Simpson's rogue collection
Like the memorabilia in that Las Vegas hotel room, most of the men who gathered there are trailed by questions.
By Ashley Powers, Scott Glover and Miguel Bustillo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
September 22, 2007
LAS VEGAS — Days after O.J. Simpson was famously arrested in a double murder 13 years ago, he received a jailhouse visit from his friend and agent, Richard "Mike" Gilbert.
Simpson passed him a note that began, "Mike, I need you more than ever." But he wasn't looking for emotional support, Gilbert said. Simpson had thought up a way to cash in on his situation -- signing football memorabilia from behind bars.
"Imagine: O.J. Simpson, L.A. County Jail," Gilbert recalled the note saying.
Gilbert and Simpson capitalized on the football legend's notorious name for years, even after his acquittal in the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend made him one of the most reviled people in America.
But the pair eventually had a falling out over money and mementos. Then last week, Simpson ended up in a $35-a-night Las Vegas hotel room, where he allegedly robbed two memorabilia dealers, taking back items he claims Gilbert stole. How the items ended up with the sellers -- and whether they were stolen, as Simpson maintains -- remains unclear.
The confrontation at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino, wild even considering Simpson's tabloid past, brought together two groups of questionable characters with whom the former NFL star has been spending the third act of his life.
On one side -- accused along with Simpson of armed robbery -- was a motley cast of hangers-on who accompanied Simpson on endless rounds of golf and late-night parties.
On the other was a morally flexible pair of memorabilia sellers hoping to profit from Simpson's infamy. The dealers, whom Simpson had known for years, said they helped him make money from autograph sessions in the years since the murder case.
Simpson was found liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in civil lawsuits, and now owes their families $24 million and $38 million, respectively. But according to an attorney for the Goldmans, Simpson has often failed to turn over income from autograph signings.
Nearly everybody who ended up in the little hotel room at 7:38 p.m. on Sept. 13 had a criminal record. And for all but one, it seems, life immediately got worse.
One of Simpson's alleged victims, Bruce Fromong of Las Vegas, suffered a heart attack this week. The other, Alfred Beardsley of Burbank, was arrested by U.S. marshals at the Luxor Hotel & Casino on Wednesday. He was on parole for stalking a woman in Riverside County and had violated the terms by leaving California.
Simpson's five companions, one of whom says he had met the Heisman Trophy winner just hours earlier at a party, are facing 10 felony counts.
The auctioneer who arranged the meeting between Simpson and the sellers, a career criminal from Corona named Thomas Riccio, surreptitiously audiotaped the encounter and sold it to a celebrity website. Riccio is believed to have reached an immunity deal with law enforcement.
If convicted, Simpson, 60, faces spending the rest of his life in prison.
That night at the Palace Station, Simpson walked out with an All-American team football, three game balls marked with the dates Simpson used them to break records, 24 baseballs autographed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider, three dress ties and a "J. Edgar Hoover document," among other things, according to a police report. But he didn't find the family photographs he said were stolen from a storage locker, or the suit he wore on the day he was acquitted of murder.
Through the tabloid press, Beardsley had been peddling what he said was that suit for more than $100,000.
The collectibles world
Gilbert, 52, of Hanford, Calif., said he was introduced to Simpson more than 15 years ago by another client, Marcus Allen, who like Simpson reached NFL stardom after winning the Heisman at USC.
He began handling Simpson's public appearances and endorsement deals, and the two became friends. Gilbert said he accumulated a wealth of Simpson sports memorabilia, including signed helmets, jerseys and photos, often because "O.J. didn't like to pay me out of his pocket."
So it was not out of place, Gilbert said, when he asked Simpson about the designer suit his friend had worn the day he was acquitted. Gilbert had seen it lying atop a pile of clothing in a closet in Simpson's Brentwood estate the next morning.
"O.J., what are you going to do with the suit?" Gilbert recalled asking. "It's going to be worth a lot of money someday."
Simpson, uninterested, told him he could have it, Gilbert insisted.
"I went over, picked it up, put it in a suit bag, and I took it," Gilbert said. "I've had it ever since."
After the Las Vegas incident, police questioned Gilbert about the disputed memorabilia.
Gilbert said he suspects some -- footballs from record-breaking games, awards from Simpson's pro and college careers -- were items that Simpson told friends and relatives to hide after the Goldman and Brown families obtained an order to seize his assets. Others may have been auctioned off when Simpson failed to keep up payments on storage lockers.
Never, Gilbert said, did he steal from Simpson.
"I'll take a lie detector test, and he can take one too," Gilbert said. "Let's see who passes."
Gilbert does say he may have sold Simpson memorabilia to Fromong, who had served for years as his business partner in Locker 32, a venture that marketed sports collectibles.
Fromong testified for Simpson during his civil trial. He said that Simpson had become a pariah in the collectibles world after the murder trial, and that his belongings had become nearly impossible to move.
But Fromong apparently found plenty of buyers after the civil verdict. He, Gilbert and Simpson frequently traveled the country hawking autographed football helmets and jerseys at any venue that would have them, according to articles in Rolling Stone and other publications that chronicled the road show.
As recently as this month, Fromong was selling Simpson items on EBay under the alias Superbowl Kid -- including books supposedly signed from the Los Angeles County jail, which were advertised as "special edition" and "truly priceless."
