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Simpson trial begins with different views of incident

Defense claims Simpson group was recovering, not robbing memorabilia

Updated Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008 | 5:05 a.m.

O.J. Simpson Trial, Day 1

O.J. Simpson arrives Monday for the first day of his trial at the Clark County Regional Justice Center. Attorney Gabriel Grasso is at left. Launch slideshow »

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While O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney, Yale Galanter, assured jurors there would be little he-said, she-said during his client’s joint trial, three different opening statements were heard Monday in the first day of high-profile court proceeding.

And there was a bit of drama on the opening day of the trial, which is being held in Las Vegas — the first witness, memorabilia dealer Bruce Fromong, began experiencing chest pains and lightheadedness, so was dismissed before he could complete his testimony. He will return on Tuesday to finish.

Simpson, 61, and his former golfing buddy, Clarence “C.J.” Stewart, 54, both are charged with a dozen robbery, weapons and kidnapping-related offenses. The charges stem from a run-in with two memorabilia dealers, Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong, in a Las Vegas hotel last year.

Both of the accused have pleaded not guilty to all counts. Their joint trial began Monday with opening statements and the first two witnesses were called in the afternoon.

Galanter made his prediction to the jury as he explained that audio recordings likely will be the most powerful type of evidence they will be asked to consider in the coming weeks.

While presenting his opening statement, Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Owens sampled some of the audio recordings he says demonstrate the guilt of the two men accused.

The defense, meanwhile, promised to produce recordings of its own to prove Simpson’s and Stewart’s innocence.

The tapes capture personal conversations, including one that took place while Simpson and others lounged by the pool at the Palms just hours before the alleged raid, phone conversations, voice mail messages and a six-minute recording of the confrontation inside the Palace Station hotel room last year.

Owens quoted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, “The Scarlett Letter,” during his opening statement: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one is true.”

The prosecutor then told the 12-member jury and six-person alternate panel that they soon would see “the real face of O.J. Simpson.”

Though Glass repeatedly has told jurors to disregard their thoughts, feelings, opinions and memories concerning Simpson’s earlier trials, prosecutors did their best to remind the court of his tumultuous legal history.

Owens drilled out details of Simpson’s previous trials for the court, including his acquittal in 1995 in the double-murder case of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, and the corresponding civil suit’s $33.5-million judgment against him.

In the story of O.J. Simpson’s life, Owens told the jury, “The final chapter is going to be told by you … You will be the ones who will write the last chapter.”

Before he returned to his seat, Owens assured jurors that a guilty verdict would be “a verdict you can feel good about.”

Stewart’s lawyers, Robert Lucherini and Charles D. Jones, pounced after hearing the remarks. They argued that Simpson’s past legal troubles and notoriety are inhibiting his co-defendant’s right to a fair trial.

They have repeatedly moved to have their client tried separately but their requests have been denied by Judge Jackie Glass and the Nevada Supreme Court.

Their most recent request also was denied.

“This case is not about what happened in California. This case is what happened in Las Vegas,” Galanter said once it was his turn to take the floor.

While Owens said Simpson, Stewart and four others stole a range of memorabilia from a hotel room last year, the defense maintained the items taken belonged to Simpson and no crimes had been committed.

“This was a recovery, it was not a robbery,” Galanter said.

Lucherini followed by saying his client was unaware the items the men removed from the Palace Station hotel room were stolen.

Meanwhile, prosecutors alleged Simpson asked friends, family and associates to hold many of his belongings in an effort hide them from collectors looking to recover some of the debt he still owes to the Goldman family.

Owens said Simpson gave his former associate, Mike Gilbert, several pieces of the memorabilia Simpson insists was stolen from his home.

The defense argued Simpson is the rightful owner of these articles and they were the only things he intended to recover when he and the others entered the hotel room last year.

The defense told the court several times that Simpson instructed his entourage to take only the items that belonged to him as the alleged heist was being carried out.

The three parties detailed a series of notably different events, as well. Even lawyers for the co-accused couldn’t agree on what, exactly, happened on Sept. 13, 2007, and in what order the events took place.

