Tuesday, January 22, 2008

3. The Juice Goes on a Killing Spree

The story you’re about to read is true. No names have been changed to protect the innocent … or the guilty.

In the early 1990s, before OJ Simpson had gone on his infamous killing spree, I was dating a girl named Kathleen. It turns out that Kathleen’s best friend was a model/actress by the name of Paula Barbieri, who had been featured in Playboy and a number of similar publications.

And it also turns out that Paula’s main squeeze was none other than OJ Simpson, a.k.a. “The Juice.” (He liked being called “Juice.”)

I remember the first time I met OJ. It was in late January, 1993. Kathleen and I had gone over to Paula’s luxury apartment on Wilshire Boulevard in LA to meet with Paula and the Juice.

When we arrived, Paula was there not with OJ, but with Randy Jackson (Michael Jackson’s brother, not the Randy Jackson from “American Idol”).

Kathleen and I had been there only a few minutes when building’s concierge called and informed Paula that OJ was in the lobby and was on his way up to her apartment.

At that point, Randy leapt from his seat, yelled a few expletives, ran out the door, and down the hallway toward the service elevators.

Paula and Kathleen laughed as the panicked Jackson disappeared around a corner.

“Where’s he going?” I asked innocently.

“Oh, the last time OJ caught him up here with me, he beat the crap out of him,” Paula giggled.

I later found out that Paula had a habit of luring men to her apartment, and then inviting OJ over so as to make him jealous and to cause a fight. Their relationship took dysfunction to a higher level than most of us will ever know. I have lots of stories about that (things such as drug use, fights, OJ pushing Paula out of his car on the freeway, etc.), but I won’t get into it here.

Eventually, a happy-go-lucky OJ emerged from the passenger elevator and came sauntering down the hall.

OJ was dressed in a sport coat and opened-neck shirt, as was I. Kathleen was wearing a short but tasteful dress. And Paula was wearing a formfitting see-through fishnet number, along with a very visible, very skimpy bra and thong. I wish I’d have had my camera with me.

So the four of us spent the night on the town going to dinner and then to a few Super Bowl parties. (Dallas and Buffalo were playing in Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl that weekend.)

There were two main parties … one was at the Santa Monica airport for the Heisman Trophy Winners, and the other was a VIP party at a Beverly Hills hotel for NFL players and their guests.

I must say that OJ had enough manners to introduce me to everybody there, including Howie Long, Lawrence Taylor, and a number of other Pro Bowl caliber players.

As a side note, OJ was driving us in his Bentley that night. Paula was sitting beside him in the front seat, while Kathleen and I were in the back. At one point, OJ turned, laughed, and said, “Hey, I wonder if people will look over here and see a black man driving you white folks around, and think I’m the chauffer.”

“In that case, would you mind wearing a little hat?” I asked him. “And could you stop up here at the Piggly Wiggly?”

Fortunately, he thought the joke was funny, so he didn’t try to stab me.

The next morning, my brother called and asked for my impressions of OJ.

I told him that OJ and I had talked on a variety of subjects and that I found him to be intelligent and gracious. I summed it up by saying, “OJ’s nice enough, but he seems to be the type of guy who thinks he can get away with anything.”

At the time, I had no idea how prophetic those words were.

Over the next year, the four of us would hang out from time to time, as schedules permitted. Once, while Kathleen and I were visiting Paula at her mother’s home in Panama City, Florida, we were watching some cheap horror movie on cable TV when OJ called from LA.

He was watching the same movie. Paula put him on speakerphone and the four of us made comments throughout the film. I don’t remember the name of the movie, but what sticks out in my memory was that OJ kept acting as if he were creeped out by the villain, whose modus operandi was to leap from the darkness and viciously stab his victims.

In fact, Paula laughed at him and told him he was acting “like a girl.”

“I know,” OJ replied, “but this is really scary stuff!”

Fast forward to November of 1993. I was in the airport boarding a plane for Chicago, going to South Bend for a Notre Dame football game.

As I collected my boarding pass at LAX, I noticed a group of people congregated around someone near the gate. To my surprise, it was OJ … and he was waving me over.

“Hey, man,” he said as I approached. “It’s good to see you.”

Then he leaned in closer. “Hey, stand here next to me and talk to me so that these other people will leave me alone,” he whispered.

“Uh, okay,” I said.

After we boarded the plane, he asked if I could sit in the open seat next to him, which I did. During the flight, I told him that I hadn’t seen Paula in a few weeks and asked how she was doing. His answer was quite revealing.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen with Paula,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Paula doesn’t understand that I need Nicole in my life,” he answered. “After all, Nicole is my ex-wife and she’s the mother of my children. And Nicole doesn’t understand that I need Paula. I just can’t get either one of them to understand!”

He went on to tell me a story about how he had given Nicole a pair of diamond earrings, and then, after a fight, had taken them back and given them to Paula. At some later event (attended by both women), Paula purposefully wore the earrings and made sure Nicole noticed. Yelling. Screaming. Catfight. Blah, blah, blah. Dysfunction to the nth degree.

