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20 years later, winning OJ civil suit was never a 'pot of gold'

O.J. Simpson murder money
O.J. Simpson murder money

On the morning of June 12, 1994, O.J. Simpson was worth an estimated $11 million.

Within hours, he would stop earning and start spending.

Simpson was arrested in the killings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, a waiter from the restaurant where she dined shortly before her death. Simpson, a popular ex-athlete and actor, was acquitted in a criminal trial.

The Goldman and Brown families then sued him in civil court, and that jury unanimously found Simpson liable for the murders. He was ordered to pay a total of $33.5 million, made up of $8.5 million in compensatory damages to the Goldmans and $25 million in punitive damages to be split between the Goldmans and Nicole's children.

"The dollar amount meant nothing to us," Kim Goldman told CNBC. "We were just thrilled that 12 people unanimously determined that he was the killer of Ron and Nicole. The rest was just paper."

Still, the Goldmans pursued Simpson's assets. "The only punishment that could be meted out was financial," said Daniel Petrocelli, who represented the family in the civil trial. But did Simpson have any money left? "He claimed to be broke."

Kim Goldman discusses her hunt for O.J. Simpson's assets
Kim Goldman discusses her hunt for O.J. Simpson's assets

Kim Goldman soon learned that winning the multimillion-dollar award was one thing, collecting it was another. "People assume that when we were awarded our civil judgment, that with that judgment we were handed a pot of gold, and that's just the furthest thing from the truth," she said.

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Simpson's attorneys argued during the damages phase of the civil trial that he was approximately $850,000 in debt. Attorneys for the victims' families argued the ex-athlete had already made about $2.8 million since his acquittal selling rights to a book, video, autographs and other memorabilia. Petrocelli believed Simpson could earn even more in the years to come, "given that he is probably the most famous man ever found to have killed two people in this way."

Under California law, someone who loses in a civil trial but wants to hold off paying a judgment during appeal needs to post a bond worth 150 percent of the judgment. "[Simpson] said he didn't have it, he didn't put up the bond," Petrocelli said. So the Goldmans immediately sought whatever assets they could find. Among them was O.J. Simpson's Heisman Trophy, which sold at auction for $500,000. "Most of that money went to pay some expenses for the case," Petrocelli said. "By the way, the lawyers for the victims' families did not get paid for this case."

Petrocelli and the Goldmans believe Simpson continued to make money "underground," selling autographs and memorabilia for cash. They could not, by law, touch his $25,000 a month pension from the NFL, and his home on Rockingham was of little value because so many loans had been taken out against it to pay legal fees.

Kim Goldman believed there was money somewhere. "The killer worked really hard to hide all of his assets, and so we were always coming up against some kind of a wall," she said. Her family's share of the award, with interest, is now close to $40 million. "We've collected less than one percent of that."

Daniel Petrocelli on where OJ's money went
Daniel Petrocelli on where OJ's money went

Most of that came when the Goldmans discovered in 2006 that O.J. Simpson had received a sizeable advance for a book called, "If I Did It." At first, they tried to have the book quashed, but when the rights to it were to be auctioned off in bankruptcy court, Kim Goldman said they purchased those rights to avoid Simpson somehow secretly profiting. She said the court ordered her family to publish the book.

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"People were very angry at us for publishing that book, because they didn't understand how we ended up with it," she said. As for criticism that her family is "in it for the money," she paused before replying. "I understand from a logical point of view that people think that all my dad and I are out to do is to capitalize on Ron's murder. However, we followed the law. The criminal system failed us, so we went after him civilly...it's punishment, it's retribution, it's what our system afforded to our family."

Petrocelli agrees. "The Goldmans want to obtain Simpson's assets because they don't want him to live a good life. He killed their son. He murdered their son."

The family finds some consolation in knowing that Simpson is now serving time in prison for robbery and kidnapping in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2007. O.J. Simpson said he went to that room to reclaim stolen belongings. However, the belongings he hoped to retrieve, including the suit he wore when he was found not guilty, are exactly the type of assets that could have been sold, with proceeds going toward his judgment.

Kim Goldman believes it was Simpson's own efforts to hide assets that ultimately led to his incarceration. "Irony is amazing," she said.

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As for O.J. Simpson's current net worth, his lawyer, Patricia Palm, told CNBC she did not know how much money he has. When asked if he is able to pay her, she would not comment, citing attorney-client privilege. Simpson's home in Florida went into foreclosure, though he is still presumably getting his NFL pension.

He could be paroled in three years, and it's possible Simpson would try again to make a living. "We'll be there waiting and watching," said Kim Goldman. "I'm not letting up. If I did, then I'm telling him it's okay for what he did."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells