by | Jun 18, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

At the moment of truth, he ran away, avoided the tackle, as if there were some goal line he could cross and be safe — safe from the charges, the handcuffs, the police, the cameras, the courts, the blood of the victims they say he killed, maybe even the death penalty. This is what the man who dashed through airports had become. O.J. Simpson was just another LA police file number now, a murder suspect on the loose.

He left a suicide note and disappeared.

Nobody knows nobody. That’s the lesson of this hero business. You buy into a smile, a style, a haircut, a commercial, a nickname, but you don’t know anything about the person. You don’t know him because you watched him play, or because you shook his hand a few times, or because he calls to you at an airport and you talk about his golf game.

This is what one “friend” of Simpson’s figured was proof of his innocence. That they flew together Sunday night, the murder night, and talked about golf. How could Simpson, just hours earlier, have done the unthinkable, killed his ex-wife and another man, stabbed them with a sharp tool, left their bodies bloodied and crumpled by her condominium in LA, and be on this flight to Chicago talking about putts and tee shots? Murderers don’t do that, right?

Says who? Nobody knows nobody. Simpson was charged Friday with the murders of Nicole Brown-Simpson, 35, and Ronald Goldman, 25, by an LA police force that, if anything, went out of its way to try to avoid doing so. They found blood on O.J.’s truck and blood in his driveway and a bloodied glove in his house and cuts on his body — and they still took four days to book him. When they did, they made an arrangement with his lawyer to have him surrender Friday morning, a final nod to his celebrity status — and that special treatment might lead to his death.

Simpson’s lawyer, Robert Shapiro, was given several hours to arrange for his client’s apprehension. He gathered Simpson, two doctors, two forensic specialists, and Simpson’s close friend, Al Cowlings, a former football player himself, at a large private home in the San Fernando Valley. Under normal circumstance, police don’t call ahead to make an arrest; they bust down the door. But Simpson was high profile, and Shapiro was high profile, and the LA police — who will catch hell over this, you can count on that — made an exception, something they have done before with Shapiro, and somehow, with all those people at the house, Cowlings and Simpson managed to be downstairs and all the others upstairs at the time when the police were given the address.

And by the time the cops got there, Simpson was gone. So was Cowlings.

“I had no reason to suspect that,” Shapiro said Friday night in the saddest and most bizarre press conference ever to hit the sports world. “It never entered our minds that he might run.”

Nobody knows nobody.

The immediate emotion is to feel sympathy for Simpson. He left a suicide note a friend read at the press conference, a touching tribute to his buddies and colleagues, a plea for the media to leave his children alone in the years to come, and an insistence that he had a happy marriage with his ex. He even included a message to his first wife — “Thanks for the early years, we had fun” — but the most important issue, the one that they care about in the homes of two people who are dead but didn’t want to be, Simpson barely addressed.

Did he do it?

“I had nothing to do with Nicole’s death,” he wrote.

Obviously, the police felt differently.

“Mr. Simpson is a wanted murder suspect, two counts of murder, a terrible crime,” said police commander David Gascon in appealing for help in Simpson’s apprehension.

What about his alibi?

“Obviously, we didn’t believe it.”

Gascon spoke about evidence. Blood types. He said that fleeing an arrest could also be considered a suggestion of guilt. Meanwhile, in his note, Simpson suggested he would kill himself because “I can’t go on. . . . No matter what the outcome, people would look and point. . . . I can’t take that.”

This, from a man who played professional football, who is looked at and pointed at every day of his life?

Is it the suggestion that he did something wrong or the guilt that he did that he couldn’t live with? These are terribly hard questions and no one knows the answer. The whole scene was bizarre, surreal, as if Hollywood had finally turned real life into a movie.

But the reaction across the nation was, in some ways, more bizarre. “We can’t believe it,” people said. “It’s not possible.”

Believe it. Nobody knows nobody.

And anything is possible.

Did you notice how many people rushed to Simpson’s defense when it was first suggested he committed this crime? “No way,” they said. “He’s the nicest guy we’ve ever met.” And these were friends and co-workers, not fans. Few seemed willing to admit that Simpson had once been charged with beating his wife, in 1989 — allegedly yelling “I’ll kill you” — a charge to which he pleaded no contest.

Nor did anyone mention that Simpson’s “punishment” for that crime included counseling, which he was able to take over the telephone.

“It seems he received special treatment,” the LA district attorney, Gil Garcetti, admitted,

Nor did anyone speak of how the police were called for further incidents of violence between the Simpson couple before their divorce in 1992. And when a therapist admitted that the ex-Mrs. Simpson had told her of abuse by her husband, medical authorities criticized the therapist’s “breach of confidentiality.” Confidentiality? The woman was murdered!

This is the world we live in. Tilted toward the famous. Yet few things are sadder than the apathy we show athletes who beat, abuse and sexually assault women. And heaven help your blindness if you haven’t noticed this pattern by now.

Consider: The onetime heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson, is in prison, right now, for rape. The man he took the title from, Trevor Berbick, was convicted of rape less than a month later. Jim Brown, whom many consider the only running back in history better than O.J. Simpson, has a trail of abuse and violence toward women as long as one of his touchdown runs. A flight attendant last year charged the Boston Bruins hockey team with sexual assault, claiming one player fondled her while another took a picture.

Put this in a world where domestic violence is already beyond control, and where, as Garcetti pointed out, “we have a domestic violence death in this city once every nine days” — and nothing seems out of the ordinary.

Yet here we are, somehow incredulous that a beloved O.J. could possibly commit this crime? Why? Because we knew him so well?

Consider what the average person knows of O.J. Simpson: 1) He was once a great football player. 2) He did some cute Hertz commercials. 3) He does football analysis on NBC. 4) He appears in those kooky “Naked Gun” movies, usually in slapstick situations, falling down a chute, or being dragged by a car.

That’s not a lot to go on. The real O.J.? You have no idea. I have no idea. All these reporters writing now about his rough childhood near the shipyards of San Francisco, his flirting with gangs in high school, his salvation through football — you know what? None of those people know him, either. They’re just repeating stories.

What goes on inside the human mind — the rage, the fantasy, the torment, the delusion — well, you don’t get that through interviews, or living next door to a guy, by sitting on a movie set with him a few days a week. Sometimes you don’t even know when you marry him.

So we have a terribly sad note, a fishy disappearance, a lawyer calling for O.J. to turn himself in “at the nearest police station” — and, lest we forget, two families mourning the deaths of their loved ones, who, as far as they’re concerned, just watched the police let the killer get away because of who he was.

It’s a weird tale, and it’s not over. But it proves one thing, beyond any doubt. Commercials, football games, smiles, interviews and lots of photos don’t bring anyone closer to the secrets inside the human mind. Nobody knows nobody. Maybe nobody ever will.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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