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Simpson accused in testimony

A hearing begins to determine whether he'll stand trial in an alleged Las Vegas robbery of sports memorabilia.

November 09, 2007|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — After O.J. Simpson allegedly robbed two sports memorabilia collectors at gunpoint, he left a voice mail for the auctioneer who had set up the meeting.

"What are they talking about, a gun?" Simpson said on the recording, which was played on the opening day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether he will stand trial. "Nobody had any guns. Where'd that . . . come from?"

In the phone call to Thomas Riccio, Simpson went on to say that he was just trying to get back some signed footballs and framed awards that a former agent had stolen from him.

Days later, Simpson was charged with robbing the collectors at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino. The alleged victims told police that two of the men who had accompanied Simpson had brandished guns, an allegation Simpson has denied.

During a hearing expected to last two or three days, Justice of the Peace Joe M. Bonaventure will decide if there is enough evidence to pursue multiple felony charges, including kidnapping and armed robbery, against the former NFL star. If convicted, Simpson could face life in prison.

Simpson -- who was acquitted in the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman -- sat stoically in the courtroom Thursday, scribbling on a legal pad and shaking hands with reporters during breaks. His appearance brought to the courthouse dozens of journalists, a woman in a bunny suit, a man in a chicken costume and another man seemingly wearing nothing but a barrel around his torso.

Simpson's codefendants, Clarence J. Stewart Jr. and Charles B. Ehrlich, also appeared in court. Three other alleged participants have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and agreed to testify against Simpson.

The day's testimony painted Simpson as having orchestrated September's alleged robbery, during which one memorabilia collector said an armed man pointed a gun in his face and threatened to shoot him.

On a garbled audio recording made surreptitiously in the hotel room by Riccio, one man is heard saying: "We were just robbed by O.J. Simpson."

Riccio said he and Simpson hatched a plan in August for the Hall of Fame player to retrieve items -- including three ties he purportedly wore during his Los Angeles murder trial -- that memorabilia dealer Alfred Beardsley wanted to sell.

The men chose Las Vegas because Simpson was flying there for the wedding of Florida friend Tom Scotto, who sat through Thursday's hearing with his bride. When Beardsley said the Simpson memorabilia was in Las Vegas, "it seemed like the stars were lining up," Riccio said.

Simpson, Ehrlich and Riccio met at the Palms Hotel pool hours before the incident, Riccio testified, adding that "O.J. was mainly the one plotting this out." Simpson's sister warned him the scheme was a bad idea, Riccio said.

Once it was settled that the meeting would take place in Riccio's Palace Station hotel room, he said, he hid a tape recorder in the armoire. Then Riccio, who is scheduled to be cross-examined today, met Beardsley and Bruce Fromong, the other memorabilia dealer.

Fromong testified that he brought 600 to 700 items to the Palace Station, including baseballs signed by Pete Rose that read, "I'm sorry I bet on baseball." Beardsley, whom Fromong described as "a Simpson groupie," was to get a percentage of the sale because he had set it up.

Riccio left Room 1203 and went to meet Simpson and five companions at the casino. Ehrlich, Riccio testified, asked whether the memorabilia dealers were armed. Riccio said no.

According to Fromong, Stewart was the first to enter the hotel room. Two of the men had guns, he said, and Simpson was shouting: "This all belongs to me! You guys stole this from me!"

Fromong testified that he had acquired the memorabilia from Simpson's former agent, Mike Gilbert, and had bought or traded for each of the items.

"Were you thinking about dialing 'Entertainment Tonight' as the gunman stuck the gun in your face?" Dist. Atty. David Roger asked in an attempt to counter defense arguments that the collector was trying to capitalize on the incident.

No, Fromong replied.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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