The only thing the lawyers agreed on was that the three men at the center of the case, Thomas Riccio, who organized the meeting in his hotel room, and the men who say they were robbed, Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong, are a “colorful” trio of enterprising memorabilia dealers.

“If they can tape a conversation, they’ll sell it … They’re always thinking ahead of how to make a buck,” Owens said.

“They’re more than deal makers,” Galanter said. “They’re hustlers.”

Owens said Riccio never expected the violence, threats, force or use of guns that allegedly took place, and he was not aware any crime was about to be committed when he was arranging the meeting.

While the prosecution painted Riccio as a man caught in the middle and eager to stay on the right side of the law, lawyers for the defense shared a different opinion.

Simpson attorney Gabriel Grasso suggested Riccio was all the while looking to capitalize on the run-in -- secretly recording it, then selling it to the gossip Web site, TMZ -- rather than immediately turning the tape over to police.

“Mr. Riccio wasn’t interested in the truth being told,” Galanter said. “He sold this tape for north of $100,000.

“It is about the amount of money these individuals are trying to make off of the back of O.J. Simpson,” he said, adding, “They have said that they will sell their testimony, slant the truth for money, and want to get paid.”

Riccio already has been given immunity in exchange for his cooperation with police.

After completing opening statements in the morning, prosecutors called memorabilia dealer Bruce Fromong as their first witness to testify.

Fromong is one of two men who say they were held, threatened and robbed by Simpson and a five-man entourage during the Sept. 13, 2007, confrontation in a Palace Station hotel room.

In an emotional display, Fromong told the court that he felt betrayed by Simpson, who he once considered a "good friend."

Fromong said his relationship with the Heisman Trophy winner "wasn't just a business relationship" and then struggled to retain his composure as he told the court how Simpson called Fromong's mother on her birthday and later, called him the day after his mother died to offer his condolences.

Fromong said he and Simpson had worked together in the past and that he had brokered deals to sell autographed merchandise for the former NFL star. He testified that he was surprised by the angry confrontation with his former friend.

"I was angry and hurt that my best friend had just robbed me at gunpoint," he said.

Fromong was careful to note that Simpson and Stewart were not the ones carrying the guns that day. He said two different men carried the .22 Beretta and .45 Ruger handguns that were allegedly used during the raid.

Fromong and fellow memorabilia dealer, Alfred Beardsley, say that on Sept. 13, 2007, a third dealer, Thomas Riccio, brought them to a Palace Station hotel room under the impression that Riccio found a buyer for tens of thousands of dollars worth of O.J. Simpson sports memorabilia.

The prospective buyer turned out to be an angry Simpson, who told Fromong and the others that the goods they were planning on selling had been stolen and belonged to him.

When he and Beardsley refused to return the items, Fromong said Simpson and his cohorts began stealing memorabilia, stuffing pillowcases with thousands of dollars worth of autographed photographs, game balls, plaques and other items.

"They took everything except two baseball bats," he said.

Simpson's lawyers insist their client only wanted to take items belonging to him, but Fromong says the men helped themselves to 30 to 50 Joe Montana lithographs, 24 baseballs signed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider and other items that never belonged to the former NFL star.

During cross-examination Fromong said wasn't aware the merchandise in question had been stolen. He said most of the items in question were purchased from a former associate of Simpson's, Mike Gilbert.

Prosecutors alleged Simpson had friends, family and associates hold many of his belongings to hide them from collectors looking to recover some of the multi-million dollar debt Simpson owes the family of Robert Goldman. Goldman was the 25-year-old friend of Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, both of whom were murdered in 1994.

While Simpson was exonerated in the killings, subsequent civil trial found him liable for their deaths and awarded Goldman's family $33.5-million in damages. Despite the judgment, Simpson has yet to pay the Goldmans much of what he owes them.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Owens said Simpson gave Gilbert several pieces of memorabilia and merchandise after the civil trial delivered its verdict and that the items weren't stolen from Simpson's home, as the defense has suggested.

