THE SIMPSON VERDICT : A Dog's Howls Signaled Start of Tragic Episode

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dog's urgent howls tore through the shadowy Brentwood night. On Montana Avenue, a neighbor trying to hear the 10 o'clock news stepped outside to investigate.

It was an Akita, frantic with agitation. His white belly was splashed with blood, his paws stained a sticky brownish-red. The dog could not be quieted. Another neighbor took the disturbed animal for a walk, thinking that might still the sad cries. Instead, the exercise seemed to excite the Akita.

Faster and faster, the dog tugged the stranger along a dark sidewalk on South Bundy Drive, straining at the leash until he reached a tiled walkway half-hidden by shrubs. There, abruptly, the dog stopped and wailed. Up the walk was a hideous sight.

Two bodies lay sprawled in a lake of fresh blood. A tall blond woman in a black cocktail dress and a dark-haired young man in jeans, both slashed to death in a brutal attack. So unexpected anywhere, but especially amid the greenery outside a quiet Westside condominium. The neighbor led there by the Akita turned away in horror after a single shocking glance.

"I saw it for a half-second," Bettina Rasmussen said. "And I never looked back again."

And so began the tragic episode that captivated the nation for more than a year and whirled headlong into the "Trial of the Century."

Initial news reports on the slayings focused on the improbability of a gory double murder in upscale Brentwood, and gave little hint of the tumult to follow.

"Football great O.J. Simpson's former wife and a 25-year-old man were found apparently stabbed to death outside her Brentwood townhouse early Monday morning," The Times tersely announced in Tuesday's papers.

A Classic Whodunit

O.J. Simpson's name alone pushed the story to Page 1. As the hours wore on, intriguing details began to emerge--details that transformed the crime from a curious tragedy into a creepy mystery. It had the elements of a classic whodunit: a bloodstained glove and a knit cap dropped at the scene, a trail of bloody footprints, and the bodies of an attractive man and woman who had loved to dance at trendy Westside clubs.

What's more, the crime seemed motivated by intense rage. This was not your typical quick-and-dirty shooting. It looked like a vicious, hateful slaughter.

Ronald Lyle Goldman, a 25-year-old waiter at Mezzaluna restaurant on nearby San Vicente Boulevard, had been cornered by his attacker, trapped in a cage of trees and railings. His beeper and keys had fallen to the ground as he flailed. Strong and athletic, Goldman had tried to escape, but the killer had drawn a blade across his neck, twice--then slashed his throat and lungs.

Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, the mother of two children with O.J. Simpson, died from a similar wound: a long, deep slice to her neck that severed her arteries and nicked her spinal cord. She may have been knocked out first with a blunt blow to the head. Then, as she slumped on the ground, the killer may have pulled back her hair to bare her throat, which was cut nearly from ear to ear.

A grand juror who viewed the official photographs of the crime scene photos called the attack "something out of antiquity"--an act of barbarity in a time when impersonal bullets, not savage knife attacks, fell most murder victims. "This was butchery," the juror said. "Absolute butchery."

The day that ended in butchery--Sunday, June 12--had begun pleasantly in Nicole Brown Simpson's household. In the afternoon, she applauded with pride as her 8-year-old daughter, Sydney Simpson, performed a dance recital on stage at the school auditorium, her black and silver costume glittering with two large stars. A celebratory family supper followed at Mezzaluna, Nicole's favorite Brentwood restaurant.

The dinner was a coming out of sorts for Nicole. After a tumultuous divorce and two years of failed attempts at reconciliation, she had told her sisters that the break from O.J. was final. It was time to push forward with her life. Three weeks before, Nicole had returned a diamond bracelet O.J. had given her as a birthday gift. She was through with him for good, she confided to family and friends. No more sweet vacations followed by vicious fights. No more accusations of infidelity. She would be able to date other men without fearing his temper. He would be free to romance women without sparking her rage.

"She said, 'It's over' really convincingly," Nicole's elder sister Denise recalled.

Their mother, Juditha Brown, asked Nicole if she really was finished with O.J. "Yes, I'm really sure," she remembered her daughter saying.

At the recital, O.J. sat apart from Nicole and their son, 5-year-old Justin. Some of Nicole's friends said later that O.J. looked blank and brooding. Others in the audience described him as jovial and relaxed. He kissed Nicole's mother, shook hands with her father and playfully hoisted Justin in the air.

But he was not invited to dinner with the Brown family.

After dining on spinach salad and rigatoni, Nicole treated the children at Ben and Jerry's ice cream and took them home to bed. About 9:40 p.m., her mother called. She had left her glasses at Mezzaluna--could Nicole please try to pick them up? Nicole said sure and called the restaurant.

