What's next for O.J. Simpson? Prison guard, lawyer chime in

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

After a hearing that was, at times, as absurd, pathetic and self-destructive as the crime that it was dealing with, O.J. Simpson won his release from the Nevada Department of Corrections by a unanimous 4-0 vote.

Sometime soon after 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 1, Simpson will be discharged from the Lovelock Correctional Institute, which has been his home deep in the remote Northern Nevada countryside for nearly nine years. You can expect camera crews and helicopters and probably a few protesters to form a midnight madness version of the modern media circus.

What comes next has always been the question for O.J., who despite his comically unchallenged claim to the parole board of “basically living a conflict-free life” has decades and decades of domestic violence allegations, a double-murder charge, incarceration and assorted nonsense behind him.

Simpson has never been the shy, quiet type, not when he was a football star, not when he was a Hollywood actor and certainly not when he became infamous following his 1995 acquittal in the gruesome murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

If he had learned his lesson after “The Trial of the Century” and retreated to the simple life, he wouldn’t have found himself in 2007 trying to steal back his own belongings from some two-bit memorabilia dealers in a sad, discount Las Vegas hotel room. That’s how he got to where he was Thursday, begging for a chance to end a maximum 33-year sentence so he can head to Florida and be with three of his children who have settled in the St. Petersburg area.

“I can easily stay in Nevada but I don’t think you guys want me here,” Simpson joked to the parole board because, hey, why not go glib with so much on the line.

“No comment here,” chairwoman Connie Bisbee cracked, playing along. And she wasn’t the board member wearing a Kansas City Chiefs tie. Or the character witness, who was both O.J.’s victim and friend, who sported a Heisman golf shirt.

The comedy routine didn’t matter. The parole board took turns complaining about all the hoopla surrounding the hearing and all the attention and all the crowds – including hundreds of media descending on multiple locations.

Related slideshow: O.J. Simpson granted parole for 2008 conviction in Nevada >>>

Simpson was correct, they didn’t want him here anymore and with good behavior and a fairly victimless crime, it didn’t matter if he was too often defensive and dismissive during the hearing.

He’s 70 now and what happened in LA 23 years ago couldn’t be considered. He was acquitted, after all.

So can he really just go from Housing Unit 6a, cell 64a in Lovelock to a life more in line of a Florida senior citizen retiree?

O.J. Simpson was parked Thursday via a unanimous vote. (AP)

“Right now, I’m at a point in my life that I want to spend time with my family and friends,” Simpson said.

“We just want him to come home,” his daughter Arnelle later pleaded with the board. “I know in my heart he’s very humbled.”

Maybe. It’s impossible to know. Thursday was a testament to mixed messages. One moment Simpson was claiming to the parole board that he wanted out of the spotlight and he had turned down all interview requests while in prison. The next his attorney Malcolm LaVergne was hinting that Simpson might have “a webcast or blog in his future.”

Do reality shows and memorabilia signing appearances come next?

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No, according to one man who got to know Simpson well over the past decade. Jeffrey Felix is a retired Lovelock corrections officer, and while Simpson mentioned over an open microphone Thursday that they aren’t as close as Felix depicts, he didn’t deny their relationship.

Felix, for one, believes in the man he watched for seven years. He told Yahoo Sports that he and Simpson often discussed his goals if he ever got out of Lovelock.

“He used to say he just wanted to lay low, not do anything public, not even eat out in public for like three months,” Felix said. “All he wanted to do was play golf. Play golf and drink mojitos. He used to say mojitos were refreshing after golf.”

Felix said Simpson repeatedly mentioned moving into a duplex owned by one of his daughters. The Tampa Bay Tribune reported his daughter Sydney owned two such places in 2016, but current Pinellas County property records list only a single-family home under her name.

One thing Simpson won’t have to worry about is money. While a 1997 civil suit ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in damages to the Brown and Goldman families, his NFL pension (estimated by Sports Illustrated to be as much as $25,000 a month) and a smaller pension from the Screen Actor’s Guild are both protected from creditors. A Goldman family attorney told the New York Post that Simpson has only paid “six digits” so far.

