Friday, January 27, 2023

Exclusive Interview: Love, Lies & Guilt: OJ Simpson’s Close Friend Shares His Regrets

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How do you begin to reconcile the idea that a man you idolised, loved and laughed with for more than 25 years, might also be a man responsible of the brutal murder of a young man and woman?

Ron Shipp first met OJ Simpson when he was just 16 years old – he tagged along with his brother – who had played against the rising football star – to an award ceremony in LA. They went on to have a long friendship which saw OJ follow a path to stardom, while Ron joined the LAPD.

They’d spend afternoons playing tennis at OJ’s Rockingham estate and Ron got to know Nicole Brown – who would become his second wife – very well. OJ and Nicole had a rocky romance, and while many friends and family claimed to have only known the couple to be hopelessly in love, Ron had seen another side to their marriage.

Nicole was a victim of domestic abuse, a fact she eventually confided in Ron – asking him to come over to the house, where she showed him photos she had taken of her face and arms, black and blue. It came as a horrifying shock to Ron, who actually ran workshops on domestic violence to educate LAPD officers on what to look out for.

He intervened and confronted OJ, continuing to check in with Nicole after the pair broke up – which they did on several occasions. When they broke up for good, he warned Nicole of living too close to OJ – but within a month of their final breakup she was found dead.

Ron Shipp, pictured on OJ & Nicole: An American Tragedy. IMAGE: Discovery Communications LLC..

On the evening of June 12 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson went out for dinner with her parents and sisters, just after they’d all watched her daughter perform in a dance recital. OJ had arrived late to the show – Nicole hadn’t saved a seat for him, which onlookers say left him visibly annoyed. He was not invited to the family dinner.

Late that evening, Nicole’s mother called to say she must have left her glasses behind at the restaurant, which was not far from Nicole’s home. She was friends with a young guy who worked there, Ron Goldman, so she called him and Ron quickly found the glasses and offered to drop them off when he finished work. This twist of fate put him in the wrong spot at precisely the wrong time. He and Nicole were found hours later, stabbed to death outside her home in a violent and grisly attack, whilst her two children were sound asleep upstairs.

Of course, we all know what happened next – OJ was charged with their murders, and after a nine-month trial – dubbed ‘The Trial of the Century’ – he was found not guilty on October 3 1995.

Two years later he would be found liable of wrongful death in a civil suit (that’s a non-criminal suit, meaning no jail time) and was ordered to pay the Brown & Goldman families US$33.5million. He did end up behind bars though – he was sentenced to 33 years for criminal conspiracy, robbery, assault, kidnapping and using a deadly weapon after he entered a Las Vegas hotel and took sports memorabilia at gunpoint (he claimed he was taking back his own property). He was granted bail in 2017 and has been keeping a low profile in Las Vegas ever since.

But let’s go back to Ron. Despite having a close friendship with OJ for 26 years, he took the stand during the criminal trial to give evidence against him. He’s maintained his belief that OJ is guilty since the day he learned of the murders – especially after spending time with OJ that very evening at his home.

This week Ron appears in OJ & Nicole: An American Tragedy, a new documentary that tells the story of the murders from a new perspective – Nicole Brown Simpson’s. It includes Nicole’s secret diaries, seen for the first time, read by her younger sister Tanya Brown, who believes she kept a record of OJ’s chilling abuse in case he did end up killing her. Nicole wrote of about 60 occasions in which he allegedly physically abused her.

Although I was a teenager when the trial began, I can vividly remember it and have been fascinated by it since. The case encompassed everything – privilege, class, celebrity, race, gender, abuse… The Trial of the Century was a complete circus, and amongst it, the fact that two young lives were lost, often got lost in the narrative.

This week, Ron Shipp, one of the people who knew Nicole well, gave me a call from his home in California.

Tell me, Ron, what was Nicole like?
Well, she was a lot of fun. A lot of fun – and everybody loved Nicole. She loved to throw parties, great parties for the kids, and parties for everyone! She’d always have games in the backyard – there was always a lot of playing basketball. And, Nicole, she was pretty good at that! Her and OJ were always inviting people over.

