Critical Phase


    There were a lot of risky parts to the Simpson operation for the killers, but the killers were by nature gamblers, and risk -- especially when they had an edge -- was exhilarating. The critical phase was between 9:35 and 9:50. If events went as planned during that time, the whole plan would work; if not, then one of the two waiting back-up plans would be slipped onto the main line.

   THE SITUATION AT 9:35: Nicole had had a satisfying and busy day. She had for the first time made a family break with O.J. by not inviting him to the dinner party, and with that done, she felt as though she was embarking on a new segment of her life. She got undressed, put on a robe, threw back the covers on the bed, turned on the bedroom TV, and started to draw a bath. She would be in bed by 10:00.

    Unknown to her, two men were lurking outside her condo. They had received the key to her condo and gate, and also her garage door opener. The one that was built like a gorilla was named Gus, and the other, who looked like an aging but mean surfer kid, was Steve. Gus loitered in the shadows of the front yard, Steve waited quietly in the bushes by the front gate intercom. They were dressed in black with short sleeved shirts, they wore stocking caps; they had blue surgical booties over their shoes, they had shaved their forearms that afternoon, and before setting out for this job had scrubbed down like surgeons. The seats of the van that would come soon would be covered with plastic sheeting, and there would be a clean towel waiting on each seat. Steve had stashed a green trash sack in the bushes to receive his gloves and their discarded booties and knives. There were brand new batteries in the cell phones and garage door opener, and those things had been tested that afternoon. A black knit cap dangled from Gus' belt on one side, a pair of gloves on the other. These were professionals, and knew exactly what they were doing.

    A couple of miles to the west, Simpson and Kato were on their way back to Rockingham in the Bentley from getting hamburgers at McDonalds.

    For the next ten minutes, the Mezzaluna restaurant would be the center of the operation. The critical events would be known there first. Ron Goldman had just punched out from work, and took his time card to be initialed by his boss, restaurant manager John DeBello. Goldman had earlier in the evening had conversations with bartender, Stuart Tanner, and was planning to meet him later that night at a club in the marina. DeBello was at that moment having dinner with the co-manager, Richard Arbolino, at the table by the front door, and invited Ron to sit and chat with them. In that fraternal situation, the managers could detain Goldman for as long as they needed, and keep him from leaving the place. The older men were interested in Goldman's plans for opening a restaurant himself. They had encouraged him in this, and Ron considered that with the advice of such experienced men he might actually have a chance to succeed. On this occasion, as previous ones, the older men counseled that the key was contacts. Goldman needed to cultivate the friendship of older and rich women who were the patrons of restaurants like the Mezzaluna. (They had not, however, been specific about a particular older woman.) Sometimes, a big break could fall into a young guy's lap, if only he was open to recognizing it. What progress was Ron making?

    Six miles to the south, fashionably dressed and sitting in an expensive car in the shadows of the Exodus House rehabilitation clinic, was Margot, project manager of the Simpson project. As she waited, she handled the cell phone in her palm nervously. If the plan at the Mezzaluna went awry, it was her task to launch the first back up. She had a story ready with which she could spring her friend Faye from the clinic, then she could speed Faye up Lincoln, Washington, Centinella, and Bundy, and prop her up at Nicole's front gate in place of Goldman, who was the patsy in the primary plan. But, nobody wanted to resort to that. It was really important that the primary plan work out. So much work had gone into it.

    THE ACTION: At 9:37, Karen Crawford, acting Mezzaluna manager, got a phone call. She recognized the caller as Nicole's mother, and because of the call, Karen set to searching the area around where Nicole's party had dined, then she went out the front door of the restaurant to look outside. DeBello saw and was enormously relieved; he tried to carry on the conversation as though nothing was happening. Just as Crawford hung up the phone on the conversation with Nicole's mother, Arbolino looked at the food on his fork, and wrinkled his nose. "'Scuse me a minute. I got to ask Mario somethin'." He went to the kitchen, and when he was out of sight made a phone call. Two blocks away, Gus felt the humming of the cell phone in his pocket, and took it out. There were no salutations; Arbolino's voice said only, "She found the glasses." Gus quietly said, "'Kay," and hung up.

