good deal of his ire toward his former partners in detection Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter. Once again putting his credibility on the line, Fuhrman maintains that on the night of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, he and partner Brad Roberts found a bloody fingerprint on the rear gate at the Bundy condo and mentioned the finding in notes Fuhrman turned over to the two detectives. For whatever reason, writes Fuhrman, they didn't read his notes initially and ignored this potentially vital evidence. In response, Lange and Vannatter—whose own book on the case, Evidence Dismissed, was published in January—acknowledge that the fingerprint was cited in the notes. But they point out that no one else saw it, including the three print technicians on the scene. "A bloody fingerprint, to a homicide investigator, is the golden ring on the carousel," scoffs Lange. "If you really think you've got a print, you get on it now."

Whatever the case, the issue of Fuhrman's racial views is even murkier. He says flatly, "I am not a racist." And over the years a number of colleagues on the LAPD, both black and white, have agreed. Gary Fullerton, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, recalls how Fuhrman used to play basketball several times a week with a group that included many blacks. "He [got] along fine with them," says Fullerton. Undeniably, though, Fuhrman was a troubled man. Starting in the early '80s, he went through several crises, including a divorce from his second wife in 1980. Two years later he requested a disability discharge from the LAPD on psychiatric and physical grounds, claiming he had begun to have increasingly violent tendencies toward suspects and to be suffering depression because of his job. Now he concedes that wasn't so. "It was me ruining my life, it wasn't the job," he acknowledges. While waiting for a ruling on his disability claim, which was ultimately rejected, he writes that he had the opportunity to take stock. "I was able to take a long look at myself," he notes. "I didn't like myself then. But I realized that nobody was going to fix me but me."

By his own account, his early efforts at repair were none too successful. In 1985 he met Laura Hart McKinny, an aspiring screenwriter, who enlisted his help while doing research for a police drama. It was then, during taped conversations, that he freely used the "N" word in a torrent of racial abuse that did so much damage when the tapes were made public during the Simpson trial. Fuhrman contends that his "misguided, get-rich" mentality "led me to try and impress or shock her." He maintains he felt mortified and betrayed when the tapes were disclosed. "Hearing those tapes before the world, of course I was ashamed of the way I sounded," he says. "I hurt a lot of people, and that's not right." Fuhrman says he never brutalized suspects or harassed minorities, as he claimed on the tapes, and an LAPD investigation supports him.

Journalists searching for a key to Fuhrman's character have focused on his upbringing as one source of his apparent anger at the world. The older son of Billie Fuhrman, a waitress, and her husband, Ralph, a truck driver, young Mark started life in the logging town of Eatonville, Wash. After his parents divorced and his father left town, Mark, then 7, his mother and brother Scott began moving around the Northwest, his mother waiting tables and Mark later taking menial jobs busing tables and working in sawmills to make ends meet. But Fuhrman isn't making excuses based on his past. "I'm not into this 'Whatever my lifestyle was as a child is what caused me to do whatever,' " he says. "My mom loved us and took care of us the best she could."

After two hitches in the Marine Corps, serving aboard a ship off the coast of Vietnam but never seeing combat, Fuhrman joined the LAPD in 1975. Despite his disability claim and his involvement in an informal station-house group called Men Against Women, which he says was intended as a joke, he rose from street cop to detective. When he retired from the force in 1995, just as the Simpson criminal trial was getting under way, Fuhrman faced a good deal of skepticism from local residents in his new home of Sandpoint. "The media had portrayed him to be such a horrible, inhuman racist pig that I expected not to like him," says Casey Foster, a marketing specialist in Sandpoint who has become one of Fuhrman's closest friends. "He turned out to be one of the nicest, most genuine people I've ever met." Adds truck driver Jeff Free, another close friend in town: "They needed a scapegoat, somebody to take the fall."

If so, Fuhrman has landed rather softly, living on a 20-acre spread outside of Sandpoint with third wife Caroline—who is in her mid-30s and guards her privacy fiercely—and their two children, Haley, 5, and Cole, 3. "There was a lot of stress and pressure on Caroline," says Fuhrman, "but she's a very strong person." Until recently, Fuhrman himself had worked as an electrician's apprentice. But with his book advance added to his LAPD pension of roughly $25,000 a year, he has given that up and is concentrating on remodeling his home and barn and tending to his property and livestock, which includes two horses and llamas. He has also started a collection of clips and tapes about the Simpson case to show to his children one day. "I'm not sure what I'll tell them," he says. "Maybe that's why I wrote the book."

It is clear that Fuhrman desperately misses being a police officer, as if no other job will come close to satisfying him. (In conversation, he unconsciously slips into the present tense when discussing his work as a cop.) Now, as a convicted felon, however, he is forbidden to have a gun or even to vote. Grudgingly, he is getting used to the life sentence he has received. "I am forever connected to this case, whether I like it or not," he says with rueful resignation. "It will never, ever go away."

BILL HEWITT
CATHY FREE in Sandpoint and MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles

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