LAS VEGAS — Officials at a remote Nevada prison where O.J. Simpson was set free early Sunday after serving 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 was neither heard from nor seen publicly as the day wore on — apparently taking the advice of people in his inner circle that he avoid the spotlight.
Simpson was released at 12:08 a.m. Pacific time from Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada, state prisons spokeswoman Brooke Keast told The Associated Press. She said she didn’t know the name of the driver who met him and took him to an undisclosed location.
Keast recorded and released a brief video on social media in which Simpson is told to “come on out” and he responds “OK” after walking through an open door and toward a parking lot bordered by desert scrub brush.
“I don’t have any information on where he’s going,” said Keast, who also took photographs showing Simpson — in bluejeans, denim jacket, eyeglasses, ball cap and white sneakers — signing documents at about 10 minutes before midnight. He left the prison with four or five boxes of possessions in the car, she said.
Tom Scotto, a Simpson friend who lives in Naples, Florida, 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.
Along with Simpson’s sister and oldest daughter, Scotto had attended the July parole hearing at the same prison where Simpson went after his conviction for a botched 2007 heist at a Las Vegas hotel room — prison time he avoided after his 1995 acquittal in the killings of his ex-wife and her friend.
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.”
Simpson’s attorney, Malcolm LaVergne, and state Parole and Probation Capt. Shawn Arruti, who has been handling Simpson’s case, did not respond Sunday to messages seeking comment about Simpson’s whereabouts.
LaVergne said recently that Simpson looked forward to reuniting with his family, eating steak and seafood, and returning to Florida. Simpson also planned to get an iPhone and get reacquainted with technology in its infancy when he was sent to prison in 2008, his attorney said.
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 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.
She acknowledged Nevada prison officials misled the media with word about the timing and location of Simpson’s release. They had advised it would be no earlier than Monday and possibly in Las Vegas, a 450-mile drive south of Lovelock.
Simpson faces restrictions during five years of parole supervision, which could be reduced for good behavior. He cannot use illegal drugs and can drink alcohol only if the amount he drinks is below Nevada’s blood-alcohol limit for driving. He also is prohibited from associating with felons or anyone whom Nevada officials prohibit him contacting. And he must tell the state where he’ll be living and when he changes his residence. The conditions still apply if Simpson ends up out of state.
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 attorney.
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, mementoes 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 nine- 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.”