At Simpson Hearing, Angling For Profit From Tainted Fame
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007; A03
LAS VEGAS -- In the sun-splashed space between the plaza roped off for television stand-ups and the courthouse where evidence was about to be heard, a large man in a tie-dyed T-shirt waggled an orange sign that he wanted to show on TV.
"OJTalk.com," it said.
"Oh, it's just a Web site people can go to, talk about O.J., buy stuff," Scot Savage explained. He thought a moment, then, from behind wraparound sunglasses and a leering grin, produced a tidy summary both of the criminal case about to unfold in the Clark County courthouse and of the defense Simpson's attorneys would offer against it:
"Make me a buck off of O.J.'s misery," Savage said, with a vigorous thumb's up. "American dream, buddy! American dream!"
The misery of O.J. Simpson stands at the strange, sad heart of State vs. Simpson, et al., the armed robbery and kidnapping prosecution that could put the Hall of Fame football star in prison for life. Simpson contends that, when he and five other men -- two of whom were reportedly armed at his request -- burst into the hotel room of two collectors, he was merely trying to regain personal property that was being peddled for profit to souvenir-seekers.
But though a Las Vegas jury will not decide Simpson's guilt or innocence until next year, the preliminary hearing that concluded last week exposed the essential mechanics of a celebrity criminal case fueled largely by its own exhaust.
Every element, character and stated motivation in the case appeared grounded in an effort to capitalize on public fascination with tainted fame. The victims dialed "Inside Edition" before calling 911. Defense attorneys impeached witnesses with transcripts from "Larry King Live." Two of the witnesses hid audio recorders to secretly capture either Simpson's words or the incident itself, which was delayed for two hours while a third went out to buy a spy cam.
"I felt if O.J. could write a book about the death of his wife in the first trial, I could write a book," said Walter "Goldie" Alexander, a Simpson golfing buddy who carried a .22-caliber pistol in his waistband and turned state's evidence.
"Everybody in the first trial wrote a book. The prosecutors, the lawyers."
This, however, was not the first trial. This was an episode that, according to testimony, was set in motion by the impending publication of "If I Did It." The volume offered what Simpson said was a hypothetical account of the 1994 slaying of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman, over which he was acquitted.
"We had clients asking, 'Will O.J. sign this book?' " said Thomas Riccio, proprietor of businesses that deal in "stuff that the average person would just go 'wow' about," as the chatty and indefatigable witness explained. A fellow memorabilia salesman said Riccio was regarded as "somehow reputable" because he had set a record peddling the diaries of the late Anna Nicole Smith for half a million dollars.
But Simpson told him the book deal was too raw. Riccio said he let the matter drop until he got a call from Alfred Beardsley.
Beardsley is a hulking, disquietingly intense man with a stalking conviction. Nominally a middleman in the business of celebrity flotsam, he was ridiculed by other dealers for transgressing the line that separates memorabilia merchants from the impulse that they nourish.
"Mr. Beardsley is a groupie," said a sneering Bruce Fromong, who had been marketing manager of Locker 32, the company that had peddled official Simpson memorabilia.
"It amazes me how he has knowledge of all things O.J.," Riccio told a courtroom crowded with reporters, with a dozen satellite television trucks parked outside. "He spends his life acquiring this knowledge. Why? You'd have to ask him."
But Beardsley did know Fromong, who had possession of items Simpson once had in his house, including game footballs and a photograph of himself with J. Edgar Hoover. And Riccio knew Simpson badly wanted them back. And so, by his own account, Riccio told Beardsley to arrange a rendezvous with a "mystery buyer."
In return for the opportunity to ambush the sellers, Simpson agreed to sign at least 200 copies of "If I Did It." That he insisted on inscribing them, "This is not my book. O.J. Simpson," only stood to enhance their value in a market that pays extra for disrepute.
"I ran that by some clients, and they said, 'Even better,' " Riccio said. "Like Pete Rose saying, 'I'm sorry I bet on baseball,' it's something that appeals to people.' " He was referring to the inscription on baseball bats that Fromong was also peddling.
Notoriety does not, however, encourage trust. On the day of the rendezvous, Riccio stopped at Radio Shack and bought an Olympus digital audio recorder. He hit "record" before meeting Simpson at the Palms Hotel, where the machine picked up Simpson boasting, "I'm going to show up with a bunch of the boys and take the [expletive] back."
"The boys" were five, burly men united largely by Simpson's pariah celebrity. Clarence "C.J." Stewart, 53, was a golfing buddy who acted as Simpson's "concierge" in Vegas. He brought along Charles Cashmore, 40, a furniture mover and part-time bartender who met Simpson for the first time that afternoon.
Alexander, 46, had introduced himself to Simpson at a golf course snack bar just after the murder trial. "I told him I understood his situation," Alexander said. "At the time, I was going through a divorce myself."
Charles Ehrlich, 53, was in town from South Florida, where Simpson lives now. Riccio said Ehrlich posed briefly as the mystery buyer in a phone call, but the convicted cocaine trafficker was found unconvincing as a billionaire: "Yeah," Ehrlich said, according to a transcript, "I got the scratch."
The witnesses said Simpson described his plan to recover what his attorneys termed "family heirlooms." These included ties worn at the murder trial and the suit he had on the day the verdict came in.
"He said, 'Hey, I just need some backup. I need a couple of guys to watch my back,' " said Alexander, who nodded toward his friend Michael McClinton, who had a permit to carry a concealed firearm. The two told Simpson they were going home to change but proceeded, first, to Fox's Spy Outlet, where they bought a tiny video camera.
"Were you planning on selling this?" a prosecutor asked.
"There was that remote possibility," Alexander said.
McClinton testified differently. He said Alexander -- who admitted on the stand to "taking the pictures" for an Internet prostitution service he testified is run by his ex-wife, LA Sweet Sarah -- "wanted to film O.J. Simpson, ah, having some fun at the party," McClinton said.
Both men said the device went unused.
Riccio's digital audio recorder performed heroically, however, capturing the profane shouts and angry orders inside Room 1203 at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. Internet users could later find the scene on the tabloid Web site TMZ, with whom Riccio negotiated an exclusive deal.
"Minutes after we struck the deal, I called the police," the witness pointed out, declining, however, to say how much editor Harvey Levin paid.
Attorneys for all three defendants are constructing a defense from prosecution witnesses' media transactions, which they characterize as entirely opportunistic.
"Bruce, Bruce, do you know how much money we're going to make on this incident?" Yale Galanter quoted Beardsley as saying after the Simpson group had left the hotel room, while Riccio's hidden audio recorder kept running.
Said Gabriel Grasso, another Simpson attorney: "There was more taping in this trial than the Nixon White House."
Cashmore, who like McClinton and Alexander testified as part of a plea agreement, was battered on the stand for giving an interview, the night before his testimony, with Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren, one of many media figures who rose to prominence during O.J. One. The witness's publicist sat in the second row, behind the defense table where attorneys checked online coverage of the proceedings on their laptops.
One row back was Marcia Clark, who led the unsuccessful prosecution in the Los Angeles trial and attended the Las Vegas hearing for two tabloid TV shows.
But Fromong set the standard, appearing on "Larry King Live" from a hospital bed where he was recovering from a massive heart attack that he suffered after the confrontation. "I went on 'Larry King Live' because I was being grouped together with people of an unsavory character," he told Grasso on cross-examination.