Felix spent two decades as a correction’s officer at Lovelock. When Simpson arrived at Lovelock, Felix said the warden was concerned about bad publicity if such a high-profile inmate was involved in any trouble. Maintaining Simpson’s safety became a priority, with Felix and other experienced officers charged with assuring it.

As a result, Felix says he spent countless hours with Simpson, walking laps around the yard and talking around the facility. They became, Felix said, unlikely friends. Felix offered a measure of protection from prison bureaucracy and other inmates and Simpson provided a touch of celebrity and plenty of charisma.

Felix eventually self-published a book – “Guarding the Juice” – detailing their time together, which is likely the source of Simpson’s frustration with him.

“I like O.J.,” Felix said. “We’re friends. I was a prison guard for 20 years. You make friends. I have friends who are murderers. [Expletive] happens. I guess I’m a forgiving person.”

From the day he arrived, Felix said, Simpson was focused on getting out of prison as soon as possible, working the system and maintaining a clean disciplinary record for the inevitable parole hearing. That meant trying to be friendly to all, mentoring younger inmates and eventually even becoming the commissioner of the inmate softball league – “18 teams,” Simpson boasted Thursday.

At one point, Felix said he stepped in and helped Simpson avoid getting written up by another officer for having an extra cookie from the prison cafeteria in his cell. Even a slight offense could hurt. (Simpson scoffed at this story Thursday over the hot mic.)

Another time Felix said he worked out a dispute between Simpson and an inmate Felix described as a “white supremacist” after Simpson unwittingly cut the other inmate in the cafeteria line.

“That’s when he began to trust me,” Felix said.

Simpson wanted no altercations with anyone and, according to Felix, got along with the other inmates. He won people over by speaking about his old life, regaling everyone with wild stories from his playing days at USC and the Buffalo Bills through even wilder nights as a Hollywood star. Yet at the same time, he was an everyman, mopping the floor in the prison weight room and interacting with everyone.

“Hey, they all love O.J.,” Felix said. “Everyone loves O.J. He’s a super extrovert; he has to talk to everyone. They loved his stories.”

Those personality traits are part of his downfall, though. It’s how he surrounded himself with disreputable people and got caught up in a ridiculous world of underground memorabilia dealing.

How could someone who beat such a serious rap, wind up incarcerated on such a silly one?

“I just hope he picks his friends better,” said Gabriel L. Grasso, a Las Vegas-based attorney who served as local co-counsel on the 2008 robbery case. “There are a lot of people out there who just want to use him.”

Grasso, for one, is skeptical that Simpson will be able to live a calm, out-of-the-limelight life. He is, the attorney said, a natural performer who basks in attention. As O.J. noted at the hearing, “I’ve been recognized since I was 19 years old. … Even on the street, people have always come up to me.”

That can be intoxicating. Long after the Los Angeles trial, Grasso said he saw Simpson own crowds out at restaurants and bars and saw women slip him their phone number. That he was likely a double-murderer didn’t matter.

“Look, once you forgot about everything else, O.J. was a great guy to hang out with,” said Grasso, who hasn’t had direct contact with Simpson since the 2008 trial. “He was charismatic. He was engaging. He’d tell great stories. I can assume that nearly 10 years in prison will change someone, but will he still seek that out?

“I hope he is a more toned-down individual,” Grasso continued. “I think he’s going to need to make money, though, because he never thought he had enough money.”

Only Simpson can control his actions.

“I want to get back to my kids and family,” he said Thursday.

That was enough for the parole board. The next chapter of Simpson’s life begins on the first of October, and all the options will still be there for him. Cheap fame and endless, misplaced adulation. Or a crew of kids still sticking by him, forgiving him for every last mistake he’s dragged his family through.

“I was in law enforcement and I’ll predict this,” Felix said. “He won’t get a parking ticket.”

Time, as always, will tell.

More O.J. Simpson coverage from Yahoo Sports:
O.J. Simpson granted parole, can be freed in October
Twitter reacts to Nevada parole board’s Simpson decision
A parole board member heard Simpson’s case wearing a Chiefs tie
O.J. Simpson has a long rap sheet

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