"They hid (Simpson's assets) among his friends, Mike Gilbert being one of them," Owens said.

Fromong said he thought it was unlikely that his former friend would sell "heirlooms" like the autographed game presentation balls that he said he purchased from Gilbert.

"He may give them to friends, he may give them to family, but Mr. Simpson would never sell that kind of memorabilia," he told one of Simpson's attorneys, Gabriel Grasso, during cross-examination. "I doubt that Mr. Simpson ever would, either."

Fromong testified that "approximately 12 or 13" of the items in the Palace Station hotel room had "belonged to Mr. Simpson at some time," but the other items never belonged to the former NFL star.

During a later discovery of evidence, however, Fromong acknowledged more than 13 items taken from the room that appeared to have once been Simpson's personal effects. These items included several neckties, family photos, and a picture of Simpson with former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover signed "to O.J. Simpson" by Hoover himself. Plaques and several coveted game presentation balls were also among the assortment of collectibles that the defense said obviously belonged to Simpson at one point in time.

"He was shouting, 'How could you steal my stuff? I thought you were a good guy'," Fromong said about Simpson. The memorabilia dealer later said Simpson instructed his associates, "'Don't let anybody leave this room. No one gets out of here'."

While prosecutors painted Fromong as an unfortunate victim of the now-infamous hotel room robbery, the defense said the memorabilia dealers were "hustlers" who were more interested in selling their story to profit off of their "15 minutes of fame."

They pointed to Fromong's decision to call the entertainment news program, Inside Edition, moments after Simpson and the others left as an example of the trio's profiteering efforts.

Fromong defended his actions. "I was calling her because it was news," he said.

He said that when Beardsley gleefully mentioned that they would be able to sell their story for a considerable about of money, Fromong said he disregarded the comment.

"My reply was I don't give a sh*t," he said.

After more than about three hours of questioning, Grasso began asking specific questions about the scene that unfolded inside the hotel room when Simpson and the other men entered the room.

Fromong said Stewart was one of the first to enter the room and Simpson came in last. He said the second man to enter the room came at him with his gun drawn and pointed at him.

At one point he said someone loudly said, "put the gun down, put the gun down," but couldn't say who.

This account was key, as Fromong had not previously mentioned someone shouted "put the gun down," despite filing reports with police and meeting with prosecutors. The revelation didn't come up during the preliminary hearing, either, despite both sides having access to Riccio's audio recording of the event.

Simpson has said that he was not aware that any guns had been used in the raid. The issue of weapons is crucial, as nine of the charges he and his co-accused face involve the use of a deadly weapon.

Fromong also said that as the unknown person shouted to put the gun down, Simpson was motioning with his arm, holding it out to his side and repeatedly moving it up and down.

As Grasso continued to quiz him about this new account, Fromong's testimony was suddenly interrupted when he told the judge he was experiencing chest pains and felt dizzy and lightheaded.

His lawyer, Louis Schneider, said Fromong has previously suffered four heart attacks and is "medically fragile."

Glass allowed Fromong to step down from the stand at about 4:30 p.m. and declared a brief recess. He was briefly examined by paramedics but was not taken to hospital.

After the break Glass decided to dismiss Fromong for the day rather than have him return to the stand. While the choice was challenged by the defense, the judge didn't budge and instead asked the prosecution to call their next witness.

Schneider said his client would complete his testimony as soon as he was able, likely within the next day or two.

Former Palace Station bellman Ismael Flores was the second and final person to take to the stand Monday. During his brief testimony he told the court he helped Fromong, Beardsley and Riccio unload a range of "loose items" and sports memorabilia from a vehicle and move it into Riccio's hotel room last September.

He said the mood was notably tense as he helped load and unload the items and testified that the men were "acting weird" at the time.

"They didn't seem very comfortable with each other," he said. "They didn't seem to know each other well."

After attorneys completed their brief cross-examination, Glass adjourned early, at 5:30 p.m.

The trial will resume Tuesday at 8 a.m.

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