    With stealthy steps, Gus went quickly to the back walk, along that to the alley, through the gate to a shadowed spot, and there waited a minute. A car went by. He stepped out enough to get some light on his cell phone key pad and dialed Nicole's number. It was busy. He melted back into the shadows; he could hit the redial button from feel.

    Inside the condo, Nicole was in her bedroom on the phone to her mother. The bath had been drawn, the candles lit around the tub, and Nicole was on the verge of a relaxing soak before retiring. Downstairs the house was closed up and dark. In the phone conversation, Nicole found out about the recovered glasses, and told her mother that she would get them at coffee after her morning jog the next day. Everything was relaxed and normal.

    Twenty seconds after talking to her mother, Nicole had shucked off her robe and was heading to the tub when the phone rang. She figured it was her mother again with a forgotten detail; she grabbed the phone. No one answered her greeting, but there was someone breathing. Uh oh. From the bowels of the big condo on a quiet night she heard the garage door rumbling open. From upstairs, she could not hear the squeak, but the rumble was unmistakable. She was alarmed at that, and began to demand of the caller who he was. There was a pause in the sound of the garage door, and then it began again, as though it was now closing -- and all beyond her control. It occurred to her that the garage door opener and the key to her doors had been missing since a couple of days earlier. She should lock the door between the garage and the kitchen, but if somebody had her key... At the end, there was the sound of the garage door seating, and on the phone a man's voice from months before seemed to smile as he quietly said, "I know you're alone." She was standing there in her bedroom, not only alone, but naked and trembling. He hung up.

    Although it only lasted for about twenty seconds, it was an unnerving experience, and Nicole was frightened and crying at the end of it. She threw on her robe, grabbed the keys from her purse, and went toward the stairs. Sydney had heard her crying, and called out from her room, "Who was that, mommy?" Nicole said something as she went downstairs, turning on the lights ahead of her. At the kitchen she stood beside the refrigerator staring transfixed down a half flight of stairs at the closed door to the garage. Was it locked? She didn't want to go there, but knew she had to. She just stood for a moment and stared at it. Then, as though to pretend to herself that she had come downstairs for some other reason, she reached over, opened the freezer on top of the refrigerator, and took out the cup of ice cream she had brought home an hour earlier. But, she was still staring at the door to the garage.

    TOO MANY THINGS IN HAND: The feeling of dread and unease overcame her, and she stepped across the room to the kitchen drawers. She did a thing then that each of us does every day unthinkingly: she shuffled the things in her hands so she could hold more things than she had hands for. The bunch of keys was in her right hand, the ice cream cup was in her left. She shifted the ice cream to the fingers of her right hand, and held the keys in that palm. With her left hand freed, she opened the drawer and snatched up the biggest knife that was in easy reach. Thus armed, she turned back to the stairway.

    She went to the steps leading to the garage, and halfway down she unconsciously realized that she could not both hold the knife and operate the key with the cup of ice cream also in her hand. She set down the cup of ice cream on the banister, and went foreword to check the lock. It was one of the scariest moments of her life, but the lock was secure -- at the moment. She backed up toward the stairs, glancing around the shadows there by the garage door, and wondering what she could do. A crank phone call was not really that big a deal -- women on the Westside got them all the time. A garage door that opened by itself... That sometimes happens too, she'd heard. But, she knew that OJ had a dispute with some unsavory characters months ago, and it was a great secret -- something that she could not talk about, upon peril to her own life, OJ's, and the children's -- they had said. And she vaguely thought that she had been followed recently... She was really frightened then, but there did not seem to be enough cause that she could tell the police, or even another person -- without revealing the secret. And, those only words from the caller hung in her mind like doom, "I know you're alone."

    The phone call about her mother's glasses came to mind, and suddenly it seemed to be a Godsend. She flew then from the door to the garage, back upstairs to the kitchen, and there she tossed the knife on the counter. Up another flight of stairs to her bedroom, forgetting about the cup of ice cream on the banister. She called to get the number of the Mezzaluna, hoping it was not too late, then called that and asked if Ron Goldman was still there. He was!

