Dreams of Better Days Died That Night : Ronald Goldman: A young man was finding his way through the maze of L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Maybe it's Hollywood's fault or maybe it's our own, but when a murder involves the rich or famous, everyone has a scenario. And we think we recognize the players.

No wonder, then, that so many jumped to conclusions about Ronald Lyle Goldman as soon as the body of the handsome 25-year-old was discovered near that of Nicole Brown Simpson early one morning last month outside her Brentwood condominium.

He was a waiter and sometime model. His driver's license photo showed his head cocked back, a bandanna swathed around his head. Now here he was, deep in the night, dead on her walkway.

Images sprang. Rumors spread. In an instant, the world had created its own Ron Goldman--a smooth-talking, golden-skinned Westside gadabout.

But the real story bears no resemblance to the fiction, the image conjured.

At 25, Goldman was still finding his way through the maze of dreams that Los Angeles seems to offer. He longed for a serious girlfriend, but didn't have one. He wanted to open his own restaurant but that dream was years away from becoming a reality. In the meantime, he waited on tables at Mezzaluna, a casually chic trattoria, a short walk from his $750-a-month Brentwood apartment.

"I think Ron's philosophy was to shoot for the stars," said his friend Michael Davis. "I think we're all dreamers."

'He Was Trying to Get His Life Together'

Goldman and his fellow dreamers were the good-looking, weightlifting affable young men who easily make friends walking through Brentwood Gardens, a local shopping mall, or lingering over coffee at the Starbucks on San Vicente Boulevard. Like them, he embraced the mythologized Los Angeles lifestyle--he played volleyball on the beach, he surfed, he Rollerbladed, he appeared on "Studs," the now-defunct game show that featured saucy young men and women sparring and flirting with one another. "Girls will love him," the talent coordinator wrote after his audition.

It was in Brentwood that Goldman crossed paths with Nicole Simpson. They met two months ago, maybe three, when his neighbor introduced them at Starbucks, where a mix of local residents with their gym-toned bodies, their newspapers and their dogs linger over caffe lattes and fruit muffins.

She was as chatty as his friends, and any encounters between Goldman and Nicole Simpson seemed as breezy and innocent as the balmy ocean wind that ruffles the coral trees on San Vicente. That he was good-looking and disarmingly personable seems undeniable. That he was the other man in Nicole Simpson's life seems unlikely. Plain untrue, his friends insist.

No matter, Goldman--who would have been 26 Saturday--was already distracted by a job he found reasonably satisfying, a wide circle of friends and the constant challenge of wrestling Los Angeles into the shape of his dreams.

"He was trying to get his life together," said Carly Kostrubanic, a friend who dated him for about a month. "He was working really hard."

*

He made friends effortlessly. In Brentwood, while working at the California Pizza Kitchen, Goldman forged a friendship with Michael Davis when the young actor came to pick up a takeout order.

Jodi Kahn, a staffer at the trendy Theodore clothing boutique in Brentwood Gardens, recalls him visiting the store several times a week. "Ron would come in here and sit in that chair and hang out," Kahn said in the boutique, a few days after Goldman's death. "He never had a bad word to say about anyone."

In the last months of his life, after finishing work at Mezzaluna, he would drop in on his friend and neighbor Gail Evertz, once announcing his presence by playfully tossing a tennis ball through her ground-floor terrace windows. He would come bearing pasta from the restaurant--or a reminder to lock her windows.

"He would help anyone," Evertz said. "He was the kind of guy who just gave unconditionally."

Asked to describe his personality on his 1991 application to appear on "Studs," Goldman wrote: "outgoing, cocky, adventurous, relaxed and athletic."

He basked in the warmth of the climate and the outdoor lifestyle. He wore jeans, oversized shirts and Doc Martens. "He became a real California kid," Davis said.

His death might have him remembered for his quirky appearance on a flashy game show, his likeness in a clothing boutique ad and his relationship with a beautiful blonde. But, in essence, Goldman seemed not much different from the sweet, endearing prankster recalled by his childhood neighbors and high school friends in Buffalo Grove, Ill., where he was raised.

Certainly he had changed both in looks and lifestyle.

Those who have seen the recent photos of a tall, muscled young man who sometimes modeled can hardly believe it was the same short, wiry teen-ager they knew at Stevenson High.

