Officials at a remote Nevada prison where O.J. Simpson was set free early Sunday after nine years for armed robbery arranged the former football and Hollywood star’s dead-of-night departure to avoid public scrutiny.
It worked. Simpson signed release paperwork just before midnight and disappeared into the darkness minutes into the first day he was eligible for release. Through efforts by prison officials to keep the time and place secret, there were no journalists outside the prison gates to capture the moment.
Though publicity-prone in the past, Simpson apparently took the advice of people in his inner circle that he avoid the spotlight. He was neither heard from nor seen publicly, except when a television news crew found him in a car at a gas station on the way to Las Vegas and he declined to be interviewed.
State Division of Parole and Probation Capt. Shawn Arruti told The Associated Press that the former football hero and celebrity criminal defendant plans to live at a home in the Las Vegas area for the foreseeable future. Arruti declined for what he said were security and privacy reasons to disclose the exact location of the house.
The prisons spokeswoman also took photographs showing Simpson — in blue jeans, denim jacket, eyeglasses, ball cap and white sneakers — signing documents about 10 minutes before midnight. He later left the prison with four or five boxes of possessions in the car. Keast said she had no information about where he was going.
Tom Scotto, a Simpson friend who lives in Naples, said by text message an hour after the release that he was with Simpson. But Scotto did not answer texts asking where they were going or whether members of Simpson’s family were with them.
The 70-year-old Simpson said at the hearing that he wanted to move back to Florida, where he lived previously. That return did not appear imminent.
Florida’s Corrections Department “has not received any transfer paperwork from Nevada” about Simpson that would be required for him to live in the state and be monitored there, spokeswoman Ashley Cook said Sunday.
Though Florida’s attorney general has urged corrections officials to object to Simpson’s return, the department previously has said it would be required to accept a transfer if it met certain criteria.
“We understand we may have to take him, if he was a model prisoner. And two of his children live here, so that’s his hook for coming to Florida,” state Attorney General Pam Bondi said. “If we have to accept him, I certainly want conditions placed on him.”
Both LaVergne and Scotto said in recent interviews with the AP that they thought Simpson should stay out of public view and focus on family and friends.
Keast said the overnight release from the prison about 90 miles east of Reno, Nevada, was conducted to avoid media attention. No media were near the front gate at the time when Simpson’s car left the prison by a back road and entered nearby Interstate 80, she said.
“We needed to do this to ensure public safety and to avoid any possible incident,” Keast said.
Simpson lost his home near Miami to foreclosure in 2012. But two of his children, Justin and Sydney, also live in Florida.
It’s all a new chapter for the one-time pop culture phenomenon whose fame was once again on display when the major TV networks carried his parole hearing live.
He told officials that leading a group of five men into the hotel room confrontation was an error in judgment he would not repeat.
Simpson told the parole board that he led a “conflict-free life,” an assertion that angered many who believe he got away with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in Los Angeles in 1994. He was acquitted the following year in what was dubbed the “trial of the century.”
In a statement released through a family spokesman, Goldman’s parents said they respected the Nevada Parole Board’s decision to release Simpson, but that it was “still difficult for us knowing he will be a free man again.”
Fred and Kim Goldman said they will continue to pursue payment of a $33.5 million judgment awarded in 1997 after Simpson was found civilly liable for the deaths. They also said they’ll keep advocating for domestic violence awareness, victim advocacy and judicial reform.
Simpson is still obligated to pay the judgment, which now amounts to about $65 million, according to David Cook, a Goldman family lawyer.
Simpson was once an electrifying running back dubbed “Juice” who won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player for the University of Southern California in 1968 and became one of the NFL’s all-time greats with the Buffalo Bills.
Handsome and charming, he also provided commentary on “Monday Night Football,” became the face of Hertz rental-car commercials and built a movie career with roles in the “Naked Gun” comedies and other films.
Simpson fell from grace when he was arrested in the slayings, after a famous “slow-speed” Ford Bronco chase on California freeways. His subsequent trial became a live-TV sensation that fascinated viewers with testimony about a bloody glove that didn’t fit and unleashed furious debate over race, police and celebrity justice.
A jury swiftly acquitted him. But two years later, Simpson was found liable in civil court for the killings.
On Sept. 16, 2007, he led five men he barely knew into a cramped room at the Palace Station casino in Las Vegas in an effort to retrieve items that Simpson insisted were stolen after his acquittal in the 1994 slayings.
Two of the men with Simpson in Las Vegas carried handguns, although Simpson still insists he never knew anyone was armed. He says he only wanted to retrieve personal items, mementos and family photos from two sports memorabilia dealers.
His conviction in October 2008 in Las Vegas came 13 years to the day after his acquittal in October 1995 in Los Angeles. His lawyers called his stiff 9-to-33-year sentence for armed robbery, kidnapping and other charges unfair. Many other people characterized it as payback for his acquittal in the Los Angeles murder case.
If the nation’s Simpson obsession waned for a while, it resurged last year with the Emmy-winning FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and the Oscar-winning documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.