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Trial begins for author who wrote of gang life

Prosecutors allege that Colton Simpson, an aide to rapper Ice T, helped rob a jewelry store in 2003. A conviction could bring a life sentence.

August 17, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

A onetime Crips member, who bragged in his memoir that he could clear out a jewelry store in 30 seconds, heard his own words used against him Thursday in his first day of trial on robbery charges in Murrieta.

Colton Simpson, 41, told readers he had abandoned his violent lifestyle as a Rollin' Thirties Harlem Crip and wanted to help turn youngsters away from gang violence.

But now he is fighting against a third-strike conviction that could put him away for life, and his lawyer says he is being targeted because of the 2005 book.

Prosecutors say he was the getaway driver in a 2003 Temecula jewel heist in which the unarmed robbers' only loot was an $800 diamond earring. The alleged crime would rank among the least bloody, least profitable and least well-executed of Simpson's past exploits.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge F. Paul Dickerson III has forbidden prosecutor Charles Lockwood from mentioning the gang shootings and violent robberies that fill the pages of Simpson's tell-all book.

But not long into his opening argument Thursday, Lockwood posted on an overhead projector the cover of Simpson's memoir, with the title "Inside the Crips: Life inside L.A.'s Most Notorious Gang" emblazoned across a photograph of Simpson.

He told jurors that although the case relies heavily on circumstantial evidence, they would see from Simpson's own words that he was not just a getaway driver, but was "a very calculating, planning, crafty robber" who masterminded the March 2003 heist at a Robinsons-May store.

Lockwood read a passage in which Simpson described his love for "jewelry licks" and the power he wields over adults.

"When you've seen all that," Lockwood said of the more than a dozen passages he intends to use, "you'll appreciate what a skilled criminal the defendant is . . . and we will ask that you do your duty and find the defendant guilty."

Defense attorney Richard Briones-Colman described the book Thursday as "self-serving hearsay" about exploits two decades ago that were sensationalized for "entertainment."

"He's going to try to sell you this book, and I'm going to ask you not to buy it," Briones-Colman said to jurors, arguing that the prosecutor's case is based on "weak, circumstantial evidence."

"The reason we're here is because Colton Simpson is said to have written the book. . . . It's really a political prosecution," he said.

Simpson co-wrote the book with Ann Pearlman. She is expected to testify for the defense.

Briones-Colman told jurors that Simpson was carjacked on the day of the robbery and held at gunpoint by his half brother as a the result of a long, bitter rivalry between the two men.

"Colton Simpson is a victim in this case," he said. "He did not rob Robinsons-May and was not involved in this. . . . He didn't steal anything."

In his autobiography, Simpson said he was initiated into the Rollin' Thirties Harlem Crips at age 10 in an alley near his grandmother's house in South-Central Los Angeles after dodging bullets and surviving a beating by the young Crips. That night, armed with the new moniker "L'il Cee" and a .38 Special revolver, he carried out his first attack, on Inglewood Bloods as they pumped gasoline.

As Simpson's thirst for "ghetto celebrity status" grew, his crimes escalated from stealing purses to jewelry store heists.

During his first robbery, at Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance when he was 14, he claimed, he and his partners netted more than $179,000.

A year later, he was busted for armed robbery, beginning a series of stints in and out of prison. His account of the job is among the passages Lockwood has asked to use during the trial.

He served his longest prison term after he was convicted of robbery and attempted murder in 1986 for shooting a bystander who tackled him as he ran from Ben Bridge Jewelers in Redondo Beach.

But Simpson wrote that the fatigue of unending gang warfare in prison wore him down. After a series of betrayals and with the help of several men he met in prison, he said, he had rededicated his life to dissuading young people from gang violence.

Authorities found copies of Simpson's manuscript in his car when he was arrested shortly after the 2003 robbery at Temecula's Promenade Mall.

In that incident, prosecutors say, an unarmed man leaped over the jewelry counter and threatened the clerk as he tried to force open the locked jewelry case. He fled from the store with the $800 earring.

Another clerk said she had seen Simpson casing the store two days before the robbery. The suspected robber and an accomplice, who are still at large, were seen jumping into a rented gray Ford Taurus; prosecutors said Simpson's name was on the rental agreement.

Lockwood said jewelry pamphlets were in the car when Simpson was detained two days later at the Border Patrol checkpoint in San Clemente in a black Mercedes-Benz.

Lockwood said Simpson devised an elaborate carjacking tale he told to police hours after the robbery.

The defense attorney argued Thursday that the prosecution's theory that Simpson was involved in the robbery was counterintuitive, considering his position as rapper Ice T's assistant and his hopes for rising in the entertainment business.

"There were book rights, possibly even movie rights. . . . It is not consistent with who he is and what he was doing at this time in his life," Briones-Colman said. "He's got too much to lose at this point to risk all that for an earring at Robinsons-May."

Ice T, a childhood friend of Simpson, is expected to appear as a defense witness during the trial, which may last six weeks.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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