"It's night and day," said Jeffrey James Greenbury, a classmate whose locker was next to Goldman's. "It's like when he crossed the border (to California), he changed."

Many found it hard to believe he had blossomed from a sweet nebbish of a boy to a sleek, self-assured habitue of the gyms, coffee shops and clubs of L.A.'s trendy Westside.

They were stunned at how his life had evolved. "I would have thought he would have grown up and lived in the suburbs . . . like the rest of us," said Sheryl Steines, 25.

But Goldman's transformation may have been little more than a change of costume and scenery. Friends in Buffalo Grove speak of him in eerily similar ways to his more recent friends in Brentwood.

"In high school, he was quiet but friendly. The kind of guy you'd like to be around once you got to know him," said Dan Argentar, 23, who grew up around the corner from Goldman. He wasn't the golden boy, but he mixed so easily that he got invited to all the parties anyway.

"He was a really nice guy, down to earth," said Marla Koza, 25, who was Marla Edelheit when Goldman took her to the senior prom. "He was very excited about it. My brother reminded me that after I said I'd go with him, he brought over roses."

Goldman's father and mother divorced in 1974 and after a brief time in his mother's custody, Goldman grew up with his father and a younger sister, Kim, who remembers him doting on her. His mother, Sharon Rufo of St. Louis, has not spoken about him except to say she last saw him seven years ago and last spoke to him two years ago. She learned of his death, Rufo said, from her mother.

Old friends watching news accounts were stung by the anonymous handle now bestowed upon him. "When they say on the news 'Nicole Simpson and a male friend,' I scream at the TV: 'He has a name. It's Ron Goldman! ' " said neighbor Kris DeBolt, who trusted him enough as a teen-age boy to baby-sit her young daughters.

He was no more a standout at Stevenson than he was in Los Angeles. He energetically played soccer, swam, and skied--but he was never good enough to earn the varsity letters that his friends won.

"He was definitely a joker," said Jeffrey James Greenbury, 25. "The problem was that his position on the social ladder, if that's what you'd call it, didn't give him the attention he wanted. He was really funny, but was not in the 'in crowd.' "

And if his California image conveyed something flashy, Goldman was anything but in high school. "He was so far from a ladies' man, I can't tell you," recalled classmate Greenbury.

Plunging Into the L.A. Scene

Average Joe or not, Goldman seemed to make the transition from the Chicago suburbs to Los Angeles without much difficulty. Maybe it was the fact that he grew up in an affluent northwest suburb with families ranging from middle class to upper crust.

"Here, when you go to a friend's home, you may see a big stream running through an atrium off the living room. And three Mercedes-Benzes in the garage," Stevenson's Associate Principal Dan Galloway said of the area's wealth. "So the kids grow up with it."

At 18, Goldman left Illinois State University after one year, abandoning a planned major in psychology, to be with his family in Southern California. He wasn't following a dream, but soon he would be immersed in a community where people do nothing but.

*

Goldman plunged into the Los Angeles scene--even though he lived miles away with his family in the Oak Park community near Agoura Hills. What he didn't know--surfing--he learned. What he knew--tennis--he taught.

In his California life, Goldman would have a string of waiter jobs. He met Craig Clark when they both worked at the Pierview restaurant in Malibu. They forged a long friendship, playing volleyball on sultry afternoons and sampling the clubs at night.

"Anywhere that was hot, everywhere that was hot," said Clark, laughing. "We always got in free, because he always knew people at the clubs."

At one of those clubs, Clark recalled, Goldman met a pretty, slender blond woman named Jacqui Bell. In 1992, Bell and Goldman began an intense on-again, off-again relationship. At first they lived together in her Westside apartment and then in a first-floor garden apartment they found near Gorham and Barrington avenues in Brentwood.

He got a job as a waiter at the California Pizza Kitchen in the airy white-walled Brentwood Gardens mall. His life revolved around Bell and his widening circle of friends in Brentwood.

The place captures the sun-dappled image of Los Angeles. It has wide, quiet streets, expensive boutiques, yogurt shops and two restaurants specializing in state-of-the-art health food and fat-free cuisine a mere mile apart. It is fabulously wealthy and relatively affordable--if two people share a two-bedroom apartment. And it is where aspiring stars can brush up against instantly recognizable celebrities--super-agent Michael Ovitz, perhaps the most powerful man in Hollywood, lives hardly more than a mile from Goldman's struggling actor friends.

