Clarence Stewart was having a tough Thursday afternoon. The Las Vegas mortgage broker and golfing buddy of O.J. Simpson's, known to friends as C.J., was squiring Simpson's daughter Arnelle around town in his Lincoln Navigator as she tried to finish last-minute planning for the wedding of O.J.'s best friend, Tom Scotto. But Simpson himself kept interrupting—peppering Stewart's cell phone with calls every 20 minutes or so. There were some guys in town who had stolen property belonging to Simpson, O.J. had told his friend earlier, according to Stewart's attorney, Rob Lucherini. "O.J.'s calling, saying 'C.J., I need you to help me'," Lucherini told NEWSWEEK.
With each call, Simpson grew more insistent. Stewart, concerned, dispatched a friend of his—a laborer and sometime bartender named Charles Cashmore—to the Palms, the hotel where O.J. was staying. Somebody needed to calm Simpson down. Stewart was also worried about O.J.'s alcohol intake. "[Stewart] said, 'You've been drinking too much. Slow down'," Lucherini says. At one point, Arnelle intervened, Lucherini says, and the two Simpsons argued over the phone. (Simpson attorney Yale Galanter declined to discuss evidence in the case; Arnelle Simpson didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Stewart was reluctant to help at first, but he finally agreed to go. In the early evening, he pulled the Navigator to the curb at the Palms. Simpson and Cashmore—and perhaps a third man according to lawyers—got in, and the men made their way to the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. Lucherini, Stewart's attorney, insists that "all C.J. knows is that O.J. wants to pick up property stolen from him." Stewart had no idea guns might be used—and never saw one during the episode, according to his attorney. They were joined at the Palace Station by three other men. Stewart wavered about whether to drop Simpson off or to go into the hotel and help recover the goods. Knowing Simpson could be volatile, Stewart decided to go in and help keep the situation "under control," Lucherini says.
And so began a chain of events that led to the arrests of Simpson and five suspected henchmen in a bizarre "sting operation" that could land the former NFL great behind bars for life. While the news of O.J.'s arrest and subsequent release on $125,000 bond have commanded headlines and constant cable TV coverage all week, the plot itself, the men alleged to have perpetrated it, and how it all came together, are only now coming into focus. Pieced together from interviews with lawyers, media statements by the suspects, an arrest report leaked to the Smoking Gun Web site and an audio recording of the incident obtained by celebrity gossip site TMZ.com, the Simpson arrest saga is a tale of shady characters, long-simmering grudges and a well-laid trap. Sifting through the wreckage, it becomes clear that at least some of the participants in the weekend's events—a ragtag posse of middle-aged wedding guests and golfing buddies—had no idea what they had gotten themselves into.
Lawyers for Simpson and four other men suggested their clients will enter not guilty pleas. (An attorney for Walter Alexander says his client, who spoke to police in an immunity deal, is working on a plea bargain.) Simpson's attorney, Yale Galanter, who says Simpson will plead not guilty to all charges at next month's arraignment, says Simpson was unarmed and he thinks that none of the others who accompanied them had weapons either. "I don't think there were any guns," Galanter told NEWSWEEK Thursday-a statement at odds with the criminal complaint against his client, which includes charges of kidnapping, assault, robbery and coercion—all with a deadly weapon, which hikes up the potential penalties considerably.
Galanter believes that the police and prosecutors have overcharged Simpson. "Clearly the fact that O.J. is attached to this has made these charges more serious and [the complaint is] a much looser type of charging document than what you would normally see," Galanter told NEWSWEEK. "If it was Orenthal Smith, this would never have been put in the system. This is absurd."
Whatever went down that night, it apparently didn't faze Simpson. Hours after the alleged plot took place, the football superstar was relaxing back at the Ghostbar, the watering hole at the Palms Las Vegas, a 55-story hotel and casino on Flamingo Boulevard in the heart of Las Vegas where Simpson was staying during the wedding. Between midnight and 1 a.m., Simpson was seen drinking, schmoozing and mugging for photos. "I said, 'O.J. what's going on?'" Ari Strauss, a Chicago man visiting Las Vegas with college buddies, told NEWSWEEK. "I said, 'The weather is nice here, 98 degrees at night,' and he said, 'Yeah, I'd love to be playing golf right now'."