In a CBS interview, Fromong said that before the hotel confrontation, he had traveled to the Cayman Islands to explore setting up offshore accounts to hide Simpson's memorabilia earnings.
Several months ago, Beardsley placed a call to David Cook, a San Francisco attorney who is pursuing Simpson's assets for the Goldman family, and offered to sell him the acquittal suit for a six-figure sum. He claimed that the fabric contained a small bloodstain, left when Simpson cut himself shaving the morning of the acquittal, and that it could be used in a DNA test to place Simpson at the murder scene.
But the language Beardsley used made Cook suspicious.
"We were not happy with the provenance, we were not happy with Mr. Beardsley, and we just thought the whole situation was weird," Cook said. "But Beardsley kept calling, and I just had a sense of deep unease about any transaction with someone like this."
Another person, however, was eager to do business with Beardsley and arranged a rendezvous in Las Vegas.
A sting operation
Riccio said his first contact with Simpson came in 2005 in the form of an angry phone call.
Riccio had placed a newspaper ad promoting a Simpson autograph signing in Orange County. Then came the call from a friend of Simpson's, who said the football great knew nothing about it. Simpson got on the phone and Riccio apologized, claiming Beardsley had told him Simpson would attend.
Simpson, Riccio recalled, launched into a tirade against Beardsley, saying he had had nothing to do with him for years. By the end of the call, Simpson and Riccio agreed to do a different signing together.
When Beardsley recently called Riccio and said he was looking to unload a trove of Simpson memorabilia, Riccio said he knew someone who might be interested. (Beardsley said it was Riccio who made the call.)
Riccio -- who has been convicted of arson, selling stolen property and escaping from a minimum-security prison -- said that Beardsley told him someone else had possession of the items, and that they had been stolen from Simpson by a former agent.
Riccio said he then told Simpson what the haul included, and the football legend replied, "I've been looking for that stuff for 10 years." Simpson asked for his help, Riccio said, and the two concocted a sting operation.
"We thought O.J. would confront these knuckleheads and they would give his stuff back and that would be that," Riccio said. Mindful of his criminal record and credibility problems, Riccio said, he hid a tape recorder in the hotel room.
Simpson was already planning to come to Vegas for a wedding. Among the guests at a pre-wedding dinner Sept. 13 were some ex-cons and golfing buddies whom Simpson recruited to take part in the sting:
Clarence J. Stewart Jr., 53, had golfed with Simpson for years. That day, he helped Simpson's older daughter, Arnelle -- who was the wedding planner -- pick up the cake. A Las Vegas mortgage broker, Stewart had a record: He pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Louisiana after he was accused in 1987 of trying to sell the drug to an undercover detective, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Michael F. McClinton, 49, of Las Vegas, pleaded guilty in 1999 to possession of a controlled substance. Guns that police said were linked to the Palace Station incident were found in his home.
Charles H. Cashmore, 40, was tending bar at the pre-wedding dinner. He had long bounced around Las Vegas, working as a deejay and cook. He received probation in the late 1990s after he was charged with felony theft in Utah. According to one of his relatives back home in Billings, Mont., Cashmore called in tears this week to say a friend who also knew Simpson had asked him to move some items after a party. "I'm one of the white guys [police are] looking for," he said.
Charles B. Ehrlich, 53 -- along with Cashmore -- was seen on a casino surveillance tape carrying boxes out of the Palace Station, police said. In 2004, he was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of defrauding investors in Florida in a stock purchasing scheme. He was ordered to repay more than $500,000 and was fined $60,000.
Walter Alexander, 46, was a Simpson friend and real estate agent who had golfed and partied with him for more than a decade. He bragged about the friendship. When Alexander applied for a real estate job in Arizona, he told broker Manny T. Carrillo that he knew a lot of celebrities. "I asked him, 'Who do you know?' And the first guy he says is O.J."
After the pre-wedding dinner, police said, Simpson and the five men drove to the Palace Station, where Fromong and Beardsley had laid out $80,000 to $100,000 in memorabilia on the bed in the room Riccio had rented.
According to the arrest report, Riccio escorted Beardsley and Fromong to Room 1203, then ducked out to meet the promised client. He returned with an angry Simpson. Two of Simpson's companions -- one in a purple suit, one dressed in black -- were armed, the collectors told police.
One of the men, holding a semiautomatic pistol in his right hand, reportedly frisked Beardsley and snarled: "I'm a cop, and you're lucky this ain't L.A. or you'd be dead."
The report said someone shoved Fromong, who stumbled over a chair. Beardsley and Simpson began shouting about where the footballs and framed awards had come from.
"I thought you were my friend!" Simpson yelled at Fromong. "Give me my [things] back!"
Simpson's companions began stuffing collectibles into pillowcases. Simpson yanked Fromong's cellphone from his hand and yelled, "I'll leave it at the front desk!" He later called Fromong and apologized, asking him where he should return some Joe Montana lithographs he took by mistake.
The confrontation lasted less than 10 minutes. The men marched out with the pillowcases and cardboard boxes. Beardsley called 911. When he reported being robbed by Simpson, he later recalled, police thought it was a joke.
Three days later, Simpson was arrested.