Simpson case makes for live reality TV show


LAS VEGAS -- A man in a chicken suit. A Nicole Brown Simpson look-alike. A judge with a goatee and a long ponytail.

These are just some of the characters of O.J. TV, a reality show on all the news channels Wednesday. It followed every twist, turn and lane change as a former football star appeared in court, posted bail and was driven away.

The circus surrounding O.J. Simpson, charged with committing armed robbery of sports memorabilia at a casino hotel, was reminiscent of the media frenzy when he was accused and later acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.

This time around, though, his part sometimes becomes secondary in a colorful, confusing story that includes new characters and some familiar old ones.

Simpson's accused of holding up collectors of his own memorabilia -- taking items he insists had been stolen -- but there were already signs that this felony prosecution might prove as challenging as his last one.

One of the alleged victims was arrested on a parole violation Wednesday, the other was recovering from a heart attack, and the man who allegedly set up the meeting where the confrontation occurred has a criminal record.

Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure Jr. set bail Wednesday at $125,000 for a shackled, weary Simpson, grayer and heavier since his 1995 murder trial.

Two women with starring roles in his life looked on -- Marcia Clark, who unsuccessfully prosecuted Simpson for the 1994 killings and was reporting for "Entertainment Tonight," and Christine Prody, Simpson's girlfriend, who bears a striking resemblance to his slain ex-wife.

Simpson furrowed his brow as the judge read the list of charges against him. Gone was the slight smirk he flashed when he was arrested Sunday.

He answered quietly in a hoarse voice and nodded as the judge laid out restrictions for his release, including surrendering his passport to his attorney and having no contact with co-defendants or potential witnesses. He did not enter a plea.

After Simpson was released, a helicopter television crew followed his vehicle leaving the court, oddly reminiscent of the slow-speed chase in which he once fled police in a white Ford Bronco.

On the steps of the courthouse, the scene was stranger still.

People held signs advertising everything from real estate to an aspiring singer behind Simpson's lawyers as they held an impromptu news conference.

There was even a man in a chicken suit, who carried a cardboard sign painted with the words, "Not this time, O.J." On the other side of the sign, the words: "See OJ Run." The man used the stage name Chicken George.

Simpson, 60, flew home to Miami later Wednesday in a spectacle just as surreal. US Airways emptied a plane so he could board first with Prody and his lawyer, Yale Galanter.

Simpson sat in seat 4D, an aisle seat in economy class. Passengers who boarded behind him took pictures with cell phones and cameras. He nodded and smiled as they passed.

Simpson pulled a white visor over his eyes shortly after takeoff and slept almost the entire flight. Upon landing, he stood and gave Galanter, who had been sitting across the aisle, a big hug.

After leaving the plane, Simpson walked silently past dozens of members of the local and national media, holding up a garment bag to try to shield himself. His girlfriend, who left the plane five minutes before he did, wore a cap of Simpson's alma mater, USC. Simpson left in a Ford Excursion someone else was driving.

The Heisman Trophy winner spent three nights in jail after being charged with kidnapping, robbery with use of a deadly weapon, burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, coercion with use of a deadly weapon, assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, conspiracy to commit robbery and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Galanter said his client did nothing wrong: "You can't rob something that is yours."

Authorities allege that Simpson and five other men went to a hotel room at the Palace Station casino Sept. 13 on the pretext of brokering a deal with two longtime collectors, Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong. According to police reports, the collectors were ordered at gunpoint to hand over several items valued at as much as $100,000, including football game balls signed by Simpson, Joe Montana lithographs, baseballs autographed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider and framed awards and plaques.

Charles Howard Cashmore, the fifth suspect arrested in the case, surrendered to police Wednesday and was scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning. Cashmore, 40, brought in items that are believed to have been taken, police said without elaborating. Police continue to look for a sixth suspect, whom they have not publicly identified.

Audio tapes of the confrontation were released to a celebrity Web site, but Beardsley told NBC's "Today" show that he didn't think an audiotape made at the scene was accurate.

Beardsley told police he expected that night that the collection would earn $35,000 from the "client" he had never met.

Beardsley told police that one of the men with Simpson brandished a pistol, frisked him and impersonated a police officer, and that another man pointed a gun at Fromong.

Fromong was recovering from a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospital.

Authorities said Beardsley, of Burbank, Calif., was paroled in March 2006 after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence for stalking a woman in Riverside County.

He was arrested at his room at the Luxor hotel Wednesday for violating parole. A California corrections spokesman said Beardsley was required to get written approval before traveling more than 50 miles from home or leaving home for more than 24 hours.

Beardsley was held without bail pending an extradition hearing Thursday.

Court records show that the man who arranged the hotel meeting, Tom Riccio, also has a criminal history, including grand larceny in Florida in 1984, when he received three years of probation; and felony arson in 1995, in California, for which he was sentenced to two years.

Riccio has said he was not concerned with how his past might affect his credibility "because everything's on tape. That's why it's on tape."

He also said he had been promised some form of immunity by prosecutors.

Legal experts say that issues such as who had rightful ownership of the goods and the reputation of witnesses in the sometimes less-than-reputable world of memorabilia trading could cloud the prosecution's case.

"The credibility of the cohorts in the enterprise would be a key issue at trial," said University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour.

Agreed, said Dennis Turner, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law. "This is a pretty shady world and pretty shady characters dealing with each other in a pretty shady way."

A key difference with the 1995 murder trial is that there are plenty of witnesses this time who place Simpson at the scene, including hotel video surveillance.

"It's not like the murder case involving his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, where Simpson had a completely different story in which he said, 'I wasn't there,"' said Doug Godfrey, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. "A prosecutor only has to show intent. And the intent is, 'Were you acting in concert with someone with a gun to take property from someone?"'

Two other defendants, Walter Alexander, 46, and Clarence Stewart, 53, were arrested and released pending court appearances. Stewart turned in some of the missing goods and Alexander agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, authorities said. A fourth suspect, Michael McClinton, 49, of Las Vegas, surrendered to police Tuesday. Jailers were unable to say whether Cashmore or McClinton had retained a lawyer.

Police were seeking one other suspect, whom they had not identified.