Free of the frenzy of beachside Santa Monica and Venice, it's still just a three-mile trip on Rollerblades down San Vicente Boulevard to the ocean. "He loved it because there was a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of family," Davis said.

Goldman, friends remember, very rarely drank, was never seen taking drugs, and consulted Davis--also a trainer at The Gym--for low-fat diets.

Women found him warm and affectionate. Far from being a heartbreaker, he seemed the one more likely to have his heart broken.

"It's very hard waking up in the morning knowing one of the few wonderful people in the world is gone," said Bell, his former girlfriend, who ended their relationship four months ago.

"He wanted a commitment. I'm not very good with commitments. Maybe if I'd given him the commitment he wanted he'd still be here," said Bell, her voice filled with anguish. "He was a very sweet, honest faithful guy when we were together."

When they were together, she said, they were the quietest of couples--dining in and watching videos. Goldman bought her a Belgian sheep dog named Audrey. "It's the only thing I have left of him."

But their 1 1/2-year relationship was marked by stormy moments and sporadic separations. Once, when Bell left for St. Louis, Goldman flew there to persuade her to return to their Brentwood home. "For a guy who doesn't have a car or a dime, this was really quite wonderful," she said.

Bell moved out for good in February. A month later, she recalls, Goldman showed up in tears at the tony Westside boutique where she works. "He wanted me back, he missed me," she said. But it was not meant to be.

Last spring, he struggled with the breakup of his relationship and grew miserable at "CPK"--as the California Pizza Kitchen chain is known among some of its clientele. "He wanted his own restaurant. How would you feel about being a waiter? He was frustrated. He wanted his life to go on," Bell said.

He left the restaurant in March. He quickly found a job at Mezzaluna, earning better tips and meeting more people. "He was so proud that he'd found a job in only a few days," said Kostrubanic, a sometimes model and actress.

Goldman was comfortable at Mezzaluna. With its buttery soft lighting and expansive picture windows, the low-key restaurant buzzes with the chatter of the eclectic Westside crowd it draws. "It was a scene," Kostrubanic said. "He loved that."

His ambitions still seemed vague. He fell into his modeling jobs for Barry Zeldes, owner of Z90049--the store next to the California Pizza Kitchen in Brentwood Gardens. "My model backed out. I thought he'd be good," Zeldes said. Goldman quizzed Michael Davis on his acting jobs and left Davis with the impression that he wanted to be a working actor. "He said, 'Man, I really want to do that. I want to be on a show,' " Davis said.

But no one can even recall seeing a head shot--the basic calling card of any actor, working or aspiring.

"One philosophy we all spoke of was networking," said Jeff Keller, the roommate of Michael Davis. "We have to meet people."

At that, Goldman excelled. In the last few months of his life, he worked occasionally as a promoter at dance clubs on nights when club managers turn over the club to outside groups who promote a special theme or kind of music. (The promoters often get the gate; the club management gets the profits from the bar.)

Although he was not an insatiable club-goer--friends insist he only went two or three times a month--he seemed to have the perfect skills for being a club promoter: a gregarious personality and an endless list of friends to invite.

"He wanted to know all aspects of the restaurant and bar business," Jeff Keller said. Goldman was part of a group of promoters who ran a party on Memorial Day weekend at Renaissance, the club and restaurant on the Santa Monica Promenade. "He was definitely a social person," said Philip Cummins, the managing owner. In fact, Cummins noted, he would have been promoting tonight.

But the club scene could be wearing for Goldman. So could the relentless preening and posturing of the denizens of young L.A.

He told Davis he envied his friend's quiet times with his girlfriend: "He would say . . . 'I really miss that--having someone to talk to, you don't have to go out, you can avoid all the craziness out there.' "

Still, there was something alluring for Goldman about the night life epitomized by restaurants such as Mezzaluna. In his mind, he sketched out his plans for his future restaurant.

"It was going to have big metal doors," recalled Jeff Keller. "There wouldn't be a name but a symbol--an ankh." It is the ancient Egyptian symbol of life and it matched the tattoo on his shoulder.