And OJ? What was he like?
I loved being around him and Nicole. I mean, everybody loved the guy, he was so charismatic, you know? And in all the years I knew the guy, I’d never seen him mad. He was always positive, he was always trying to help out. He’d sign autographs for people and was always saying, “What else do you need?” He was just one of those kind of guys. And I think that’s what a lot of people saw.

In those early years he was with Nicole, when he was finishing up in the NFL he did a lot of TV shows too, which not a lot of black men had the chance to do. I mean, he co-starred opposite Elizabeth Montgomery – he kissed her on screen! It was extraordinary for the time, and we all loved him for it!

Nicole Brown and OJ. IMAGE: OJ & Nicole: An American Tragedy, Discovery. Gary Leonard/Corbis via Getty Images.

When you first heard of Ron and Nicole’s murders, what did you imagine had happened?
My mom paged me and I called her back and she told me that OJ Simpsons’ ex-wife was dead, and I asked, “which one?” because he had two. She said Nicole. But I mean, even before I asked that question, I kind of knew it was going to be her. I just didn’t want to believe it. And I didn’t want to believe that he could do that.

Then he called me to come by the house, and I’m still thinking to myself, ‘he didn’t do this, c’mon, he didn’t do this’. And then I could see he had a bandaged finger [in the trial, evidence was given that he had a cut on his left hand, which was consistent with a trail of blood, dropped to the left hand side of the bloody footprints leaving the crime scene].

I asked him if he did it, and he told me three different stories. I still didn’t want to believe it.

Was there a moment when you came to the conclusion that it was him?
From the time I went upstairs with him that evening, I knew there was only one person who did it, and I was with them.

How hard was it to reconcile those thoughts? I mean, I remember on the stand, you said you still loved him, as you were giving testimony against him. It must have been incredibly hard to reconcile the idea that the man you knew who was kind and generous, was also guilty of such a horrendous crime.
It was. It wasn’t until I saw the homicide photos that Chris Darden [a lawyer for the prosecution] showed me – that made me testify against him. Looking at her cut up, and then nearby Ron Goldman lying there, cut up, I was like, ‘Man. How could you do this?’ You just don’t want to believe it, but after talking to him that night, I knew he did it, and I knew I had to testify.

Nicole had earlier confided in you that OJ had beaten her on several occasions – and you actually confronted OJ about it, didn’t you? What did you say?
She kicked him out of the house and he was trying to get back in, and she said that she wouldn’t talk to him, unless he talked to me. So there were a couple of nights where I went over there and talked to them, and he was pretty down to earth about it. At one point I thought he was going to burst into tears – I’d never seen OJ like that.

I was always told years before, to never get involved with someone personally [as a member of the police], and I made the exception for OJ and Nicole. And I remember him saying, “I’m going to lose my Hertz commercials, I’m going to lose everything” and then he said, “I will never do it again.”

And, God. For some crazy reason, I believed him.

Nicole and OJ in 1984. IMAGE: OJ & Nicole: An American Tragedy, Discovery Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The documentary you’ve been involved in is airing this week. It’s emotional stuff – particularly hearing Nicole’s sister read her diary entries. What made you want to get involved in this project?
I never knew anything about those letters! That was news to me. And then hearing Tanya read them, that broke my heart. Because I never knew she did that – I mean, what she showed me was photos of when he beat her.

You were on the LAPD for 15 years – you worked in educating officers about domestic violence. There was a huge amount of evidence that Nicole was a victim of domestic abuse – why do you think it was so hard for the jury to see that that violence could escalate to murder?
I think it was because growing up, we didn’t have that many black heroes. We had Muhammad Ali – a handful of baseball players and basketball players, but then there was OJ. And OJ was loved by everyone – and I mean everyone, with a capital E.  The guy could have run for president, I’m serious, he was that loved.

From what I heard you testify in the case, he was also well-loved by the police too. You spoke about taking LAPD officers over to the house, and not telling them where they were – then watching their jaws drop open and the joy on their faces when OJ answered the door.
Yeah, OJ knew a lot of cops, and a lot of the cops he knew, that was through me.

