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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Find Mario and You've Got a Story

June 23, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

A couple months ago, I got a call from a man named Mario.

No last name. Just Mario. He said he had information that could blow the O.J. Simpson case wide open.

Mario sounded like he was calling from a pay phone. His tense voice conveyed the impression that he was in immediate danger of being rubbed out.

The key to unlocking the mystery, he said, was a man named Rocky Bateman, Simpson's former chauffeur.

Bateman's in hiding, Mario said. Mario wanted me to help him smoke Bateman out. Find Bateman, he said, and you'll understand everything.

*

I recognized Mario as part of a subculture of O.J. tipsters who thrive in this land of storytellers. They dwell on the periphery of the Simpson case, phoning television stations and newspapers with what they feel is hot news.

One is named Ron X. He phoned me a couple times promoting a book he said he was co-writing with his drug dealer partner, J.R., about one of their more famous customers. Guess who?

I told Ron we had to meet before I could even think of writing about him. He quit calling. But he didn't need me. Ron X and J.R. got a big plug in Cindy Adams' column in the New York Post, illustrated with a shaded profile picture of Ron, provided by another of their publicists, the tabloid television show "Hard Copy."

Unlike Ron, Mario kept phoning. Sometimes he'd call on slow Friday afternoons, and we'd chat for a while.

He described himself as a recovering cocaine addict who had served time in federal and state prison for drug offenses. Eventually he told me his full name, Mario Nitrini. He'd grown up in the San Fernando Valley and spent several years as the keyboard man and singer for touring rock and country and Western bands. He'd also worked as a salesman, he said, but had been cheated of his earnings by a series of crooked bosses.

When we met, he turned out to be a tall, wiry man whose manner was as intense in person as it was on the telephone.

Mario said that O.J.'s limo driver, Rocky Bateman, had been married to his wife's niece. He related to me his many conversations and adventures with Bateman, along with bits of information about the Simpson case that were too vague to be verified.

I told Mario my assignment wasn't digging up dirt on O.J. I was supposed to write about the men and women of the media and how they were being manipulated by the lawyers and others.

I told him that if you can get the Rocky Bateman story--whatever it is--on television, I would write a column about him and how he swung it. It would be the story behind the story.

After a few weeks, Mario called me again, announcing that an investigative reporter for CNN was working on the Bateman story.

Last week, Art Harris of CNN went on the air, reporting that the Simpson defense may call Bateman as a witness "to undercut" the testimony of Alan Park, the Town and Country Limousine driver who took Simpson to the airport the night Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed.

Park had testified that Simpson wouldn't let him carry a mysterious black bag at the time Simpson was getting ready to go to the airport. Harris reported that "in an exclusive interview, Bateman says Simpson didn't let him touch his carry-on bag either" until he had been chauffeuring him for six months. And, Harris said, Bateman is expected to cast doubt on Park's claim that an overheated Simpson turned on the air conditioner and rolled down the limo windows on the way to the airport. "I have never seen O.J. turn the air conditioner on," Bateman told Harris.

I contacted Harris to find out exactly what role Mario had in bringing this story to light. Harris said Mario had helped him and his producer, Ken Shiffman, nail it down, leading them to a Bateman relative. This, he said, allowed the news network to find Bateman himself.

Score one for Mario Nitrini.

*

We celebrated at dinner Wednesday night. I asked him what compelled him to become a tipster, considering that CNN had not paid him. "I don't know exactly what my motivation is," he said. "I'd love to do a book. I'd love to tell my story in a book. I'd like to bring the truth out."

As we parted, I still didn't know what the truth was. The CNN story was interesting but from Mario's buildup, I had expected more. Maybe there was more.

That prospect is what draws reporters to Mario and those like him in every big crime story. The investigation of John F. Kennedy's assassination was full of Marios, promising a story but usually leading the reporter down a dark, twisting, endless road.

With Simpson, the tipsters' influence has been magnified by the mad scramble for any kind of news, or non-news, by tabloid newspapers and television shows, as well as more traditional media.

Time will not dim the O.J. tipsters' allure. I can envision a scene, 30 or 40 years from now, when a reporter is revisiting the famous O.J. Simpson case. The reporter meets a source who says, "I know a guy who can help you. His name is Mario. Mario Nitrini. He lives somewhere in L.A. He knows everything. About Rocky Bateman. About everything.

"Find Mario and you've got your story."

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