As the mesmerizing scene in the men's locker room of an ultra-exclusive Los Angeles country club was slowly unraveling before my eyes, I couldn't help but think of the television special that had aired eight years before. Many of you might remember the night when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's secret vault to a live audience of some 30 million viewers. But do you recall what he found inside? Only clouds of dirt and a few empty bottles.
Would the same thing happen on this day?
We'll get to that later.
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I've resisted telling these stories for years, but now that O.J. Simpson is in a Nevada prison for the next several years, and many of us take great pride in our state putting him there for a simple robbery - when by assembling a dream team of lawyers in Los Angeles he dodged a double-murder rap in what was called the Crime of the Century - it's time to dust off some old Simpson anecdotes and share them with readers.
Like nearly all Americans of a certain generation, I first became aware of the man they called "Juice" when he was breaking football records at Southern Cal. A fraternity brother who lived down the hall from me at the University of Oregon was a middle linebacker on the Duck football team, and when he put a stirring tackle on Simpson in a big game in Eugene, the play made the cover of Sports Illustrated and thereafter decorated the walls of many a room in our frat house. Just that one play - putting the hurt on the great Trojan running back who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year - gave my friend perpetual "bad dude" status on campus.
I actually met Simpson about 10 years after that, when he was playing in a celebrity golf tournament at the now-defunct Dunes course here. The meeting was awkward. My roommate's girlfriend was working as a cashier in the restaurant adjoining the golf shop, and she asked me one day after I'd played in the same tournament whether I would have a word with a man who kept hassling her for a date. Surprisingly, she didn't know who he was, but told me he wouldn't take no for an answer. It was, of course, O.J.
I wasn't about to tell the brawny athlete to mind his own business and end up with golf spikes jitterbugging on my face, so I calmly approached him in the restaurant, introduced myself, chatted briefly, and told him that the girl working the register was steadily dating my roommate, who was a golf pro at the Dunes. In effect, Simpson blew me off and continued to pursue the girl through the next day, even finding her home phone number and asking her out. O.J. obviously wasn't accustomed to hearing the word "no" from objects of his affection.
Cut to some 15 years later, August 1994, just two months after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. I had just completed a round of golf with one of the world's most famous athletes (who will remain unnamed here), at the elite Sherwood Country Club in Los Angeles. The occasion was one of a series of celebrity profiles I was writing for GOLF magazine. The premise of the series was that you could learn more about the true character of a person from a four-hour round of golf than you could in several days of casual encounters.
As we sat in the men's grill room after the round, I asked this famous athlete and the other three golfers who'd joined us, all of whom were fellow members at Sherwood like Simpson, whether they thought O.J. had killed Nicole and Ron. Every hand instantly shot up. What followed were a slew of anecdotes about how Simpson had made passes at their wives or girlfriends, and how he had a fiery temper and a green streak of jealousy running up his back. All these guys who knew him quite well had not a whisper of doubt that he had committed the crime. Then, to my surprise, the subject of my profile made an off-the-wall suggestion.
"You know, if ever there were a perfect hiding place for the murder weapon (thought to be a 15-inch German hunting knife), it would be in O.J.'s locker here at Sherwood," he said. "We have tight security both at the entrance gate and in the locker room. Now that would be a great story for you, wouldn't it?"
I nodded eagerly, shocked that he had offered this suggestion, but not about to pass up the opportunity it presented.
Minutes later we were in the beautifully appointed oak-wood locker room, with my celebrated companion struggling to jimmy open Simpson's private locker, which had his name embossed above it in gold lettering. (Adjoining O.J.'s locker were those bearing names such as Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. As mentioned, this was a very private club.)
I felt a mix of excitement, anxiety and a large dose of apprehension as my co-conspirator worked on the locker. After his initial efforts were unsuccessful, he flopped onto his back and braced his feet on either side of the locker to employ the full power of his legs.
Keep in mind that the murder trial wasn't to start for another six months, so evidence was still being compiled. Certainly part of me wanted to see that door pop open and a blood-stained knife fall out. It would have been the linchpin piece of evidence in the crime that had left so many unanswered questions. But I also knew that if the knife were in there, I would become a footnote under the name of this famous athlete, as the lesser of the two guys who illegally broke open a locker to discover this evidence - and the one far more likely to take the fall if criminal behavior was alleged.
When the locker finally snapped open, the result was similar to Geraldo's Al Capone caper. There was nothing of importance inside: just a dirty old golf shirt and some golf gloves and balls.
"Damn," the legend said. "I thought we might have something here."
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The editors at GOLF magazine were divided as to whether I should include the juicy anecdote in my celebrity profile. I chose not to back then, feeling that it was an unnecessary invasion of my subject's privacy.
I bring it up today because 18 years have passed, and I'm still not naming the famous perpetrator whose idea it was to pry open the locker, and ... well ... shoot ... because I write just one column a month for this esteemed newspaper, I pretty much have to bring my biggest guns to the battle.
Las Vegas author Jack Sheehan writes monthly for the Review-Journal.