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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : In O.C., Some Cheers Amid Chorus of Disbelief : Reaction: From the Laguna Beach restaurant the Simpsons frequented to the Dana Point community where Nicole Brown grew up, everyone seemed to have an instant opinion on the verdict.


LAGUNA BEACH — At Hennessey's, where, in better days, O.J. and Nicole often came for dinner (the waitresses still have autographed coasters to prove it), the bartender's betting pool was running 75% in favor of conviction.

"Hell, yes, he's guilty!" barked one man, slurring his words from the beers he was gulping at 9:45 a.m. "This whole thing is ridiculous."

That word-- ridiculous-- was uttered more frequently in the moments that followed as dozens of patrons reacted with shock and disbelief to two other words:

Not guilty.

The chorus of astonishment rose in a crescendo throughout the day in Orange County, where O.J. Simpson and his then-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson (a native of Dana Point), had occupied an elegant summer home from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.

Although some greeted the news with joy or sharp peals of laughter, the echo of words such as "unbelievable" and "incredible" was far more apparent--from office buildings and shopping centers to coffee shops and high school classrooms.

Wherever there was a television at 10 a.m. Tuesday, there were eyes and ears, just waiting for the moment.

At Hennessey's, where the standing-room-only crowd spilled out onto Ocean Avenue, one woman compared the emotion to the shared hush in the wake of the Kennedy assassination or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

As the clerk in Judge Lance A. Ito's Los Angeles courtroom read the verdict on seven different televisions, most of the startled patrons--some who began arriving as early as 8 a.m.--simply stared at the screen in stunned silence.

The one or two who reacted gleefully were conspicuous in their joy--and their solitude.

"He's gonna be here tonight to celebrate!" shouted a man who claimed to know Simpson from his past in Laguna Beach, his voice cutting sharply above the calm. "Back at the old haunt tonight!"

Michelle Crawford, 25, who works at the community clinic in Laguna, smiled enthusiastically and applauded ferociously, as though her favorite halfback had just scored on a 99-yard touchdown run.

"I thought he was innocent--from Day One," said a beaming Crawford. "I just felt he couldn't have done that to the mother of his children, and I know he didn't."

Such sentiment was in the minority.

"I'm very upset . . . very upset," said an ashen-faced Kathy Van Velzen, 45, a housekeeper from Laguna, who appeared on the verge of tears. "I just feel the jury wanted to end it quickly. How could they ignore all that evidence?"

"I think Webster's ought to change the meaning of the word justice ," snapped an angry Mark Price, 37. "Truth means nothing anymore."

In Dana Point, where Nicole Brown Simpson grew up, despair was the feeling voiced by Jo Hanson, who taught Nicole and her younger sister, Tanya, in clothing and textile classes at Dana Hills High School.

"I watched this case and I wanted justice and I feel it was not served," Hanson said. "I was picturing her this morning the way she was when I taught her and I've just been very upset all day. This case has really made me lose faith in the jury system."

Chris Valdivia, a high school friend of Nicole's, said he worried about the impact of the jury's decision on the young children of Nicole and O.J. Simpson. Sydney, now almost 10, and Justin Simpson, 7, have been living with their mother's parents and sisters inside the gated community of Monarch Bay in Dana Point.

"As they grow up, I wonder if they'll always have the question in their minds about their father, whether he did it," said Valdivia, the owner of a pool-supply company.

At midday, a handful of neighborhood residents and the curious stood among a small army of reporters and photographers outside the gate of Monarch Bay, the private community that is home to the Brown family. Police and private security guards were vigilant, keeping all but residents from entering the community and requiring the media to wait for the Browns across the street from the entrance.

Several members of the family arrived just before noon, slipping past the waiting reporters without speaking and driving through the entrance into the privacy of their community.

Support for the family and concern about their reaction to Simpson's acquittal was evident in the crowd on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Crown Valley Parkway. At one point, someone dropped off a large bouquet of white flowers for the Browns at the gatehouse.

Someone else had hung a bright orange sign from a tree opposite the entrance. "OJ Murderer, You Have To Live with Yourself. Don't Come Around Here. You Are Not Welcome," it read in hand-lettered black marker.

Similar feelings were expressed at UC Irvine, where at 9 a.m., students began streaming into the P.V. Cues lounge, packing the room to twice its capacity, elbowing each other for a peek at the 60-inch-screen television droning on in the center of the room.

When the verdict was read, the room erupted in a loud "Awwww!" Most simply stared at the television as their jaws dropped.

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