The story began several weeks earlier, when California collectibles auctioneer Thomas Riccio rang up Simpson. Two old acquaintances of Simpson's—Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong—wanted to sell some of the football great's memorabilia on the q.t., Riccio said. The goods in question included several commemorative plaques and footballs—including one that marked Simpson's being named an All-American while at USC. There were also jerseys, personal photos and other personal family material that the Juice thought had been stolen years ago by his agent, Mike Gilbert. (Gilbert has denied that he stole material from Simpson.)
Riccio was a dealer with a checkered past. He'd served two terms in California prison for arson and receiving stolen property. This summer he gained notoriety for selling Anna Nicole Smith's diary, but a Los Angeles judge blocked his attempt to auction off a videotape of the late Playboy Playmate's breast surgery.
Simpson and Riccio talked over several schemes to get the stuff before settling on their plan. They would meet in Las Vegas during Simpson's trip there for the wedding (he was to be Scotto's best man), Riccio told police. Fromong, the man with the cache of contested goods, lived there. After more discussion, they worked out what Simpson would later call a "sting operation." Riccio would tell Beardsley he had a wealthy buyer for the Simpson trove, who would meet Beardsley and Fromong at Riccio's hotel room at the Palace Station. Riccio's client was billed as a big O.J. fan, who might pay $35,000 for the Simpson material, Beardsley would later tell Vegas detectives. (Fromong would also bring along other collectibles he hoped to sell—including baseballs signed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider, and lithographs from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana). After Riccio helped the two men bring the memorabilia to his room, Simpson was to arrive, confront the men with a few friends and reclaim his property. The meeting was supposed to start at 6 p.m.
Upon his arrival in Vegas for the wedding, Simpson began assembling the odd group of aging buddies who would accompany him. Sometime Thursday afternoon, Walter "Goldie" Alexander arrived at Simpson's room at the Palms, according to Alexander's lawyer, Robert Dennis Rentzer. Alexander had known O.J. for over a decade, and was now a Mesa, Ariz., real-estate broker. Alexander had been invited to the wedding, but he hadn't spoken to Simpson in months, according to Rentzer—having had a falling out with the Juice over his attempt to publish the money-making tell-all "If I Did It." (The book ran into legal trouble, but was subsequently repackaged and published by the family of Ron Goldman, who was slain, along with Simpson's wife Nicole, in the murder case in which Simpson was acquitted). Alexander's lawyer says his client was also hurt when he asked Simpson for financial help to bury his late father. "Simpson said, 'Everybody wants a piece of me'," according to Rentzer. Also on hand for the wedding was Charles Ehrlich, 53, a Miami friend of Simpson's. Another Simpson friend from Vegas, Michael McClinton, came along, too.
The men arrived at the Palace Station in two cars, an hour and a half late for the meeting. Simpson, Stewart and Cashmore—and perhaps one of the others—traveled in one car. McClinton and Alexander, and perhaps Erhlich, arrived separately. Simpson and a man named Charles—either Cashmore or Ehrlich—each called Riccio to say they were behind schedule, Riccio told cops later that night. (Lawyers for both men say their clients are innocent. Cashmore's attorney, Edward Miley, told NEWSWEEK that his client "is a victim here" who "was in the wrong place at the wrong time.") Finally, at 7:30 they assembled in the hotel lobby. Riccio came downstairs to usher the surprise guests to the meeting in Room 1203. According to Stewart's account to his attorney, the final plan called for the two white men—Ehrlich and Cashmore-to go into the room first, posing as the buyers. The others quickly followed.
Waiting for them inside was Beardsley, a Glendale, Calif. movie memorabilia collector who'd also been a longtime collector of Simpson material. He'd surfaced earlier this year offering to sell the suit Simpson wore when he was acquitted of murder in 1995. He'd also been released in 2006 from a California prison where he was serving a two-year sentence for stalking a former girlfriend. Also in the room: Fromong, a dealer who had once worked as the sales and marketing director for Locker 32, a sports memorabilia company formed in the '90s to sell collectibles for Simpson and others. He testified in the Simpson civil trial in 1997 about conditions in the O.J. market (hot at the time of his arrest, overstocked and sluggish ever since, in his view.)
Simpson later claimed the meeting was a peaceful transaction. But that was shattered almost immediately, according to a secret audiotape Riccio admits making—and later selling to TMZ.com. ("I recorded it because I've had problems in the past and I just thought that this is a weird situation, and I want to record every bit of it.") A voice sounding like Simpson's began shouting. "Don't let nobody out of here. M——- f——-r, think you can steal my s—-?" Other men are heard ordering Fromong and Beardsley. "Backs to the wall … Walk your ass over there."