It turned out she didn't have to fetch the glasses herself. Her buddy Ron volunteered to bring them over. His shift waiting tables had ended at 9:30, and he lived just a few minutes from the restaurant, a few blocks from Nicole. He would stop by her condo with the glasses.

Trim and tan, flirtatious and fun-loving, Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson both lived fast-track lives, circulating in the Westside's beautiful set.

He had tousled black hair and flashy dark eyes. A self-confident poise landed him in a Giorgio Armani ad and on the Fox TV dating show "Studs." Asked by the host how he would rate himself on a scale of one to 10, Goldman held his hand at eye level and joked, "I'm way up here. There really isn't a scale for me."

With her toned muscles, long legs and stunning smile, Nicole was also used to admiration. She had drawn whistles from men since her days as a homecoming princess at Dana Hills High School in Orange County. She stood out even in the celebrity crowds after marrying O.J. Simpson in 1985.

Nicole was not shy about her charms. The license plate on her white Ferrari exuded confidence: L84AD8.

In the months before their murders, Nicole and Ron had become close friends. A former waitress herself, she invited him to spin the night away at trendy clubs. They dined together, danced together, even worked out together at a Brentwood gym. When they headed out on the town, she let Ron take the wheel of the Ferrari. He loved it.

For all their partying, however, both victims had loving and loyal natures. Goldman had worked as a tennis coach and camp counselor, and he volunteered at a center for children with cerebral palsy. He dreamed of owning a bar, but was also trained as an emergency medical technician.

"The bottom line is that Ron was a good person," his dad, Fred Goldman, said at a tearful gathering three days after the murders. His sister, Kim, added: "He didn't have a mean bone in his body."

Nicole Brown Simpson, too, had a sweet, sentimental side.

Troubled Marriage

Friends praised her loyalty and called her a devoted mother. She stitched together a quilt for her children, arranged Easter egg hunts for them and ferried them to dance lessons. Even her flashy Ferrari was turned over to the kids: "There were quarters in the seat belts, army men stuffed someplace. There were Cokes spilled everywhere, because, you know, that was the car, and it just so happened that her station wagon was a Ferrari," Dominique Brown, a younger sister, said.

Nicole had lived with O.J. Simpson for about 13 years --first as girlfriend, later as wife--before filing for divorce in 1992.

By all accounts, the football hero was proud of his California blonde, eager to show her off to his buddies but possessive and jealous if she strayed too far for his liking. She loved O.J. deeply, and worked hard to maintain the relationship. But their marriage was marred by bitter--and mutual--accusations of infidelity.

O.J. Simpson, the celebrity athlete and actor, was accustomed to being mobbed by women. They surrounded him in clubs, sent flowers to his home, cooed over him wherever he traveled. Nicole suspected her husband of affairs with models and sex-kitten actresses. He, in turn, accused her of flirting--or worse--with other men.

Months after the murders, Denise Brown described on the witness stand how O.J. Simpson used to explode into jealous and violent rages.

During one incident, he "picked [Nicole] up, threw her against the wall, picked her up, threw her out of the house. She ended up on her elbows and on her butt."

Another time, in a Santa Ana bar, "O.J. grabbed Nicole's crotch and said, 'This is where babies come from and this belongs to me.' "

An ex-boyfriend recounted in court that O.J. had hidden in bushes to spy on him and Nicole having sex.

In the year of their wedding, 1985, O.J. admitted smashing the windshield of his Mercedes with a baseball bat during a fight with Nicole. Police responded to that disturbance--and returned to the Simpson household several times over the next few years to defuse violent spats.

Most chilling of all was the haunting tape of a 911 call Nicole made just eight months before her murder. A man she identified as O.J. Simpson shouted obscenities in the background, while Nicole pleaded with the emergency operator to send help. "He's f------ going nuts. . . . He's going to beat the s--- out of me. . . . He broke the whole back door in."

After the murders, friends said Nicole was terrified that O.J. would someday kill her. She even stashed in her safe deposit box photographs showing her swollen, bruised face after one fight with O.J.

But those details would emerge later, as prosecutors and the press probed the volatile relationship between Nicole and O.J. Simpson.

Shortly after midnight on June 13, 1994, detectives had much more sketchy evidence to work with.

A slaughter so swift that no one heard a scream.

A getaway so hasty that a blood-soaked glove and cap were left behind.

A distraught dog. A dead waiter. A fatal slash across the neck of the ex-wife of one of America's best-known sports personalities.

And upstairs in the unlocked townhouse, Sydney and Justin asleep, unaware of how their world had changed.

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