When O.J. Simpson was officially released from the county jail at 11:02 a.m. today, he stepped into a future as hot and hazy as the sunshine that greeted him.
The Hall of Famer-turned-murder-defendant still faces challenges both legal and personal as he forges a new life in a spotlight far more intense than any he ever knew as a star athlete or movie actor.
Other than declaring in a written statement that his "primary goal in life" is to pursue "the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman" and to raise his two young children, Simpson offered no hints about his plans before going into the seclusion of the Brentwood mansion he once shared with a family forever shattered.
"He's going to start his life all over again," said lead defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
But how? And where?
The roles Simpson might play now are complex and sometimes contradictory. Wrongful death suits, a possible custody battle over his children, a possible civil rights complaint against the racist former detective who helped arrest him and even a trademark lawsuit all suggest that Simpson will be in court again and again in the months and years to come.
Lucrative tabloid magazine photo packages, pay-per-view television, speaking tours and book offers leave no doubt that Simpson can easily recoup the estimated $6 million his defense cost. Even in jail, he reportedly made nearly $3 million off his slim first book, autographed trading cards and authorized memorabilia such as a $3,395 bronze statue.
But whether he can -- or even wants to -- reclaim the friends, the lifestyle and the image he enjoyed before he was charged with double murder remains uncertain.
"No one's going to have their old life back," said Joe Kolkowitz, a talent agency owner who was one of Simpson's golf buddies.
An immediate concern for Simpson is his own physical safety. Cochran acknowledged at a post-verdict news conference that "there are security concerns," and Simpson himself did not join the loyal family and friends who could be seen through the gates of his estate drinking champagne in the garden.
Several members of his old Hollywood crowd believe he is in danger -- and that they would be, too, if they came close.
"He's really underestimating America if he thinks he can walk around on the street," said a prominent music entrepreneur on the fringes of the Simpson circle, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He can't live in L.A."
Added Kolkowitz: "I think there is a lot of hatred out there. I think anybody that gets around him should be fearful."
But several of the friends who have been close to Simpson most of his adult life stood by him during the nightmarish ordeal and were on hand when he was acquitted.
When a white van nosed into the driveway at his Rockingham estate and Simpson stepped out, it was boyhood friend and fellow football player Al Cowlings who fell into a long embrace with Simpson. News helicopters clattered overhead just as they did in June 1994 when Cowlings drove the fugitive Simpson in his white Ford Bronco across L.A.'s freeways with police in pursuit.
Missing from the jubilant tableau visible through the tall iron gates at Rockingham Avenue were Simpson's two youngest children, Sydney, just days away from her 10th birthday, and Justin, 8. The youngsters, with Simpson's approval, have been in the guardianship of their maternal grandparents, Lou and Juditha Brown, since their mother's murder.
But tonight the family of Nicole Brown Simpson suggested they were preparing to give the children back to their former son-in-law.
"We gain nothing by fighting. Infighting in a family is never healthy. The kids would suffer," Lou Brown said in an interview with ABC television.
In the courthouse statement read by Jason Simpson, the grown son from Simpson's first marriage, O.J. Simpson said his youngest children are his "first obligation" and that they would "be raised in the way that Nicole and I had always planned."
California custody experts say Simpson is unlikely to lose his rights to the children unless he is proved an unfit parent, a difficult legal status to meet without evidence of child abuse or neglect.
A verdict in favor of the Browns in their wrongful death suit could muddy those legal waters, though, and experts note that civil cases are easier than criminal ones to win against accused killers. The burden of proof requires only "a preponderance of evidence" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt."
"The question is, will Simpson spend the rest of his life in other courtrooms?" said Ira Lurvey, a Beverly Hills divorce lawyer and chairman-elect of the American Bar Association's family law section.
Simpson must also rehabilitate his image even with those who believed in him, some community leaders said. "There are several imperatives knocking at the door of O.J. Simpson," said the Rev. Cecil Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central Los Angeles.
"The first imperative is to validate his innocence by exercising leadership," said Murray. "The second is to demonstrate allegiance to the millions of African Americans who were there with a belief system that was an outreach to a family member.
"Third, he must actively understand the role of a minority person going against the flow of the majority," said Murray, who previously has noted that Simpson, as a wealthy black celebrity, "tended to walk in the majority world."
Cochran turned to Murray and his powerful church to publicly support his famous client as soon as he joined the defense team a year ago, repeating the same strategy he had used to generate support within the African American community for another famous client in serious trouble -- singer Michael Jackson. Murray recalled that Jackson, who reached an out-of-court settlement in a suit alleging child molestation, "came within a hair's breadth of destruction, and he was delivered." Asked whether Jackson has paid his debt to the strangers who rallied behind him, Murray hesitated. "The jury is still out," he said.
Simpson stands to make millions of dollars now, should he decide to exploit the tabloid media that, for more than a year now, has exploited him.
Tony Frost, executive editor of the Globe, a weekly supermarket tabloid, predicted that Simpson could pocket $1 million just by selling exclusive rights to photographs.
"The very first, biggest money picture is O.J. reunited with his children," said Frost, whose publication caused an uproar this week by printing gory pictures of Nicole Simpson's and Ronald Goldman's butchered bodies. "Second, would be him visiting Nicole's grave; third, him visiting the crime scene; fourth, packing up and moving from Rockingham; and fifth, O.J. at his new hideaway, possibly Mexico and possibly with a new lady," Frost said.
Not everyone is as matter-of-fact about Simpson's financial prospects. A trademark and patent lawyer in Concord, N.H., is challenging Simpson's petition to make his name a trademark so he can market a slew of products. The list on file with the U.S. Patent Office since six weeks after he was charged with murder shows Simpson hopes to market products with his name or image ranging from dolls, video games and jigsaw puzzles to jewelry, bathing suits, cutlery and even brooms, place mats and aprons.
"The law says the federal government will not register scandalous trademarks," said Bill Ritchie, the lawyer challenging Simpson's trademark request.
"He was not found innocent of beating his wife to a pulp," Ritchie said. "This trademark stands for spousal abuse, it stands for domestic violence, and it stands for emotional child abuse." writers Kim Masters and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report. CAPTION: O.J. Simpson, center, walks into his Brentwood estate with Al Cowlings, left, and an unidentified man after acquittal.