Friendship With Nicole

The missing ingredient, of course, was money. Goldman got by on the basics--an apartment, a wardrobe of fashionable casual clothes, and friends who let him borrow their cars. He walked to work. He and his friends got by on little and spoke longingly of the days when they would be financially successful.

Sometimes, on his way to work, he stopped by the apartment that Keller and Davis shared and they all went for coffee at Starbucks. It was there they occasionally ran into Nicole Simpson.

She often stopped for coffee after her daily run or with her Akita in tow. She would sit in the sun on the low concrete wall that borders the coffee shop and chat with Goldman's pals. Like them, she too had once been a waitress, a woman just pondering her goals when she was swept up into O.J. Simpson's world. Like them, she made friends easily. Davis said he met her in passing at Brentwood Gardens. "I don't even know what transpired," he recalled. "We just got to talking."

Outside the coffee bar Simpson and the guys exchanged tidbits--plans for the day, her children, their acting auditions. Goldman appeared no closer to her than the rest of them--except that he got an occasional chance to drive her white convertible Ferrari. He looked happy as a boy with a new toy the spring night that she let him drive her and Keller to Locanda Veneta in Beverly Hills. "She was a young kid, too," said Keller, who got to drive home. "She knew she had a great car."

Friends say the relationship was innocent and casual. "If he was having a relationship with her, he would have told us," Keller said.

Gail Evertz, with whom he often talked about his relationships, confronted him in early June: "I said, 'What's going on?' I was teasing him--only because the guys had said, 'Oh, Nicole really likes him.' He said, 'Absolutely nothing. She likes all the guys. I'm not special.' I even asked him if he slept with her. He said, 'Absolutely not.' " In fact, Evertz said, Goldman speculated that Simpson was interested in one of their other friends.

But Simpson's good looks--blond and beautiful was definitely his type--and her great car were irresistible--if virtually unattainable. He once showed up in her car for a lunch date at Cafe Montana with his old friend Craig Clark. "I said, 'Hey, we're styling,' " recalled Clark, laughing.

The Friday before his death, Goldman told another friend that he had gone with Simpson to the Gate, a popular West Hollywood club. He reveled in the moment that they pulled up to the entrance and caused everyone to stare. "I said, 'Ron, when you show up at the Gate with O.J. Simpson's wife, driving her Ferrari, you're asking for trouble,' " said the friend, who asked not to be identified. Goldman reassured him there was little to it. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. We're just friends.' "

His Last Weekend

The last weekend of his life was not that different from other weekends. Friday night, he went to dinner with Tiffany Starr, a cocktail waitress at Renaissance and a model. It was their second dinner date. On their first date, he had told her about his restaurant plans and even pointed out an ankh to her in a store where they were browsing. On their second date, they were still getting to know each other. "He was telling me how he wanted to get married in the next two years and he wanted to have children," Starr said. "He wanted a son."

Later, Starr went to work and Goldman showed up with friends at the club but left around midnight. "He said he wasn't having any fun; he was tired," recalls his friend Tracy Katzer, who ran into him that night.

On Saturday, he played volleyball on the beach with Keller and that night he went to the club, Tripp's, with two women friends. On Sunday, he played softball with friends at a park off Barrington and then he went to work at Mezzaluna. Nicole Simpson ate there that night, but Goldman didn't wait on her table.

He had after-work plans with his friend, Stewart Tanner, the bartender. "He was going to go home and change and then we were going to go out," Tanner said. Before Goldman finished work, the restaurant got a call from Nicole Simpson--a pair of glasses had been left behind. Goldman punched out at 9:33 p.m. and stayed another 15 minutes to have a bottled water at the bar. Then he left--still in his uniform, black pants and white shirt, his tie shed. He carried the glasses that Simpson wanted returned to her.

"I'll see you later," he called to Tanner as he walked out.

*

In the days since his death, Goldman's friends here and where he grew up have searched for mementos of the young man they loved.

In Buffalo Grove, Kris DeBolt found an old photograph that shows a 10-year-old Goldman at a birthday party for her youngest daughter, Tiffaney. "Some days, I'm angry," DeBolt said. "Some days, I'm just hurt."

Out here, Tiffany Starr, who had barely begun to date Goldman, knew what would make her feel better.

On the day of his funeral, she went to the store they visited on their first date and found the ankh he had pointed out to her.

She bought it.

Times correspondents Matthew Mosk and Staci D. Kramer contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°