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THE SIMPSON LEGACY: LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Twist of Fate / HOW THE CASE CHANGED THE LIVES OF THOSE IT TOUCHED : JAMIE De MATOFF : 'No. 1 T-Shirt Dude' Repaid With a Lawsuit Instead of Gratitude

October 11, 1995|ANN W. O'NEILL

The "King of All Vendors" was among the first to cash in, and the first to discover Life After O.J.

Carrying a gym bag loaded with T-shirts, buttons, "Eat-A-Ito" gelatin molds and the hugely popular Bronco chase watches, Jamie De Matoff was a fixture at the Camp O.J. sideshow that clogged the sidewalks around the Criminal Courts Building for nearly a year. But on Verdict Day, De Matoff and his bag of goodies were nowhere to be found.

He was in New York City, making another bundle off the visit of Pope John Paul II.

"O.J. turned me into the No. 1 T-shirt dude," De Matoff boasted Saturday night during a phone call from his hotel room in Queens. "He changed my life."

De Matoff had met moderate success selling T-shirts during the 1992 riots, the 1993 firestorms and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. But the murders of Simpson's former wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman provided a bonanza for his Sherman Oaks company Disaster Wear. He immediately began hustling his wares at the gate of O.J. Simpson's mansion.

"That first day when I was out at the house, I was on every channel," De Matoff said. "O.J. turned Disaster Wear into a name."

Simpson's lawyers have responded by naming Disaster Wear as a defendant in a civil lawsuit.

In late August, Carlsbad attorney John J. Murphey sued De Matoff and dozens of other Simpson souvenir vendors in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that they had infringed on Simpson's trademark, invaded his privacy and engaged in unfair marketing competition. The lawsuit seeks $50,000 from De Matoff.

De Matoff's response: "He's not gonna get a cent.

De Matoff first gleaned that there was money to be made from disaster when he saw people peddling "I Survived Hurricane Iwa" T-shirts in Hawaii in 1982. At the time, he was working there as a radio deejay known as the "Modern Day Warrior," broadcasting the daily surf report.

Now his business card reads like the L.A. version of the Apocalypse: "Droughts. Floods. Riots. Fires. Earthquakes. Trials."

He says he was acting as a fan, as well as an entrepreneur, when he turned up at the Rockingham mansion in the days before police arrested Simpson. He carried armloads of hastily printed but supportive T-shirts saying, "We Love You O.J." and "Don't Squeeze the Juice."

He even handed a few freebies to Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro.

"He gave a couple of them to O.J.," De Matoff said. "The next day [Shapiro] told me O.J. really appreciated the shirts and had them in his cell."

De Matoff said he tried to negotiate with Simpson's handlers for licensing rights. But they turned him away, treating him like small potatoes. Later, he said, they changed their tune.

"His attorneys told me I was the bigwig, that O.J. told them I was the guru of T-shirts. I was not the biggest guy there. The shirts came from all over."

So De Matoff is feeling a little burned these days by his onetime hero.

"I think he turned on me, absolutely. Maybe he didn't know I was the guy who gave him my first shirt, 'Don't Squeeze the Juice.' How can O.J. sue somebody who puts out shirts like that? I wouldn't mind an apology from him: 'Sorry, Jamie, for wanting to sue you for $50,000.' "

De Matoff said business was brisk for the first several months of the trial, then tapered off as police made frequent sweeps around the courthouse ticketing the vendors.

The Bronco chase watch was among his bestsellers. Simpson was pictured on its face, and the second hand consisted of a plastic disk with two police cars chasing a Bronco 'round and 'round.

De Matoff won't say how much money he made from the trial--there is that matter of pending litigation--but acknowledged he is "well off." He disputes one published report that estimated his haul at $4 million, but admits that he can afford to eat out in restaurants more. He does not own a home, but contemplates soon owning several.

His next venue? The federal trial of the Oklahoma City bombing suspects.

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