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Simpson's Second Half

A decade after the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, which many contend the football Hall of Famer committed, he has segued into another phase of his life.

June 12, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — It was a recent Friday evening at one of South Florida's trendiest restaurants, and O.J. Simpson showed up for dinner. Predictably, there was near-pandemonium.

"Half of the restaurant took pictures with O.J.," said his lawyer, Yale Galanter, who was dining with Simpson. "The waiters and cooks all came out of the kitchen. They wanted to be photographed with him or get his autograph. The guy that owns the restaurant almost got into a fight over paying the bill. He wouldn't take the money."

A decade since the savage killings that transformed him into America's most-celebrated murder suspect and fugitive, Orenthal James Simpson -- former gridiron standout, actor, commercial pitchman and acquitted double-homicide defendant -- has segued into another phase of his life.

At 56, grayer, a few pounds heavier and hobbling on bad knees, the Heisman Trophy winner and pro football Hall of Famer is a single dad raising two teenagers; daughter Sydney, 18, graduated last week from prep school in the upscale Miami suburb of Pinecrest and is college bound in the fall.

With Sydney and son Justin, 15, Simpson lives south of Miami in a $575,000, three-bedroom, three-bath home with a pool. Under Florida law, it cannot be seized to help cover the $33.5-million civil judgment that a California court ordered him to pay the survivors of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Under federal law, his National Football League pension, reportedly $300,000 a year, cannot be touched either.

Simpson feels no obligation to hand over any money voluntarily. "His personal position is, because he didn't commit the crime, he is not going to pay them," Galanter said.

Simpson, who in his post-football years played a bumbling detective in the "Naked Gun" comedies and was working on a TV movie titled "Frogmen" when the killings occurred, is hoping these days for a show biz comeback. He has been to California to shoot the pilot of a gotcha-type reality show called "Juiced" that is being shopped around for a buyer.

And by most accounts, if he has not become the toast of his adopted hometown, he is well-liked enough in Miami that when he goes out, he is often treated to drinks or meals. Plenty of people want to meet him, shake his hand, have him immortalize the moment by scribbling his signature on a napkin or scrap of paper. (He sometimes adds a wish: "Peace and Love.")

"People either say, 'Hey, Juice!' or they come to the table and want an autograph or a photo," said Leonardo Starke, a Miami lawyer who is Simpson's friend and occasional golfing buddy. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of people who meet him either greet him or don't have anything nasty to say."

"I love him," said another friend, Delvon Campbell, 44, who said he saw Simpson an average of once a day, on the golf links or at brunch afterward. "Occasionally one person might say something out of the ordinary. But that's probably one in a million times."

For many Americans, Simpson's acquittal after his high-profile televised trial epitomized the flaws in the nation's justice system. Many still contend he got away with murder or, more precisely, with two. But not his Florida friends, including Campbell, who was in the Jamaican army at the time. He now works for a foundation named for the late reggae superstar Bob Marley that sells commemorative merchandise and raises money for charity.

"The person I know, there is no reason to doubt him," Campbell said after a round at the public golf course near Miami International Airport where Simpson and several other NFL retirees -- including Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants -- sometimes play. "He's a very nice person, loving and giving, a very nice father to his kids."

At Gulliver Preparatory School, the exclusive private campus where Simpson enrolled his children, he is treated just like any other parent, said fellow parent Eduardo Cardim. When Cardim's daughter Sylvia was on the school volleyball team with Sydney Simpson, Cardim said, the two fathers would attend the games and talk sports.

"Sydney is a very normal girl, has good relations with others," said Cardim, a marketing consultant. "There is nothing different about her."

Last year, Sydney Simpson called 911 in tears, claiming her father had said he didn't love her. "I don't want to be with my father," she sobbed. A fleet of police cruisers sped to the house, but her father dismissed the episode as a "nonevent," nothing more dire than an argument between a parent and a teenager.

Simpson, through his attorney, declined a request from the Los Angeles Times for an interview.

A supermarket tabloid had reported that Simpson was trying to cash in on the 10th anniversary today of his wife's death by demanding to be paid for interviews. But Galanter said that the only payback for one television interview was a diet soft drink for him and a bottle of water for Simpson during the taping.

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