While Simpson ranted, police believe, two of the other men had guns. Beardsley saw one man with a gun, according to the police report; Fromong saw two. Beardsley and Riccio both told police that one of the armed men, pretending to be a cop, patted the men down. But if there were in fact guns in the room, it's still unclear who brought them. Stewart's attorney says he didn't have a weapon, and he had no idea anyone else did. And Galanter, Simpson's attorney, maintains that neither his client nor any of the other defendants were armed. But there was at least some concern that Fromong and Beardsley might be packing heat. Riccio told cops later that night that while the men were in the lobby "Charles" asked whether Fromong or Beardsley "were in the room and if they had a gun," according to the arrest report. Riccio's answer isn't recorded, but he quickly told officers that "he did not know [Simpson and his friends] were going to use guns."
The men packed the memorabilia that O.J. believed was hi in boxes and pillowcases, police believe. Riccio told cops that the men also took some of the Montana lithographs and the baseballs belonging to Fromong. On Riccio's tape, a man, presumably Fromong, can be heard complaining that, "They took the box of my Montana lithographs." (That could become legally significant; by taking his own property from the room Riccio invited him to enter, Simpson is less likely to have committed a crime. But if the men took collectibles that Fromong owned at gunpoint, the robbery charge might be easier to prove.)
Galanter, Simpson's attorney, insists that if Simpson's men took Fromong's property believing it was Simpson's, they should be in the clear. "If you have a good faith belief that the property you are retrieving is yours, it's still not a crime," Galanter told NEWSWEEK.
The men left in at least two different cars, O.J. told police. Stewart and Simpson were in the Navigator and they had most of the photos and memorabilia that Simpson thought were his, according to Lucherini, Stewart's lawyer. Stewart drove O.J. back to the Palms, but by the time they arrived, the Juice was nervous about taking his stuff inside, the lawyer says; he'd heard from Fromong that the police were involved. Simpson told Stewart to hang onto the stuff, Lucherini says. (Stewart later turned it over to police, the lawyer said.)
The police arrived at the Palace Station, and proceeded to interview Beardsley, Fromong and Riccio separately. All mentioned Simpson, all mentioned guns. Riccio did not mention his tape recording, according to the police report. Cops looked at the lobby surveillance camera and got pictures of the men seen carrying boxes to the cars. When Simpson called Riccio's cell phone, an Officer Tucker spoke to Simpson.
Shortly after noon the next day, cops interviewed Simpson at his room at the Palms. He admitted he and others had taken material from the room. "I didn't care about the memorabilia," he said, according to police report. "I wanted the family stuff." But he denied an armed robbery. "It wasn't about being physical," Simpson said, according to the report. Complaining of media reports that Friday, Simpson told cops: "Armed robbery! I knew I was going to be hearing from the cops."
The case cracked open wider the next night, when police got an anonymous call from a woman who claimed to be a friend of O.J. and the late Nicole Brown Simpson. According to the leaked police report, the woman said "a person named Walter Alexander … was one of the persons who was with Simpson the night of the robbery … and was responsible for supplying the guns…" She said Alexander was at the airport and gave them a Southwest flight number. (Police found two guns similar to those allegedly used in the robbery at McClinton's house, not on Alexander.)
The cops picked up Alexander at about midnight Friday night at the airport; curiously, he was leaving town the night before the Saturday wedding he'd come to Vegas to attend. After police showed him surveillance tape of himself at the hotel, he spoke extensively—and drove with them around to the homes of McClinton and Stewart, whom he knew as "Spence" and "C.J.," according to the police report. The next day the cops obtained search warrants for the houses. They found two guns at McClinton's, plus a concealed weapons permit for them. The police report dryly notes that the 22 and 45-caliber handguns "matched weapons described in robbery." Whether they belonged to McClinton, Alexander or someone else is not clear. McClinton's attorney declined to discuss specifics of the case, though he said the government's case is weak and suggested his client is innocent. Alexander's attorney declined to comment.
Attorneys for several of the men have complained that prosecutors have leveled too many serious charges under the circumstances. The kidnapping seems to result from the alleged presence of guns at the scene, and Simpson's apparent order: "Don't let nobody leave." They complain that the entire episode may have been a "set-up" engineered by Riccio, a convicted felon who secretly made and sold the tape. Lucherini plans to file a discovery motion to determine what sort of deal Riccio cut with law enforcement. He's the only man who went into Room 1203 with Simpson who hasn't been charged in the case.