OJ seemed to think it was amusing, but when I asked him how having the two women in his life was going to work out, he became very serious and introspective. He then started to once again lament about how he required them both, and how he felt helpless to make either understand his need for the other.

He spoke at length and pretty much worked himself into an emotional state. By the end of his explanation, he was in tears. You read that correctly … the big, bad, USC Heisman-Trophy-winning, Bruno-Magli-shoes-wearing football man was in tears.

On one hand, I felt bad for him. After all, the guy was crying over two women. Then again, I kept thinking, “This guy’s insane. He’s crying over two women!”

I continued on to the Notre Dame campus for the game. If I remember correctly, OJ was headed to some ceremony that weekend that had to do with the NFL Hall of Fame.

Kathleen and I had dinner with OJ and Paula a few times over the course of the following months. It was always pleasant, and OJ was always nice to me. At least he never tried to kill me.

Around this time, I scheduled a trip to Europe, where I had the opportunity to visit Rome. Paula had called me before I left and asked if I would buy her and OJ each a set of rosaries at the Vatican.

I told her that I didn’t realize OJ was Catholic. She said, “He’s not, but Nicole is Catholic and his children are Catholic, so I want to give him a rosary and teach him how to say it.”

“Okay,” I replied. And so I delivered the rosaries when I returned from my trip.

Now … to June of 1994 (two days before the killings).

Kathleen had asked me to attend a Michael Bolton concert with her. Paula had arranged for us to have VIP tickets and backstage passes, claiming that she was now dating Michael and that she wanted us to meet him.

The show consisted of Michael Bolton, his band, twenty thousand screaming women, and me. Afterwards, Kathleen and I went backstage to hang with Michael.

He was a nice enough guy … friendly, rather unassuming, and a bit shorter than I’d imagined. He asked if I enjoyed the show. I told him I did. We chatted for several minutes about a number of things.

At one point, a photographer came over and had us pose for a photo. She (the photographer) then asked for my address, promising to send me a copy. Michael waved her off. “Just give me a copy when you get it developed, and I’ll give it to him,” he said.

He then turned to me. “Let’s have dinner next week with Paula. I’ll give you the photo then.”

“Okay,” I said. “By the way, how did you meet Paula?”

He then proceeded to tell me that he and Paula had met when she was in one of his music videos. “We met and started making out right there on the set,” he laughed. “And we’ve been together ever since!”

“Has she ever been to one of your concerts?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “She’s never asked to attend one. I suppose she’s not interested.”

I told him that I’m sure she’d enjoy it and that he should invite her to attend.

He told me that he was going to be performing in Las Vegas on the following Sunday (June 12) and that he would invite Paula to be there.

Later that night, I spoke with Paula and told her about my conversation with Michael. She admitted that she had never attended one of his concerts, but added that it was because he had never invited her. She'd therefore assumed he didn’t want her to be there. (What we have here is a failure to communicate.)

“Well, he’s going to invite you to Vegas this weekend,” I informed her. “And I think you should go.”

During that conversation, I asked her what was up with OJ.

She asked, “You didn’t mention his name to Michael, did you?”

I assured her that I hadn’t.

She went on to tell me that she was planning to attend some sort of fundraiser with the Juice the next day (on Saturday) and that she was going to announce to him that their relationship was over. “I should’ve broken up with him a year ago,” she said. “He always wants me to pull him out of his depressions, and I always do it. But this time, it’s OVER. I’m moving on.”

I told her, “Hmmm … I understand that you want to break up with him and all, but I was kinda hoping to get an autographed football before you do.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll get you a football.”

“Ah, that’s okay,” I told her. “On second thought, I don’t really want a football … he went to USC.”

She thought that was funny, though I was being serious.

And so Saturday came and went.

Paula went to the party on Saturday with OJ. Afterward – according to what she later told me – she informed the Juice that he had been squeezed out, that she was done with him, and that she was seeing someone else. She said something along the lines of “it’s not you, it’s me,” and wished him a happy life.

Once again, according to Paula, he was taken aback, but in typical OJ fashion, shook his head as if to say, “Yeah, I’m not worried … you’ll be back.”

The next day (Sunday, June 12), Paula went to Las Vegas to be with Michael Bolton and to attend his concert that evening.

Apparently, OJ attended his daughter’s dance recital that afternoon here in LA, where he spoke with Nicole. The story goes that at some point in the afternoon, Nicole calmly informed OJ that, like Paula, she was done with him, that she was going into rehab, that she was moving on, that she had new plans for her life and that they didn’t include him.

Now, within a span of under twenty-four hours, both Paula and Nicole – both of whom I had personally witnessed this man crying over on a plane – had told him to get lost.

According to Paula, OJ had a history of cocaine use, especially in times of stress … and it would generally result in fits of rage. She said she would try to calm him down during those times, but, of course, now she was nowhere to be found.

Apparently, according to the cell phone records, OJ tried to call Paula dozens of times that Sunday evening, but to no avail.