    It was 10:46, and at the Mezzaluna, Goldman was called away from his chat with DeBello and Arbolino to come to the phone. At that moment, his preoccupation was with wondering when his big break with an older rich woman would come, and a call from Nicole was not unwelcome. A minute later, he went back to the table where the two older men sat, and he was grinning. He told of his great good fortune in getting an after-hours rendezvous with Nicole, alone. They congratulated him. "Just one thing," Goldman said, a little puzzled. "She sounded jumpy and nervous. You know?" DeBello laughed and waved. "Ha! You're one lucky stud. She's in heat!" Arbolino agreed with a grin. "Yeah. When a broad sounds jumpy and nervous, what she really is, is excited. You'll do fine. You're on your way kid; it's your big break. If you need a manager for your new spot, I might be available." They all laughed.

    At the condo, as soon as Nicole hung up, she tore off the robe, put back on the panties and the black dress she had worn earlier, and went downstairs without taking time to put on shoes. They weren't important. The recently drawn bath was forgotten. At the prospect of having company, she felt more confident, and turned on some lights, got the living room candles going, and found something soothing on the radio for background. She turned on the porch light. Even if Ron only stayed for a while, it would show anybody who was watching that she was not alone, after all. She was no longer a helpless victim, she was coming back in control.

    At the sight of the porch light going on, Steve adjusted the gate so that it would appear to be latched, even though it was not, and the two men moved closer to their final positions.

   AROUND TOWN: At Rockingham, the Bentley pulled in, the gate shut, and the two men went their separate ways. Kato went to his guest house, and Simpson went inside his own house to pack for the trip to Chicago.

    At 10:50, Goldman left the restaurant for home, and DeBello, still at the dinner table with Arbolino, picked up his own cell phone from the seat beside him and dialed. Without any salutation, he simply said. "He's gonna do it. No need to stay there; you can go on to the place." He hung up and stared at Arbolino with disbelief. "I can't believe it. This whole God damned thing worked. It actually worked." Arbolino agreed. "We did our homework. And, there are still a couple of details." DeBello nodded, "The thing down the street's gonna work. You can take that to the bank. Whether she can get the jock to go..." He rocked his hand, but smiled, nonetheless. He knew that they were part of an amazing operation that would hold all who knew in awe for years to come. It would be a classic.

    In the marina, Margot got that call from DeBello with relief. The primary plan was on track, and she could head for her next stop: for a few minutes to be a part of the staged "security detail" scene at Nicole's condo, protecting the operation from passersby. As she drove, she called Gus at the condo and simply said, "The guy with the glasses is on the way." He said, "Yeah." Then she touched the auto dialer, and reached the "security detail" waiting in a van a couple of blocks from the condo. "Meet me in ten minutes," she said. "'Kay," was the reply.

    At 10:02, twelve minutes after she had left the Exodus parking lot, she arrived at the condo, and parked carelessly across the street. The white van of the "detail" was already there, blocking a view up Nicole's walk. The "principal" was a big black man who was pacing the sidewalk at the foot of Nicole's walk. There were three other men, "guards," in suits, standing as soldiers at ease with their backs to the principal, protecting him from approach in any direction. Margot was expected, and so the men did not interfere as she ran up to confer excitedly with the principal. She stayed there for a few minutes, in her conspicuously white coat, to give apparent reason for the "detail" to be protecting the spot. But, she was alert to watch for the dumpy little red car that she knew Goldman would be driving. When it passed by going south, and then turned at Dorothy, she ran back to her own car, jumped in, and left that place, heading north on Bundy. It was 10:08. The "detail" would stay for another three and a half minutes, then leave themselves - with the killers, who would by then be done.

    She continued on that street, went left on Sunset, then was winding around the streets in the hills at 10:12 when she got the call that the deed was done on Bundy, and everybody was away safe and in the clear. Two minutes later she was parked 100 yards up Rockingham from Simpson's estate, his driveways in sight, and her cell phone in hand. It was the most important act of all, if this was to be a complete and perfect crime, and Margot did it herself. She called Simpson, told him that Nicole had just been murdered -- as the sports legend had expected five months earlier -- and that his own glove had been left on her body to implicate him. If he hurried, and got there before the police, he could retrieve it and spare himself. It was like a little practical joke that the killers had used Simpson's glove to incriminate him, but the rest of it was not a joke; Nicole was really dead, Margot assured a stunned OJ on the phone.


    I know that you always wondered why the garage door opener had been stolen. And, now you know.

Dick Wagner • Van Nuys, CA (12/20/00) NG_519

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