If cops saw him around they’d say they were friends with Ron Shipp and he’d say, “Oh hi!” and give them autographs or whatever they wanted. And I mean, he’d get me to do a lot of cop stuff, y’know stuff like, someone kept parking in front of his driveway so he asked me to run the license plate and get their details – which I shouldn’t have done, y’know. But back then I didn’t mind doing that for him.

Did that make it hard to stomach when the defence team mounted an argument that OJ was framed by the LAPD?
I mean, there was just no way he was framed. I had to stop talking about it because so many people who loved him were so mad at me. “How dare you,” they’d say.

I’ll tell you something not a lot of people know – I have half-brothers and sisters and they are first cousins with Johnnie Cochran [one of OJ’s defence lawyers] – can you imagine that? That divided our family – that divided me, because I believed he did it and they sided with Johnnie. A couple of my siblings and me, we didn’t talk for a while after that, because I was like, “what are you talking about, I’m your brother!” That just shows you how powerful it was.

Wow. I mean, I guess the hard thing is too, you had to hand it to Johnnie Cochrane – he did do an extraordinary job.
Yeah, he really did. And that was his first murder trial – that was the first one, and, yeah, he nailed it.

OJ trying on the Aris XL gloves found at the crime scenes during his double-murder trial on June 21 1995 – an act which led Johnnie Cochran to chant, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”. IMAGE: OJ & Nicole: An American Tragedy, Discovery, Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images

When was the last time you spoke to OJ?
Y’know what, his assistant set it up to go see him when he was in custody. There were maybe six of us, and we went in to see him three at a time. They told us to sit down, don’t stand up, don’t touch him and so I sat there, right across from him, close enough to touch. One of the other guys I was with said, y’know, “We’re gonna find the guy who did this, OJ. We’re gonna catch him.” And I just looked at him. He was all teary eyed. He looked pathetic, sitting there in those jail clothes. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. The next time I saw him, I was on the stand.

Did you ever read the book he wrote, If I Did It?
I did!

What did you make of it – particularly that “fictional” chapter where he wrote about how the murders would have happened “if he did it”?
I really believe he was actually just saying how he did it. I was glad that the Goldman family sued over that book, so they got the proceeds, and I know for them it wasn’t about the money, it was the principle. They changed the name of the book to I Did It. OJ was just telling his story.

Do you have any regrets?
Y’know, I do have regrets. I wish that I would have stayed on her a bit more. I wish I’d said, “don’t let him get in”, more. But I also knew she often couldn’t wait to get back with him again. I wish I’d said more to her, “Nicole, don’t do it. Don’t go back to him.”

One thing I did do, after they split up and divorced, Nicole told me she was going to take the kids and move to Malibu and I told her, “Great, idea. Great idea, Nicole.” Well, next thing I know she calls and says, “Ron, I just bought a house on Bundy.” And I said, “On Bundy?!? Nicole, that’s less than three minutes from Rockingham! [OJ’s house]” And she said, “Yeah I didn’t want to put him too far away from the kids.” And I did say to her, “Nicole, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be that close, after all the things you’ve told me about. I don’t think it’s a good idea, Nicole.” She said, “No, no, the kids need their Dad.”

Do you imagine a day when he might confess?
I dunno, I mean, to this day, I’d say 98% of people believe now that he did do it. And the book was his confession. That’s why I read it. “IF I did it?” Man, you did it.

Thanks so much for time today Ron – it’s been really fascinating to hear about it all, although I feel a lot of sadness for what Nicole and the families and you have gone through. It took a lot of courage to stand up and testify against him. Thanks for sharing it all with us.
Thank you! I’ll be honest with you, It’s kind of therapeutic for me still to talk through it like this, believe it or not. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of them. She was a great woman, a truly great woman. Man, she was a lot of fun. Their wedding day was one of my favourite memories. My wife was pregnant and we were there for the reception and it was probably one of the best times we’ve ever had .

In fact, there are times, where it doesn’t even seem real, and I think of picking up the phone and going to call him. I truly do miss the crowd – the friends he had. They were some of the funnest people and the funniest people. My wife and I talk about things we did in the day – especially those New Year’s eve parties and we really do have fond memories. She was truly a great woman. Thanks for talking about it.

OJ & Nicole: An American Tragedy screens on Investigation Discovery, Tuesday 2 March at 9.25pm.

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