And he didn’t exactly have other “friends” with whom he could discuss the situation. For example, he was on the outs with Marcus Allen, who had apparently had an affair with Nicole. (By the way, OJ once introduced me to Marcus and Marcus’s wife, Catherine, who looked a lot like Nicole. Catherine eventually left Marcus, and then Marcus hooked up with Nicole … or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, the Juice wasn’t happy about it, and therefore wasn’t exactly fond of Marcus.)

According to the testimony, OJ and Kato went to Burger King that night and picked up something to eat … which, according to Paula, translates to purchasing some cocaine.

All the while, OJ couldn’t find Paula. He called ten, twenty, thirty times. No answer.

The next morning, the world found out that OJ Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole, had been brutally murdered along with a friend named Ron Goldman. (I personally found out when my phone rang and it was Kathleen screaming, “Paula just called and told me that OJ killed Nicole!”)

A few days later, the Juice wrote what must have been the dumbest “suicide note” in the history of suicide notes. Now he was on the run. He had become a fugitive.

Before long, his friend and former teammate, A.J. Cowling, was driving him north on the 405 in Los Angeles.

I called my parents back in Alabama. “Hey, are you watching this?” I asked.

“Of course,” my father responded.

“Well, you know those crazy people I was hanging out with here in LA? They’re not LIKE the people in that Bronco … they ARE the people in that Bronco.”

I later heard that the police confirmed that OJ had the following items with him during the infamous slow-speed chase: Several thousand dollars in cash, a passport, a fake beard, a gun, a picture of Nicole, and a ROSARY.

Interestingly, Michael Bolton publicly denied ever having met Paula. When a reporter asked about the music video she was in, Bolton replied, “Oh, yeah, I think she may have been a dancer or something in that video, but I don’t really remember her.”

A couple of TV news reporters in LA called and asked to interview me. I declined. I didn’t want to get caught up in that circus, which is exactly what it became.

As I had told my brother, my very first impression of OJ Simpson was that he seemed like the type of guy who thought he could get away with anything. And, as it turned out, he did.

2. In the Footsteps of Forrest Gump

My friends sometimes liken me to Forrest Gump. I don’t think I look or talk or even run like Forrest, so I suppose their comparison stems from the fact that I often find myself in remarkable situations, surrounded by remarkable people. Well, that and the fact that I’m from Alabama.

The truth is that I rarely, if ever, go about seeking said situations. In fact, I’m generally minding my own business when extraordinary events begin to unfold before me.

I’ve met US Presidents, European Royalty, Academy Award Winners, athletes, astronauts, artists, movers and shakers, people who’d like to be movers and shakers, the famous, the not-so-famous, and, occasionally, the infamous.

For example, I was once asked to write a book about a Mafia-type figure from New Orleans. He took me deep into the swamps so that he could personally show me where certain events had taken place, including the spot where, according to him, a group of men had met and plotted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His testimony was both revealing and frightening. I'm not sure how true it was, but it was certainly entertaining.

I’ll write about all of these things … and more … in time.

But for now, I’ll tell you about my encounter with a rather nefarious character named O.J. Simpson. Here’s what happened …

Thursday, January 17, 2008

1. Living a Wonderful Life

I had the good fortune of meeting famed film director Frank Capra a number of years ago. He was from the small town of Bisacquino in Sicily, near the ancestral town of my Grandfather, but my friendship with him began when he answered a letter I had written to the Motion Picture Academy.

I was relatively fresh out of college, and was still trying to decide what to do with my life. Like Mr. Capra, I’d gotten my degree in engineering, but wanted to do something different … namely, to touch other people’s emotions through the telling of stories.

In time, I had the opportunity (at his invitation) to meet him in person. I found him to be a warm, receptive, and fascinating individual with a wonderful sense of humor and a keen ability to perceive the world around him.

One day, I asked him the secret of becoming a master storyteller.

He didn’t speak of form or function. Instead, he looked at me and smiled. “Jack,” he said, “if you want to tell a great story, go out and live a great story. Meet people, encounter new things, open yourself up to extraordinary events. Be brave. Be courageous. Be attentive. Be a good listener. Listen to what people are saying, and listen even closer to what they’re not saying. Be aware of your surroundings. Try to understand what other people are feeling. And don’t be afraid of your own emotions … fear, pain, failure, grief, joy, exhilaration, happiness, sadness … they’re all part of the incredible fabric that makes us human, so they’re all part of the grand story.”

I pondered his words for months. Then, after some prayer and planning, I left my formal corporate job as an engineer and embarked on a journey that continues to this very day. I traveled extensively … to foreign lands, across this country, through my neighborhood, to the person right in front of me, and deep within my own heart and soul.

And, just as Frank Capra had foretold, Providence placed me in a position to amass countless stories. Some have been spectacular in their scope and drama. Some have been perfect in their simplicity and structure. Some have involved the rich and famous (and infamous), while others have been about the relatively unknown people who come across one’s path every day. Some have been mysterious, some complex, some humorous, some poignant, some uplifting, some completely silly, and some profound. Some have developed over time and can only be observed from a distance. Others are still evolving and can only be told when the time is right.

All have required the openness and courage about which Mr. Capra spoke. All, even the painful ones, have been both enlightening and enriching. And all have become pieces in the intricately wonderful adventure that we call life.

So let us begin …